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Even Bahrain's Use of 'Miami Model' Policing Will Not Stop the Uprising
Bahraini leaders have hired the architect of Miami's brutal policing methods, showing their disregard for reform
In 2003, as a photography student in Chicago, I travelled to Miami to cover protests by trade unionists and other activists at a meeting of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. I had just returned from witnessing the repressive tactics of the Israeli army against Palestinians – invasions, curfew, violent crackdown on unarmed protests – but never expected to see them deployed at home in a US city.
I was shocked when I reached Miami and found it similar to a West Bank town under occupation. The city was largely empty save for police vehicles speeding in every direction and helicopters hovering above. Once the protests began, it was impossible to move more than a few feet in any direction without confronting the police and their brutality. The thousands of police dressed in full riot gear and armed with teargas, rubber bullets, batons, electric tasers – all of which were used against protesters and journalists – were everywhere around Miami.
The "model", as Miami public officials called it at the time, was the brainchild of police chief John Timoney. After leading the head-bashing of protesters as Philadelphia's police commissioner during the Republican party's national convention in 2000, Timoney was hired by Miami and given more than $8m to introduce a level of police brutality unlike any we had ever seen in the US.
In the weeks following the protests, journalist Jeremy Scahill wrote:
"No one should call what Timoney runs in Miami a police force. It's a paramilitary group. Thousands of soldiers, dressed in khaki uniforms with full black body armour and gas masks, marching in unison through the streets, banging batons against their shields, chanting, 'back … back … back'. There were armored personnel carriers and helicopters."
Journalists who were not embedded with the police were deliberately targeted. I myself was hit with teargas and rubber bullets and chased by police who tried to detain me and confiscate my photography equipment. The suffocating display of a violent police force became known as the Miami model, elements of which were frequently used in following years against other large-scale demonstrations in the US.
Now the Miami model is coming to Bahrain. The Associated Press reported on Thursday that Timoney has been hired by the kingdom's interior ministry "as part of reforms" following the release of a report last week by a government-sponsored fact-finding commission.
As the ruling family continues the crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators it has not been a hard task to find spent teargas canisters and other items marked "Made in USA" covering village roads.
In 2010, the US gave $20.5m to Bahrain for "peace, security and stability". Calculated per capita, the military aid to the kingdom (which hosts the US navy's fifth fleet) comes out at roughly $10 more per person than the $1.3bn the US gave to Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship in Egypt that same year.
Looking to the US not only to fund the crackdown but also to help spin it, the regime has hired a number of US public relations firms. One of the PR agents, Tom Squitieri of TS Navigations, has been given space by Huffington Post and Foreign Policy blogs to write articles in defence of the ruling family.
Not only has Bahrain's majority Shia population been essentially barred from the state's security forces since the days of British control, but the ruling family looks to countries such as Yemen, Syria and Pakistan (all with large Sunni populations) to hire and grant citizenship to professional fighters.
However, during the most recent uprising, not even the foreign-born riot police (who protesters call "mercenaries") were enough to quell popular demonstrations, so the government had to again look outside for further support.
At almost the same time as pundits in most English-language media were cheerleading the "foreign intervention" in Libya to support what became an armed rebel movement there, they sat silent when thousands of Saudi troops crossed the causeway into Bahrain and assisted in crushing the weeks-long unarmed sit-in at Manama's now-destroyed Pearl roundabout.
Nearly three months of martial law ensued in which time people were beaten in the street, Shia employees fired or demoted, Shia religious sites destroyed, homes raided in the middle of the night, and thousands of Bahrainis arrested – many of whom were quickly tried and given lengthy prison sentences in military courts. At least four people died while in police custody, their bodies later released with bruises that rights groups said were the result of severe torture.
Now that martial law has been lifted and Saudi troops have completed their mission and returned home, the protests against the al-Khalifas continue. In the month that I've spent reporting – mostly undercover – from Bahrain recently, I've witnessed protests in villages around the country on a daily basis.
By hiring iron-fisted US police heads like Timoney, the al-Khalifas seem more concerned with maintaining absolute power as they continue to lose further legitimacy, rather than implementing any real reforms to move past the country's political crisis.
Meanwhile, on the streets, the tireless attitude of the youthful protesters remains, and it's unlikely that any security forces brought from the outside – whether Pakistani, Saudi or now American – is going to be able to crush their movement.