I wrote almost all of this before I'd seen any mainstream press about the event (except for some initial reports in the Miami Herald) so I don't address a lot of the issues raised there. I'll do that in a separate post.
THIS IS A ROUGH DRAFT
On November 20th, 2003, I joined with thousands of people in Miami to demonstrate against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) during its ministerial meeting. The FTAA (known in Latin American countries as ALCA) is a trade agreement that if agreed to and signed would create a NAFTA style free trade area for the entire western hemisphere, except Cuba. The treaty would make it easier for corporations to move their factories (capital) to countries where labor is cheaper and environmental standards are more lax. The treaty would make it harder for nations to democratically impose health, environmental, safety, or other regulations and standards on industries and goods. The treaty would pave the way for the privatization of water, electricity, postal service, telecommunications, and other traditionally socialized or heavily regulated public services. The FTAA meetings, like those of WTO and NAFTA, are convened "out of the public eye" and are formed without any input or referendum (consent) from citizens but corporations are allowed to participate at all levels. A fence around a several block radius of the perimeter of the meeting space, $8.5 million dollars of federal security funds, special city ordinances passed for the week, and 2,500 police officers would ensure that no citizens could get near the meetings.
People came from hundreds of organizations, from all over the US and the rest of the Americas, from many different political backgrounds to express their opposition to the FTAA. Every person that came to Miami represented dozens or hundreds or thousands of others that did not have the freedom to take nearly a week off of work, to spend hundreds of dollars to travel to and stay in Miami, and to face possible arrest or physical abuse from the police. Logistics, time, money, and fear were all factors that kept many people that I know, who all oppose the FTAA, from attending the protest.
I was there with seven people from the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center (UC-IMC) and one friend of our group from Tennesee. We were there to bear witness and to document. Two members of our group are working on a documentary video about the FTAA, the protest, and the people and events surrounding the protest. The rest of us were there to support them and to observe and produce our own stories.
Our affinity group (the 8 of us who drove down together) was divided into two subgroups based on the risk levels that members of the group were comfortable with. The low risk group included a 14 year old girl and her parentally approved adult guardian as well as another adult UC-IMC reporter who simply had to get back to his job by Monday or he risked losing it. The low risk group had to avoid any chance whatsoever of having any of its members get arrested. Because we had reports beforehand that the police presence at the protest was going to be massive and that a number of laws had been passed effectively banning constitutionally guaranteed public assembly, we knew that the low risk group would probably have to spend most of the day far from the action, they would have to minimize their participation in documenting the events of the day. The remaining 5 of us formed a medium risk group. We were interested in being with the folks who were voicing their opinions, where they were voicing them and we were interested in documenting those voices. We didn't want to be arrested. We didn't want to be pepper sprayed, tear gassed, or injured. We also knew that the mood of the protest was going to be such that we risked all of these things no matter how careful we were.
Our affinity group was supported by a team of several "home support" people back at the UC-IMC. They would help us keep track of each other if we got separated, take call in reports to post to the newswire, provide us with information from other parts of the protest, and contact our lawyers and families if we were arrested or hospitalized.
Our group (those traveling to Miami and the home support crew) met twice per week every week during the months preceding the protest. We discussed the ongoing legal developments in Miami. We discussed the structure that the protest was going to take. We discussed the developing relationship between the AFL/CIO permitted march and the direct action collective's organizing and call to action. We discussed self-defense techniques in case of police brutality, medical techniques for dealing with pepper spray and tear gas, and how to handle ourselves in various arrest scenarios. We discussed the levels of risk we were willing to take, the kinds of actions we were willing to participate in, the kinds of media we intended to gather, and the ways in which we would be able to support one another.
During our meetings several people decided not to go to Miami because they feared the risk of being arrested or injured by the police response. Whenever a new person dropped out of the trip, I worried that perhaps we were being a little too intense in our estimation of the kind of brutality that the police might deal out. I thought that the more experienced members of our group were exagerating how badly the police could behave just so that we would all be prepared. I thought maybe we should back off on that line of thinking so that we wouldn't keep losing members. I'm sure this same scenario played out in organizing meetings around the country. In retrospect, there was no exageration; the police did behave that badly. In fact, they exceeded our wildest paranoia. Those people who chose not to go made the right choice. Only folks who were logistically prepared (I don't think anyone could have been psychologically prepared) for the events that would transpire should have been there. It is no surprise to me that while Seattle 1999 drew more than 50,000 people, this event drew closer to 20,000 people -- not because only half as many people care about the dangers of corporate globalization and the erosion of democracy but because democracy itself has been eroded so far that people actually were afraid and ill-prepared to attend this demonstration.
