What does $80 (U.S.) get you in Miami?

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Police have learned the best defence is to mount a very strong offence and they did just that in Miami.

On Tuesday, November 18, I flew to Florida to participate in the FTAA meetings and conduct workshops examining trade agreements' impacts on communities.

The Miami-Dade Police met me at the airport. This was because to get into downtown Miami — anywhere close to the perimeter that had been erected — required a special permit. The cost: $80 US and be prepared to undergo a background check, conducted by state and federal officials.

The situation reminded me of the MasterCard commercials but with a twist:

Downtown travel pass in Miami: $80

Freedom to speak your mind: priceless.

Downtown Miami was empty. Businesses were closed and had been for nearly a week. The Miami Herald published a telling editorial cartoon that day. A map of the Americas on one side was labeled “Free Trade.” Beside it was a map of downtown Miami with the words “No trade” scrawled across the buildings.

Instead of the general bustle one typically sees in this diverse city there were only uniformly dressed paramilitary personnel from 45 different police departments — everywhere. The enormous heavily armed police and riot squad presence had been recruited to secure the downtown zone.

The rationale? To avoid a repeat of Seattle, where labour, environmentalists, faith communities, youth and direct action activists contributed to the collapse of the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting.

Police have learned the best defence is to mount a very strong offence and they did just that in Miami. In fact, this was a multi-million dollar calculated campaign of harassment and intimidation.

Juan, an émigré from Cuba and a 20-year veteran police officer, met and vetted me at the airport. He told me, “These protesters,” gesturing towards mysterious places, “are killers — cop killers.” In Seattle he says, “They killed a cop and also in Cancun.” I know this to be blatantly untrue; attempts to politely correct him won't be heard. In fact, over the next few days I get to hear this refrain — protesters = cop killers — often. A mind set has been established, and the facts are not necessary.

Juan gestures again. “They piss in balloons and throw them at police,” he tells me. “They come here armed and dangerous. But here in Miami they've met their match,” he says proudly. “If they try and reach you,” (believing I'm not a protester) he gestures at me with his finger as if it were a dagger, “we will cut them off even before they get close to you.” His finger folds as if it were sliced off at the knuckle.

Juan wants me to know that he and the armed paramilitary troops with him are prepared. The irony of my position inside the perimeter, next to Juan, makes me smile.

Also boarding the bus are a half dozen members of Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs, Industry & Trade (DFIAT). The six-pack of suits are thrilled with the macho police attention.

Settling into the luxury bus, the suits remark on the fine golf courses, exchange references of which private schools they attended and remark how different vistas en route to downtown Miami are reminiscent of Nicaragua or El Salvador.

They joke disparagingly that NDP Leader Jack Layton will attend their briefing sessions. “He doesn't know the issues at all,” one recent graduate from an MBA program chides.

We pass hundreds and hundreds of police — my bus-mates are clearly impressed with the overwhelming security presence. They debate the names of light armoured tanks that preen above the hundreds of police cars filling the streets.

Hundreds and hundreds of heavily armed squads in brand new riot gear are blocking my view of where people live.

There is no evidence this city is preparing to assist the thousands of workers, retirees, environmentalists, faith group members and youth who have for weeks publicly announced their plans to come to Florida to register their opposition — peacefully — to more negotiations for a trade deal they do not want.

Corporate-led globalization negotiated at symbolic ministerial meetings like this one is changing the face of our cities.

In Miami a city ordinance was passed just a few weeks before the FTAA ministerial was to begin. The ordinance made it illegal for more than eight persons to gather on the streets.

The Globe and Mail reported that an estimated 8,000 police were assembled in Miami to secure a meeting for 34 trade ministers that was to last a day and a half.

These 8,000 individuals had undergone a training designed to portray citizens as thugs. The training package included the latest technologies in crowd control: water cannons — the kind used in airport disasters — tear gas and hot gun pepper balls. These are shot from a paint-ball type gun, but the ball is filled with a viscous material that spreads, sticks and burns the target. Splashing on water is ineffective to relieve the pain. In addition, there were quick-use handcuffs that cut off circulation, attack batons, shields and training in how to use them defensively and offensively, infiltration techniques, and surveillance technologies.

Eight and half million dollars were allocated from a U.S. federal government appropriation. It was a one-line item included within the 87 billion dollars requested and granted for the rebuilding of Iraq.

