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Criminalizing Dissent: What Miami Means
Published on Thursday, November 27, 2003 by
Criminalizing Dissent: What Miami Means
by  Chris Jones

Thousands came to Miami last week to demonstrate against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a trade agreement that would extend NAFTA to all 34 nations in the Western Hemisphere except for Cuba. Whether you think, as I do, that the FTAA will erode human rights, environmental protections, and democratic sovereignty is immaterial. The people who came to Miami to peacefully protest the FTAA were met with a brazen show of military force, and their Constitutional rights were seemingly suspended. That fact should chill you to the bone.

Estimates place the number of protestors anywhere between 8,000 (the police count) to 30,000. Peaceful demonstrators vastly outnumbered the small faction who conflicted with police. Yet the police promoted an overwhelming "us against them" message to the demonstrators, to the media, and to the Miami community. Every protestor was viewed as the enemy. They were subjected to random searches, illegitimate arrests, taunts and intimidation, and unprovoked violence both before and after arrest.

I experienced or witnessed much of this. I suppose I was lucky in that what I experienced was one of the less-violent civil liberties violations. It happened on Friday, when a journalist colleague and I were unlawfully detained while walking down Miami Avenue. Moments earlier we had come upon a group of 10-12 demonstrators on their way to what they called "The Really, Really Free Trade Market." They were carrying a piece of anti-FTAA art to the market, and we followed about 20 feet behind to photograph them. They were peaceful and in good spirits.

Within seconds, eight vans and SUVs surrounded us. More than 60 officers--in full riot gear and armed to the teeth--poured out of the vehicles and demanded we put our hands up and face the nearest wall. My colleague and I flashed our press passes and tried to explain we had simply been taking photos. The officer responded by pointing a gun at our chests.

The police told us to remove our bags and place them on the ground. On several occasions we attempted to explain our situation. One officer seemed to understand this and to want to let us go. He was overruled. Multiple officers ordered us in this direction and that, searching our bags and our bodies repeatedly. Another officer grabbed our press passes and flung them down. Presumably because they weren't CBS or NBC, they weren't "official."

The police incorrectly told all of us that we were in violation of a new Miami ordinance prohibiting the assembly of groups of eight or more. The police informed the others that the same ordinance prohibited their art. The ordinance the police spoke of is Ordinance 54-6.1. It was passed two days before the demonstrations, meaning that even if it violated Constitutional rights, there wouldn't be time to overturn it before the protests began. The ordinance is scheduled to "sunset" on November 27.

The police officers who militarized the streets of downtown Miami used this ordinance to justify their actions. Of more than 250 people arrested over the week, five were journalists and eight were legal observers. Various sources reported these and other violations: the belongings of arrestees were not collected, and expensive or necessary items like eye glasses and cameras were dumped in the gutter; protestors were illegally detained or searched; bonds were set uncharacteristically high; and buses carrying thousands of retirees and union members were blocked from entering the city of Miami, effectively taking away their First Amendment rights. Many peaceful demonstrators found themselves subject to police harassment. Those arrested were treated with disdain, with some subjected to strip searches and violence.

I saw police fire indiscriminately with rubber bullets and launch tear gas canisters near retired Steelworkers assembling to get on their bus home. Police were filmed using concussion grenades, tazers, pepper spray, and billy clubs against people peacefully assembled. Miami police chief John Timoney, who has a history of disdain for protestors, lauded the police in a Miami Herald story, "I thought they showed remarkable restraint." Presumably, "restraint" means we should be impressed they didn't burnish rocket launchers or machine guns.

In fact, part of what makes demonstrating so frustrating is that due to police tactics, peaceful people with no intention of engaging police feel they need to wear bandanas, goggles, and helmets for their own protection. These are the images the mainstream press thrive on now, and it contributes to the process of criminalizing dissent.

Which brings me back to our experience with the police. After being detained for about 20 minutes without cause or reason, the police told us we could go, but that due to the ordinance, we had to disperse and travel in groups of less than eight. Never mind the fact that the ordinance does not prohibit the assembly of eight or more people (which would clearly violate the First Amendment), it just limits the types of materials such a group may carry. But the police told us that were we to refuse, we would be arrested.

In the meantime a police-ordered garbage truck pulled up and the protesters' art piece was thrown onto it. It was quickly crushed. One of the police officers in charge proudly said to us, "You should put this on the front page of your Web site! This represents what happened to you people in Miami."

When I responded that none of us should have been detained and intimidated, he insisted it shouldn't matter. "What really happened to you here? Nothing happened," he said. So I asked him how he'd feel if 60 officers with guns suddenly surrounded him while he was walking down the street. "It would depend on the context," he said with a shrug.

It really is all about context. Somehow, the context of dissent made Miami's leaders decide to limit the Constitution. They appear to have suspended or severely bent the First Amendment (Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Assembly and Freedom of the Press), the Fourth (Protection against search and seizure without probable cause), the Eighth (Excessive bail shall not be imposed) and the Fourteenth Amendments (Equal protection under the law) of the U.S. Constitution.

If this were an isolated event, it would be a disturbing footnote in history. But the repression in Miami reflects a growing trend toward criminalizing non-violent dissent in the United States. That trend is right in line with the words of George W. "You're either with us or against us" Bush. Just this week the New York Times reported that the FBI is returning to Hoover-like policies by investigating, bugging and harassing antiwar protestors. Similarly, the New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against New York police for their tactics during a February antiwar demonstration.

It's hard to pick out the most disturbing aspect of this growing trend: Is it the ease with which many Americans are willing to give up their hard fought liberties in the name of security? Is it the fact that while martial law existed in an American city, the biggest news stories were Michael Jackson's arrest and the 40-year anniversary of the Kennedy assassination? Or is it simply that so few seem to have noticed that this country's hardest fought liberties are floundering on life support?

Or maybe it's just like the police officer on Miami Avenue claimed--nothing really happened to the many protestors whose civil liberties were violated and then let go. But when you think for a second of the history that created those liberties, it's clear something has happened. John Locke once wrote: "Wherever law ends, tyranny begins." John Stuart Mill noted that the world's tendency is to "diminish the power of the individual; this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable." Locke and Mill were the two major influences on the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Their beliefs were nowhere in sight in Miami.

Patriotism is not the exclusive right of those in power, nor is it simply blind love of one's country. Patriotism is the willingness to defend an established system of laws. No matter where one comes from on the political spectrum, the real patriot act will arise among those who do not believe that the "Miami model" of repression belongs under any system of law.

As we were walking away from the officers on Miami Avenue, one of them reminded us, "This is my city. You people came here to disrupt our way of life." His attitude, sounding like that of a cowboy sheriff engaged in a turf war, seemed apt. In the Old West, men with guns invented the law. The same could be said of Miami in 2003.

Chris Jones is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis. He traveled to Miami to report and photograph for AMERICAS.ORG, though not to get arrested for them.


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