The two videographers from our group went down a week before the main protest event so that they could gather video from the many workshops, community projects, and trainings that would be occuring during that time. There really wasn't much of an entrenched activist base on the ground in Miami before this protest so a lot of the organizing of the convergence center, the three media centers, and the medic center were done during the weeks before the protest. As we drove down from Illinois we got phone reports from our friends in Miami who had been drawn into the center of the organizing. We learned that there were dozens of police officers at every street corner in downtown Miami, that cars were being randomly searched, that a number of people had already been arrested (and their arrest records stamped with "FTAA"). I wondered to myself, again, if these folks were just exagerating. Maybe they'd seen a single street corner with a dozen police and just assumed that other corners were the same.
We arrived in downtown Miami around 8pm on Wednesday night. As we navigated side streets to detour around the many road closures that we'd been warned about, we found ourselves passing by a drop off point where a busload of protestors was unloading to check in and sleep for the night. We started to get excited; for the first time we had direct evidence that we were a small part of a growing mass of protestors. We knew that throughout the night cars like ours and busses like this one would be pouring into Miami. A block later we started to feel fear on top of our excitement as the police presence made itself more and more clear. A helicopter appeared directly overhead and shined its spotlight down on our car. We were the only car on this particular road, just trying to find our way through a strange city to our hotel. The helicopter spotlight followed us for 2 blocks until we turned. As we turned we were heading directly towards a street corner where about 20 officers in full riot gear were guarding a McDonalds. After that we noticed police cars and riot cops stationed casually at every major street corner. We didn't know if we should avoid them, if we would be immediately arrested if they suspected us of being protestors, if we would have to submit to a search in order to enter the city. Eventually we simply sucked up our fear and drove past a group of them towards our hotel. Adrenaline surged, nothing happened, we found the hotel, unloaded our luggage, found a parking spot, and settled in.
The sound of helicopters in the sky was inescapable as we drove into Miami, unloaded our gear, and sampled the final speakers and performers at the People's Gala. Throughout the night and for the next 2 days, the several helicopters used by the city and the handful of media helicopters were omnipresent. The constant drone made quiet conversation difficult and made it impossible to ignore the fact that we were, effectively, in a militarized zone -- our every movement watched. Overdramatic as it is, I kept feeling like I was in a Vietnam movie.
The hotel was right at the center of where the march was scheduled for the next day. Hotel security issued everyone a card which identified us as hotel patrons. We were supposed to present that card everytime we went in or out of the hotel. Most of the hotel staff were pretty lax about this though. This hotel seemed like it had seen better days and the influx of protestors renting every room in the place was very much welcomed.
On Thursday, morning we woke up at 6am to prepare for a 7am gathering at the Government Center/Federal Courthouse. Our advance videographers told us that this would be the gathering point for the direct action contingent's first move. There was going to be a march to the fence with puppets and drumming and dancing. If any of the affinity groups were going to make an attempt to pull down or cut a hole in the fence, it would be during this march.
My garb included long sleeve shirt and pants to keep the pepper spray off my skin, rubberbands at the wrists and ankles to keep the tear gas out, a boys youth shin guard on my left arm (in case of police beating with a baton, lay on right side to protect liver and put up left arm with shin guard to protect head), a gallon of water with emergen-C packets for hydration, a canteen of pure water for eye flushing, a handful of bandanas for mouth protection, an athletic cup for crotch protection, and a pocket full of granola bars. We wore our shirts inside out and used a permanent marker to write anti-FTAA slogans so that if I had to disappear I could turn the shirt right-side-in and become a tourist. I brought my MP3 recorder, digital camera, and cell phone for reporting.
As we approached the Government Center, we had to stop for a convoy of police vehicles. This procession was the first major show of force by the police as they paraded dozens of squad cars, armored personel carriers, converted school busses, SUVs, and vans past the assembling protestors. They all had their sirens blaring and lights flashing. It wasn't clear where they were going but it was clear that they wanted to be seen.
When we arrived at the Government Center there was a crowd of about 500-1000 protestors and about as many police. The protestors were displaying their banners and drumming and chanting and generally milling about waiting for the march and action to start. The police were forming a human cordon around the shopping mall building that was near our gathering point. The mood was fairly laid back. The police were dispassionate and not tense. Indymedia people filmed the police and the police filmed the indymedia people. It was a safe thrill to walk up near a cop to take a close up picture of the weapons, the cops didn't even flinch or talk at these isolated approaches.
After gathering for an hour or so the crowd, now numbering 1000-2000, was growing restless. No one was quite clear on when the march was going to start, who was going to start it, who was going to lead it, where it was going to go. Some people noted that a lot of the direct action groups that they'd seen at spokescouncil meetings weren't present and theorized that perhaps some secret actions were going on elsewhere and that our gathering was possibly just a diversion. After a long wait, finally a rental box truck arrived with the puppetistas and some folks with a megaphone started making solidarity announcements. Most notable among the announcements was the AFL/CIO representative who claimed full solidarity from the AFL/CIO with our (unpermitted) direct action march. There had been a lot of tension leading up to this day about what the tone of the relationship between the radical direct action folks and the moderate AFL/CIO folks would be. It seemed that the weeks of tactical negotiation between these groups was going to pay off with mutual support.