The message: A war abroad and a war at home; rebuilding one country's “democratic” infrastructure abroad for the benefit of transnationals and deny democracy at home.

How was the money spent? Picture this:

The Thursday of the FTAA meetings is the big day for speeches, and a legally permitted march. The amphitheatre at Bayshore Park is rented by unions and agreed upon with the authorities as the meeting point for thousands of workers and citizens. Tens of thousands of citizens come prepared to hear speeches from their labour leaders, environmentalists, and community activists and then participate in a legally sanctioned, peaceful, two-mile march to register their concerns and opposition to the FTAA.

Access is controlled; the police surround the adjacent city blocks of the park with thousands of riot police. Intersections are shut down permitting limited access; only a string of three to four people can pass at one time. One hundred eighty seven buses carrying workers from around the state are not permitted into the city. Other buses carrying retirees are stopped 10 city blocks from the venue, contrary to the negotiated agreement with the police. Hundreds of elders are forced to walk to the venue in the sun and must run the gauntlet of the riot police to gain access to the amphitheatre and shade.

Eight tactical helicopters fly over the stadium and consistently hover directly over the stadium drowning out the speakers, while armed police dangle from the doors photographing and filming the growing crowd. Guns are pointed randomly at us.

A 62-year-old grandmother who came to attend workshops and participate in the peaceful march goes to use a port-a-potty at the amphitheatre. After she enters, baton-wielding police rush the port-a-potty, bang on it and shake it violently until she is rousted with her pants down to her knees in full view of the public.

A young woman attempts to walk to her hotel past a squad of riot police. They verbally abuse her with derogatory references to her gender and her perceived politics.

A 72-year-old man asks a police troop where the buses are parked for the retirees. He is thrown to the ground and cuffed.

After the peaceful and subdued two-mile march ends, a woman lawyer, dressed in skirt and high heels holds up a sign that says “Fear Totalitarianism” in front of a squad of 500 armed riot squad police. A small crowd of fewer than 100 people is with her. Police donâe(TM)t demand the crowd disperse; rather they shoot rubber bullets at the crowd from near point blank range. The woman lowers her sign to protect her head. The police aim and shoot rubber bullets through the sign hitting her in the head.

Arrests of small groups of people have been occurring for days, as have intimidation visits to local churches hosting educational events. Squads of armed police have entered churches and paraded through sessions, surveying the crowd with video equipment and guns.

A small band of citizens march to the courthouse to protest these intimidation tactics and wrongful arrests — which now total over 250 persons.

This small group, which includes students from Harvard studying trade agreements and social movements and whom we have spent time with, is surrounded by hundreds of police and squad cars. Notice to disperse is given.

Those in the crowd raise their hands in the air, indicating they have no rocks or weapons, and walk backwards away from the scene loudly chanting, “We are dispersing.”

One young and scared boy kneels down and begins to pray. Five heavily protected riot squad officers rush the boy, and using their shields as plows bowl him over. He is knocked backwards with such force he lies stunned and supine on the pavement. The police yank back his head and tear gas him directly in the face.

Armed snipers drop to one knee and begin shooting into the crowd with rubber bullets at the remaining citizens who are walking backwards, with their hands in the air. My friend is hit in the leg; others take repeated hits of rubber bullets and pepper balls.

Peoples' attempt to disperse is prevented as they have been surrounded. More than 50 people are arrested and charged with unlawful assembly, resisting arrest or assault. One trooper remarks, “You may beat the charge, but you can't beat the ride.”

People now being released or calling from jail report of excessive brutality, sexual assault and torture going on inside. People of colour, queer and transgendered prisoners are particularly being targeted. There is a confirmed report of one Latino man arrested along with 62 others outside Miami-Dade County jail who is currently hospitalized in the Intensive Care Unit for an injury he received after being beaten in the head with a nightstick by an arresting officer.

People have also been denied access to attorneys, visitation rights and access to essential medication and medical attention.

Over 100 protestors were treated for injuries; 12 were hospitalized.

Military tanks patrol the streets after dark.

Canada's Trade Minister, Pierre Pettigrew remarks he was unfazed by the citizens he does not agree with, because he couldn't see or hear them from inside the heavily fortified Intercontinental Hotel where talks were taking place.

“We don't sense their presence at all,” Pettigrew said of the protesters.

Back to the MasterCard commercial:

Politicians' disconnect from reality: $8.5 million

Civil liberties: priceless.

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