Miami's Ill-considered War on Dissent
Published on Wednesday, November 26, 2003 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune / Minnesota
Miami's Ill-considered War on Dissent
by Warren Goldstein

Within 10 minutes of arriving in downtown Miami Friday morning -- the day after the big protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (or FTAA) talks -- I saw the following:

A motorcade of 20 to 30 police cars from neighboring Broward County, sirens wailing, lights flashing, zooming down deserted First Street, parking and disgorging more than a hundred excited cops.

A group of perhaps 50 officers in new gray jumpsuits, wearing shiny new bulletproof vests, body armor, helmets and visors, each carrying an array of weaponry -- guns, clubs, spray, handcuffs -- marching in formation, chanting loudly, incomprehensibly, in unison.

A young protester, alone, approaching a police barricade at the end of a street, hands held up, to ask directions to a neighboring street. Refusing to answer, officers raised weapons and pointed them at him. He backed away, slowly.

Over the next hour I wandered, and saw dozens of police and state trooper detachments, an armored personnel carrier (!) cruising back and forth; a Hummer filled with well-armed police; a SWAT team; and mostly shuttered businesses. I could walk down some of the eerily empty streets, but not others. Police changed their minds on the spot about which sidewalks were open and which were closed.

In Miami people like to joke that one of the city's charms is that it is "so close to the United States." Well, it felt very far indeed from the United States on Friday, and the charm had disappeared.

New police chief John Timoney, who is winning high praise from nervous politicians, referred to protesters as "outsiders coming in to terrorize and vandalize our city."

His police, whom he congratulated for acting with "remarkable restraint," pushed and prodded and searched and shot rubber bullets at and pepper-sprayed and harassed and intimidated thousands of peaceful protesters all day Thursday (preventing many from reaching the main rally), all under the guise of preventing "another Seattle." As a result, Miami residents got a look at one of the uglier sides of globalization this week: the arrogant paramilitary disregard of constitutionally guaranteed rights of peaceful assembly in the alleged name of stopping a tiny minority of rock-throwers bent on confrontation and property damage.

To the city fathers and the chief and the newly outfitted police, all protesters were potential terrorists. Out of fear -- and distrust of the Constitution -- they clamped down on dissent, leaning heavily on churches.

In one case, a city manager warned a church that it would be "out of compliance" with the city's zoning code if it offered temporary shelter to a visiting, protesting youth group. Then, according to a Miami Herald columnist, in the middle of a seminar (on free trade and the military) in a Catholic Church last Tuesday, 10 police officers "walked through the meeting, stood in the back for a few seconds, and then marched out."

In still another, police questioned the advisability of a church holding a forum on FTAA matters, predicting that folks could get dangerously aggravated.

"But what else could they do?" well-meaning people want to know.

Here's an example of what they could have done. In the spring of 1970, when Black Panther leader Bobby Seale was on trial for murder in New Haven, Conn., Chicago 7 defendant Abbie Hoffman called for a Mayday weekend mass demonstration to "burn Yale." Yale President Kingman Brewster opened lines of communication with the Panthers, the Chicago 7 and local radicals, securing their commitments to nonviolent protests. (He knew they couldn't control the fringe elements bent on violence; he wanted the cooperation of the great majority.) Then, instead of shuttering the university, he opened it up, endorsed the tradition of dissent, welcomed the protesters, fed them with mountains of brown rice, familia, and green salad, and walked the campus Friday night. Hoffman, by then totally charmed, gave the impeccably suited Brewster a bear hug and introduced him as the "sartorial showpiece of the people's revolution." National Guardsmen had come to town, but over his objections; he knew they would be more provocative than helpful. Despite minor clashes between protesters and police both nights, no one was injured and no property damaged.

"We licked 'em with love," Chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr. announced Sunday morning; thousands of students had learned a lesson in security and openness. Not coincidentally, Yale -- unlike many of its peers -- never exploded during the 1960s and 1970s.

In Miami, however, the only language from those in charge was raw military power. A friend tried to leave the demonstration by Metro on Thursday. As he arrived the stationmaster announced, "Government Center is secured. The station is closed." Priceless, but wrong. Lockdown does not bring security.

In the United States, dissent and protest are our genuine traditions. We'd better reclaim them, proudly -- and fast.

Warren Goldstein, a Summer Fellow at the University of Minnesota Humanities Institute, chairs the History Department at the University of Hartford. He is the author of "William Sloane Coffin, Jr.: A Holy Impatience," to be published in March by Yale University Press.

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