After the solidarity statements (representing solidarity from literally tens of millions of members of the organizations pledging their solidarity) were made, the puppetistas led the march to the fence and the day of protests officially began. Excitement and joy were thick in the air as the crowd, which now numbered at least 2,000 took to the streets sometime before 10am. The crowd was packed with journalists, both independent and corporate. Every tenth person in the crowd had some kind of camera or recording device. In front of the puppets leading the march was a band of a few dozen journalizes 10 paces ahead of the march, marching backwards, filming everything, waiting for something exciting--worthy of the sensationalist media's newscasts--to happen. The corporate journalists all had some kind of standard issue protective gear. Each corporate journalist had a matching helmet, gas mask, face mask, and poncho. Many of them were wearing bullet proof vests. The media had more protective gear than even the most well prepared protestors. They looked like they were on assignment in Iraq or Afghanistan (warzones). Did they know something we didn't? I'm sure this made for some very overly-dramatic TV footage as reporters appeared live on camera in full riot gear with hundreds of brightly colored dancing protestors jumping around behind them.
I kept on the lookout for acts of vandalism. I was curious just how much "damage" the notorious "black-clad anarchists" would be doing to the city of Miami. We passed many blocks of shuttered local businesses and not a single one was touched. We passed minimum wage security guards or business owners standing lone watch outside of their small businesses as thousands of protestors streamed past them. The protestors greeted them with smiles and sympathy and they greeted us with "good morning" and, occasionally, raised fists of solidarity. Finally after several blocks I saw three instances of spray paint vandalism: a circle-A painted on a jewelry store, an anti-capitalist slogan painted on a bank, and an anarchist slogan painted on a store that sold Nike. Throughout the day I saw some anti-FTAA slogans painted on sidewalks. That was really the extent of spray paint property damage that I saw. No store windows were smashed, no property was burned. Ultimately, the damage done was probably less than an average day of random grafitti by local hooligans (not to mention regular sidewalk defacement by random construction projects and utility companies).
Just as the head of the march reached the fence it was met by a shoulder to shoulder line of riot cops. The march stopped and broke into 2 or more groups, each converging in a different intersection and having a street party in the intersection with drumming and dancing but also with street theater. Many of the puppetistas and costumed protestors performed mini-plays depicting the links between historical conquest and imperialism and the modern strategy of neoliberal corporate hegemony embodied by the FTAA. These performances had a clear feeling of improvisation to them but they were fun and the camera people ate it up. The mood with the police was much as it had been at the Government Center. People felt comfortable going near the police as long as no one touched. The police were stoic and did not acknowledge any attempt to communicate. Many people expressed their sympathies about how it must suck to have to be out here in the heat in all that gear. A lot of us wanted to let the cops know that we weren't a threat, that we didn't hate them, that we didn't plan on attacking them. We made every effort to smile and be nice to the cops. Of course, there were some others who had a lot of anger that they felt the need to express and so some folks had less kind words for the police, regarding their role in abridging our constitutional right to assemble peacefully in a public space.
Suddenly, without warning, the cops began to advance along several fronts pushing the crowd of protests with their batons and yelling "back, back, back". No one was sure why this was happening or where it was leading. Our group was divided in two between the two intersections and a cell phone check told us that the cops were pushing at both intersections. We managed to find each other and join hands in the press so that we wouldn't be separated. At various points in time I was right at the front line and being pushed hard by the police. Some of the protestors tried to form human chains right at the front line and "hold the line", preventing the police advance. But the police, several rows deep, were stronger than the crowd. At some point some protestor must have lobbed some whitewash at an officer who had it all over his shield and face mask. At another point officers began using tazers on folks from the front line. One of our members saw a man being repeatedly tazed by a cop standing above the man until the man being tazed became completely listless. Our member, standing near this scene, could feel electrical shock running through his own body, just from being nearby.
The crowd was being pushed from multiple directions and at one point was completely surrounded by police. No one could disperse or move back, the crowd just kept getting more and more dense. The more dense the crowd became the tougher the resistance became as people who previously wanted to comply by walking away began to feel trapped and scared. People began pushing back, trying to create breathing room in the crush, and in return were pepper sprayed, tazed, and/or arrested. Finally the line of police on one side of the square opened up and people began to move into the open space along the very wide Biscayane Blvd. The police stopped their advance for a while and finally it seemed that the event was back to being a standoff in a holding pattern.
As everyone began to regroup and assess the arrests and injuries that happened during the push, an ad hoc spokescouncil formed spontaneously up the road a couple blocks from the front line. Word of the meeting spread through the crowd and representatives of each affinity group walked over to the circle of people sitting on the street. The spokes appointed a facilitator and began to discuss ways of dealing with the impasse. The group eventually decided, by consensus, to disperse by noon and to plan to regather at 5pm for direct action. The reasoning for this was that the group was clearly outnumbered and at an impasse, planned action tactics had failed, and the direct action spokescouncil had previously promised the AFL/CIO that no direct action would occur during their permitted march from noon-5pm. Before any discussion of what form the direct action at 5pm would take could be finished, the police began to advance up the street and the spokescouncil meeting had to break up. The final decision was that at noon, after everyone had dispersed, the spokes would meet in a nearby grassy park area, off the street, to continue their tactical discussion.
I looked to the grassy park where the spokescouncil was to meet but saw that soon after we chose that as our meeting location, a line of cops surrounded the grass and prevented anyone from entering it. This also blockaded the only porta-potties on the streets. Later in the afternoon I would ask the police if I could cross their line to use the porta-can but he told me definitely not. I don't know how people who were not hotel patrons relieved themselves that afternoon.
The police continued their advance up the street, swinging batons, yelling "back back", occasionally firing pepper spray and making arrests. They pushed all the way to the entrance of our hotel where we finally went in, afraid that we'd never be able to return to safety if they blockaded our hotel. We met the "non-arrestable" members of our group in the hotel where they'd been waiting ever since the first push made the streets unsafe. We discussed the results of the spokescouncil meeting, rehydrated, ate some granola bars, uses the restroom, and tried to figure out what we would do next. None of us wanted to sit idle inside the hotel for the next 5 hours but we didn't particularly want to be part of some mass arrest by the cops standing just a few feet outside of our door.
While we rested and confered inside the hotel, a police officer came into the hotel and spoke with the door guard about whether he wanted the police to clear the building of protestors seeking refuge. The door guard made it clear that he was happy to let anyone seeking refuge into the building, as most of us were patrons of the hotel anyway. The officer was not satisfied with this answer and asked to speak to the manager. He and the manager went into another room and confered privately for ten minutes before the manager came out and requested that anyone who was not a patron of the hotel please leave the lobby. Several people left. We stayed, as was our right. From then on, our security cards were checked at the door as we entered and left.
After about an hour inside the hotel, no confrontations had happened since we entered the hotel, and we felt like it might be safe to venture outside again to walk across the street to the permitted AFL/CIO rally that was happening in the Arena there. AFL/CIO representatives had invited all the direct action people to join the rally and permitted march (we hadn't been sure until then if non-union members would be invited to participate) so we thought we'd join that as there was definitely nothing else going on during that time. We crossed the street and waited for hours in the afternoon sun as police with metal detectors only allowed 5-10 people (out of a crowd now numbering over ten thousand) in at a time to the arena. While we waited we interviewed members of the crowd and got a glimpse of the thousands of folks streaming in on busses from organizations like Greenpeace, Sierra Club, United Steelworkers, an animal rights group, and many other major activist organizations. Eventually we gave up on ever joining the permitted march and returned to the hotel to rest up for the 5pm actions.
Around 4pm the AFL/CIO march seemed to have returned early and drawn to a close. People were beginning to gather again on the street outside out hotel. Our group agreed that it was time to go out and begin our information gathering and documentation efforts anew as another round of "unpermitted" assembly and protest was about to begin. The folks on the streets were now a much larger group than in the morning as many union members were mixed in with the direct action contingent. The crowd did not have the 10,000-20,000 members that participated in the permitted march, but at least 5,000 people were still on the streets. As we listened to the buzz among the crowd, we gathered that the police had cut the AFL/CIO's march short, changing their permitted route that had been arrived at after months of negotiations with the city. Many union members were quite angry, having not been afforded their entire (already minimal) guaranteed right to protest.
At this point the police line was back a few blocks from the doors to the hotel. Protesters were peacefully lined up about 5-10 feet from the line of police. Once again, members of the media were using their chance to film between the line of police and the line of protesters. A woman dressed in a conservative red business powersuit and heals walked among the protestors with an Anti-FTAA sign. She scolded the media for focusing on the "people who were dressed weird". She identified herself as a local lawyer, "dressed normally", and opposed to the FTAA and the Bush regime. She complained that her city had been turned into a police state, that it was hard to get to work, that local residents were afraid to move freely through the city. She was very well spoken and got the attention of many reporters who filmed her speech.
Shortly after her speech, one of the few police officers who was not wearing riot gear, came up to the front of the police line with a megaphone and announced several times that as long as the protest remained peaceful we would be able to continue to protest but that if there was any violence we would be forced to disperse. The crowd began chanting "what about police violence?"
Minutes after the announcement was made, the police suddenly began advancing. No one then or now has been able to determine what, if any, incident set this off. I was standing at the very front of the front line of protestors and I didn't see or hear a scuffle, I didn't see anything thrown, I didn't see any protestor touch any officer. Something might have happened behind my back but it certainly didn't make an impression on anyone that I've talked to who was up there at the front with us.
Everyone was very confused and angry that the police had gone back on their word but initially it seemed everyone was prepared for a repeat of the morning's tactics. We'd be herded by the police into a tighter and tighter area, arrests would be made, and we would be pressured to disperse. It seemed that people were prepared to continue with the same tentative attempts to resist the push by locking arms. There was certainly no plan as there had been no spokescouncil meeting to agree on tactics for the group (the police blocked the noon meeting at the grassy area and the 5pm meeting was preempted by the fact that police violence commenced shortly after the 4pm end of the AFL/CIO march).
As soon as the push began, the police opened fire. Small red plastic bullets filled with stinging powder and pepper spray were fired at the crowd. People, mostly calm and prepared until this moment, began to panic. People began to run from the front line as they were doused with pepper spray fired from supersoaker style guns and hit in the back with the hard plastic balls. After a moment of panic, medics began yelling "WALK" and we all began chanting "WALK" to calm the crowd and prevent trampling. The police were walking forward and the crowd walked forward at the same face, always 20 feet or so ahead of the police (the range of the weapons).
Some protestors began to throw plastic bottles at the police. The bottles typically bounced ineffectually off the riot shields or fell behind police lines. The police responded by firing canisters of gas. The wind was so strong that the gas cleared pretty quickly and we weren't sure if it was tear gas or just smoke bombs. One such canister got thrown back behind police lines by a protestor. Some unknown protestors started a small trashfire in the middle of the street. When a group of us rushed to try to put the fire out, we were told by someone that the fire was to keep the police at bay, that the fire would slow the police down. We did not agree but by the time we got to the fire it was too large for us to handle. The fire was in the middle of the street, away from both protestors and police, and posed no real danger. The police line advanced to the point of the fire and quickly and easily doused it out.
There seemed to be about 5-20 protestors (out of thousands) throwing plastic bottles at the police from far behind the front line and then quickly running away. Whenever we'd see someone about to throw something we'd entreat them not to throw it. Some complied, and others did not. Some were shamed by all the attention on them into lurching away to another part of the crowd.
Once the police push with the pepper spray started, it moved slowly but it never really stopped. They'd advance and perhaps stop for a minute or 30 seconds and then advance again. With every advance there was a wave of panic among the protestors as more and more people felt the sting of the wave pepper spray that formed the buffer between police and protestors. One camera person near me fell to the ground in pain as he got doused in the eyes. We pulled out our saline solution from our backpacks to help but the man could not speak english and was in too much agony to understand that he needed to lean his head back. He was just struggling to hang on to his expensive camera. After a few seconds some bi-lingual street medics arrived to help the man but by this time the police were advancing again and he was in danger of being trampled by the retreating crowd. We helped him up and carried him back further to safety and treatment.
At this point there were police on all sides of us and there seemed to be no place to retreat to. One line of cops was pushing us towards another line of cops several blocks away and the intermediate cross streets were blocked by additional lines of cops. After we'd been pushed back a few blocks we saw that one side street had been left open to us. The crowd herded that way. We were constantly shouting "WALK" to those who just wanted to get away. A stampede of panic would do no one any good. At this point there was nothing to do but to walk away from the police. We couldn't mount a resistance against plastic pellets and pepper spray (and concussion grenades and tear gas which were also used to a much smaller extent, not to mention the tazers that we saw used earlier in the day).
As we turned the corner A group of black bloc folks were making a last ditch attempt to build a barricade across the narrow street that the cops had herded us onto. They hoped to slow the advance of the police so that others could regroup and decide what to do other than simply react. They scrounged cargo pallets and cardboard from a nearby construction site. They pulled up the cement parking separators from a nearby decaying parking lot and attempted in vain to engineer a wall across the street to block the rubber bullets and pepper spray. The police, however, were advancing too quickly and there was much dissent within the crowd about how or whether to build the barricade. The project was abandoned in favor of continued retreat.
We were pushed down the street and as we advanced we saw down the parallel side streets waves of police on bicycles moving ahead of us to block the side streets. Most of the street we were on was fenced on either side. This street was clearly chosen as the strategically best street to herd us down where we couldn't disperse. There was nothing to do but keep walking and watching out for each other. By this time all attempts to resist the police by building barricades or throwing objects or forming human chains were abandoned. I think that once the panic and gut reactions had been processed people began to realize that we had no plan and were outnumbered and overwhelmed by force and the only thing to do was to stay safe and try to figure out how to get away.
At one particular point near a community college the police fire of projectiles intensified dramatically. We started to see rubber pellets bounding on the ground alongside the pepper balls. As we sought cover among the walls and bushes of the campus, I turned to check on the location of my affinity group members. We'd been holding hands to keep track of each other but we'd lost contact as we hurried. As I turned I saw a man bleeding profusely from the ear and coughing blood from the mouth. We all yelled for medics and a group formed around the man and helped him to a seat. He had a giant protrusion sticking out right above his eyebrow. It looked like a "pepper ball" had hit his temple, gone under the skin. When the medics arrived we formed a locked arm chain around him to protect him from the throng of media eager to get a shot of the gore and from any barrage of projectiles that might come as the cops rounded the corner that we were protected behind. When enough medics had arrived they took over and carried the man off to find a hospital for his wound and we were left to continue our march up the street.
As we were pushed up the street we arrived at an intersection where the crowd split into two, along parallel streets. The police continued to herd us down both streets. As we kept marching along with nowhere to turn we noticed that the area was becomming residential. We had been chased out of the downtown business district into "Overtown", the poorest sector of Miami. Residents of the neighborhood up and down the street came out on their porch to see what was happening. Several different folks cheered us on. One man said to me something along the lines of "I don't know what you all are fighting for, but it must be the right thing if it's got them chasing you all the way up here." Other residents were angry at us for bringing heat into their neighborhood. All the mainstream press with the fancy video cameras had completely disappeared shortly before we found ourselves in Overtown.
A homeless man that our videographers had befriended earlier in the week met us on the sidewalk and offered us a chance to hide out in his special hiding place under a bridge. "No one ever comes back there". We were quite honored that he would extend that level of trust to us but we declined, wishing instead to stick with the group until we could safely disperse.
As we passed through overtown, more and more sidestreets became available to us and the group got thinner and thinner as different groups chose different routes of escape. It seemed that no matter where we turned though that there were always police somewhere behind us pushing us further and further north. At one point, after we'd been walking for an hour or so the police started running towards us. We were very confused about why this was happening. I found myself near the police and shouted "we are trying to disperse, we want to leave, where do you want us to go?" and an officer shouted back to me "just keep going away from us, that is all you have to do". He pointed at a rooster that was walking along the road and said "just chase that chicken". My friends urged me to cease attempting to communicate with the police and just start running.
So we all broke into a jog until finally the police let up and seemed to stop their advance altogether. At this point we realized that we were very close to the convergence center. We called in to our home support team to try to find out whether it was safe to go to the convergence center or not but they had no reliable information for us. As we got closer we passed people on the street who told us that the convergence center was being raided by the police and we should definitely not go there. We saw an ice cream truck that had been making bundles all week at the convergence center driving away from the area and that did not bode well. I got myself a Strawberry Shortcake to cool off and calm down.
This is the point where we gave up on ever reconnecting with our fellow activists that night. We remembered that one of our members had a friend in Miami. We called her and asked for a ride. It felt like we were asking for an extraction team. We picked up a couple of individuals who had either been separated from their affinity groups or had no group at all and took them to dinner with us. With the sun having set at this point, while we waited for the car, the city was full of revolutionaries in hiding. Every convenience store and restraunt had a group of protestors hanging low, every secluded corner had people sitting and resting. We bought fresh mangos from a local street vendor and they were the most delicious food we'd ever tasted. Then to our grateful delight our ride arrived and we went a few miles away and ate dinner, later to be dropped off back at our hotel.
At the hotel it seemed that everyone had a similar experience. They'd wandered off, dispersed, hung low, found cars if possible, and eventually returned to their hotels in small groups. The 3 unarrestables from our group were very happy to meet us back at the hotel, safe, unharmed, unarrested.
We got in touch with our home support and learned that the convergence center was still open and that a spokescouncil meeting to share information and plan for the next day was in the process of forming. Two of us grabbed the rental car and headed over there. We figured if it looked like a bad scene, we'd just keep driving on by.
When we arrived at the convergence center it was my first time being there. It was amazing. The center was a small warehouse in the northern part of Overtown. At the entrance there were medics asking people if they needed care and immediately next door was a medical treatment area. There were watch guards posted on the roof with walkie talkies, keeping track of police. Through the narrow opening of the fence there was an open courtyard and then the entrance to the warehouse. The courtyard was the food not bombs area. A large refrigerator truck was parked there and held all the food and provided power for cooking. An adhoc sink system had been set up for mass dish washing. Every day for several meals per day this area was buzzing with volunteers turning dumpster dived free food into delicious free gourmet vegan meals for hundreds of protestors.
When we entered the warehouse space it was like walking into the headquaters of the revolution. The walls were completely covered with maps and plans and meeting minutes and information and phone numbers and rides wanted and offered. The tables were littered with pamphlets. Volunteers were answering phones ringing off the hooks providing information, legal support, and media support. In one corner was the ad hoc indymedia center with a half a dozen public access computers. In another corner the media office where they were working on calling all the local mainstream media to organize a press conference at the convergence center that night. In another corner the legal defense team was compiling arrest statistics. And in the center of it all the spokescouncil meeting was coming together. Someone said in a loud speaking voice "if you can hear me, clap once". And a few people clapped once. Then they said "if you can hear me now, clap twice" and nearly everyone clapped twice. The crowd settled down and began to listen. A moderator was chosen, and agenda was formed.
The first thing on the agenda was an announcement that we should all be aware that we'd just been through a very traumatic event, we'd seen blood, felt pain, and been paniced. We'd had control taken away from us. We'd been abused. It was very important to make sure we processed that instead of bottling it up, lest we suffer from post traumatic stress. A call went out for volunteers who had experience with counceling and an ad hoc counceling group was formed right outside the meeting that people could come and go from.
We heard reports from different groups about the days events. We learned the truth behind the rumors of the convergence center being raided. It had not been raided. Some police had arrived and the convergence center went into lock down as per their security plan. The gates were closed, the doors were locked, the media team got the local media to come be at the space, the police chilled and left when the media arrived, and everything returned to normal.
A representative of the AFL/CIO rose to express the full support and solidarity of the AFL/CIO with our direct action group. He thanked us for honoring our promise to not engage in unpermitted direct action during their permitted march. He pledged that because we kept up our end of the bargain, he would stand in solidarity with us if the convergence center was raided that evening. We were all quite nervous that just being at this meeting would get us all arrested but nothing went down there that night. The AFL/CIO spokesperson also confirmed that several AFL/CIO busses had been prevented by the police from even arriving at the protest site to join the march. He also apologized to us about the behavior of some of their members who had "testosterone problems" (his words). He was very cognizant that some of the direct action folks had been treated rudely by a small number of union members during the permitted march and he said they are working within the union to reduce that kind of behavior.
We learned that that morning there was an early morning march from the Convergence Center to the Government Center (where we had gathered) that had been stopped by the police and that many arrests had been made at that march. This explained why there was such a feeling of headlessness and disorganization at the gathering that morning, all the organizers marching from the organizing center had been intercepted and some of them arrested by the police. We also learned that there had actually been a specific plan of where to march and which intersections to hold and where green zones were to be established that morning. Each of the intersections that the group had intended to hold was exactly where the police had amassed the most officers. I'm certain that there were police infiltrators listening in at every spokescouncil meeting, the police knew exactly what the plans were and were prepared for them. We also learned that the first round of police herding and pushing that morning near the fence was sparked by 2 protestors successfully attaching grappeling hooks to the fence in an attempt to bring it down. They were immediately arrested and their actions were used as a pretext to push the other few thousand of us around until we were allowed to disperse back into the hotel and to the permitted rally and march.
We learned about what had happened at the actual FTAA meeting. Before the meeting we'd heard rumors that the trade ministers had already signed their agreement and gone home and the trade talks for the next day were canceled. That was disheartening. But at the spokesmeeting we learned that what they'd actually signed was VERY different than what the US intended to have everyone sign coming into the meeting. The talks were so completely stalled with the parties so far from an agreement that they ended up agreeing on a very watered down agreement that allowed countries to opt-in to only the provisions they wanted to. Essentially they made a list of things they couldn't agree to and signed an agreement about the things they couldn't agree to. People felt more positive about this.
Finally the remaining interest was in what if any direct action should be done the next day. With the trade talks over there was not much sense in street protest aiming to disrupt the talks. We decided that we should do jail support for the over 100 people who had been arrested at that point. We didn't yet have enough information yet to decide what form jail support should take so we agreed to meet again the next day at 10am when the legal team had compiled information.
We were also all reminded of the Really Really Really Free Market event that was happening the next day at noon. It was explained that this would be a permitted gathering in a local park where we would all trade whatever we had to trade (stories, songs, massage, skills) for whatever anyone else had to trade. It would be a chance to unwind, to connect, to share, to relax.
The meeting then broke up as a press conference began immediately outside.
We headed home and slept and woke up and returned to the convergence center. A plan was formulated to go to the Really Really Really Free Market at noon, meet at the jail where the misdemeanor arestees were being held at 2pm, hold a press conference and rally there, and decide at that time whether or not to march from there to the jail where the felony arrestees were being held.
We ate some dumpstered food picked the rest of our group up and headed over to where the Market was supposed to be. We saw no one. As we walked around we found some folks pointing us down the road. Apparently the police had moved the permit for our event to a different location a few blocks away. We walked that way and found a group of about 50 people gathering in a local park under some el tracks. There was some confusion there though because it seemed a number of homeless folks lived in this park and they didn't want us there because with us came police and the possibility of arrest. This was their space and they didn't want to be disturbed. We broke off and met about what we should do instead, we wished to honor their request, while a few others continued talking with the residents of the park. Just as we were about to decide to go elsewhere a couple of the local residents came over and invited us into their space. We crossed back into the park and started our party. I pulled out my harmonica and one of my companions pulled out his guitar and we started jamming. People started dancing. People started singing. Buckets were brought out and folks offered backrubs to anyone who wanted to sit on the buckets. Folks lined up behind the backrubbers and rubbed their backs and a whole backrubbing chain was formed. Another person laid out a blanket and started giving what looked like much more professional massages to those who laid down. I traded 12-bar-blues lessons to someone in return for a copy of his "friend's weird electronica CD". Some folks opened up juggling lessons, stilt walking lessons, and free haircuts. Art supplies were brought out and people started drawing. A mandolin player and a singer offered more music. Someone had a sign that said "Free Hugs" and went around giving very sincere comforting hugs to all who asked. Media folks did interviews. The volunteer councelors listened to people. Some folks just had a picnic. I spent most of my time giving and receiving backrubs. It was heavenly. And for the first time in more than 24 hours everyone was smiling and laughing. After an hour or so the crowd numbered in the hundreds as more and more people showed up and partied with us. By nearly 2pm we'd seen police moving along the borders of the park and began to fear that they were preparing to push us out. It was time to go to the jail support rally anyway so we simply dispersed and headed to the jail before any police incident came to pass.
At the jail the legal team gave a great press conference wherein they summarized the weaponry that had been used against the protestors, and showed samples of the projectiles, taken from the streets, to the news crews. Throughout the press conference the helicopters above kept routinely swooping down very close to the rally, close enough that it was impossible to hear or record what was being said. You could see them altering the pitch of their craft to maximize the noise sent our way. I got the distinct impression that they were increasing the noise most when the speakers were being most critical of the behavior of the police but that may have been coincidence.
After the press conference the crowd of about 300 people marched across courthouse parking lot so that they were in sight of the jail. As we marched we sang and chanted and clapped and danced. The march had much of the easy going spirit from the Market. It was clear people were feeling peaceful and rejuvenated. When we arrived on the other side we simply stood in the parking lot and chanted and sang. The idea was to let the folks in jail know that we were there for them. Hundreds of riot cops began to arrive in force and line the streets all around us. Once again we were surrounded. The crowd which had been a cluster of people facing each other, dancing, all slowly but surely ended up facing the main line of police and chanting at them rather than amongst each other. What had been a peaceful joyous rally became another face off, simply due to the newly arrived presence of hundreds of riot cops. As the face off intensified the announcement was made again that so long as we remained peaceful we would be allowed to remain. Negotiators from the group met with civilian relations board ambassadors from the police to try to work out a solution to the growing impasse.
A spokescouncil convened and met with the direct action negotiators. The spokescouncil, which operated by consensus, was deeply divided between a camp that wanted to make radical demands of the police (such as immediately freeing all the arrestees without charge) as a condition of our dispersal and the folks who wanted to disperse immediately with our only demand being that the police promise in front of the media that we would be unharrassed as we left. As we debated this paniced people kept approaching us and telling us that the cops were going to attack any minute. Our negotiators believed that was fear mongering and misinformation, no such threats had been communicated to them. Finally just as we were about to reach a compromise solution to give the negotiators to take back to the cops, the cops announced that our assembly (which had not turned violent in any way) was an illegal assembly and we had to disperse. About 3/4 of the crowd immediately began to disperse before they learned the results of the spokescouncil decision, thus rendering any attempt to negotiate a safe and orderly dispersal useless. Our group decided to leave with the others. We walked away. Our cars were behind the police lines so we found a local mexican restraunt to chill at until we could retreive our cars.
We learned later that about 75 people stayed at the rally after we left. The police surrounded them on all sides, effectively blocking the view of any media outside the police circle, opened fire with pepperspray, dousing them all thoroughly, and arrested everybody.
That night, back at the hotel, we met two folks who had been arrested the night before. They were just walking around and a van full of cops stopped in front of them, a cop yelled "let's do this", and they were tackled to the ground, brutally handcuffed and taken to jail where they were left freezing in cold cells for hours. Eventually when their trial came they were offered a chance to plead guilty to a minor charge, pay $30, and get out. They plead not guilty. The judge dropped their charges and set them free. As they left the courtroom, free men, they were handcuffed and held for an additional hour as they were "processed" before being set free. (I keep saying "they"...their trials were separate, obviously and the same thing happened to both of them). The gross details of their detainment are covered in a lengthy film interview that our videographers did with them so I will not try to reproduce the details here. It would turn out that these people got great treatment compared to many other arrestees that we heard from. Arrestees of color and queer and transexual arrestees seemed to get the greatest abuse.
On Saturday, I hung out at the convergence center for a while, found someone (randomly, it happened to be one of the arrestees we'd interviewed the night before) to drive up to Columbus, GA for the School of the Americas protest with me, ate some delicious gaspacho, and headed north.