Lay of the Land
Police crush peaceful protest at trade summit
When confronted by tens of thousands of protestors on his November 2003 visit to London, President George W. Bush said essentially the same thing he always says in such situations: "Its a fantastic thing to come to a country where people are free to express their views."
Americans seeking that fantastic experience might soon have to go to England, because opposing views are increasingly unwelcome here at home, as hundreds of Sierra Club activists discovered later that month in Miami. The venue was a summit meeting for the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), an agreement that could push environmental and labor standards into a "race to the bottom" across the hemisphere. Along with thousands of senior citizens, union members, farmers, and other environmentalists peacefully protesting the agreement, the Sierra Club contingent was teargassed, threatened with guns, andin one casearrested, pepper-sprayed, and strip-searched.
The alarming abuse prompted a letter of complaint to George Bush himself from Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope: "We were appalled that the local police, supported by $8.5 million in federal funds and the Department of Homeland Security, engaged in a systematic campaign of intimidation that violated the constitutional rights of thousands of law-abiding citizens."
The FTAA is essentially an extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the environmental and social effects of which continue to be felt along the U.S.Mexico border. Like NAFTA, the FTAA champions investor "rights" over existing environmental and labor standards. And like the agreement proposed at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, it is strongly opposed by a powerful "blue-green" coalition of union members and environmentalists, who joined forces again in Miami to speak out against it.
Or tried to, at any rate. Vowing to avoid the smashed Starbucks windows and other property damage caused in Seattle by a handful of violent anarchists, Miami officials assembled 2,500 riot police from 50 jurisdictions, backed up by armored vehicles and even tanks. According to Sierra Club trade representative Dan Seligman, "The drumbeat of local TV coverage of the police preparations created a false presumption that demonstrators would be violent, which scared away many who wanted to protest." The police turned away many more, like the 17 buses full of senior citizens brought in by the AFL-CIO that were prevented from entering the downtown area. Police also prevented thousands more from assembling at the Bayfront Amphitheater, falsely claiming that it was full.
The Miami PD made its own predictions of violence come true on Thursday, November 20. That morning, Sierra Club members (including Club president Larry Fahn) assembled at a knoll overlooking Biscayne Boulevard, in full cooperation with the police. Then, says Fahn, "a phalanx of 200 or more riot cops, shoulder-to-shoulder, marched down on us, and forced us out of the park and onto the sidewalk, for no apparent reason. Some minutes later, they pushed us off the sidewalk. When Dan Seligman tried to discuss the matter with them, a cop raised his gun and pointed it at Dans head."
It got worse after that. The agreed-upon route of the protest march was changed by the police at the last minute, forcing it to pass far from the Intercontinental Hotel, where the trade talks were taking place. At a peaceful demonstration the following day, a young woman from the Sierra Student Coalition was arrested, handcuffed, pepper-sprayed in the eyes while obeying police orders, and later stripped of her clothes by four male police officers and denied medical treatment for her injuries.
In his letter to Bush, Carl Pope detailed these violations, and called for an independent, bipartisan commission to examine the affair. "The fundamental constitutional rights of all Americans are in jeopardy if the intimidating tactics used by the Miami police become the model for dealing with future public demonstrations."
As for the FTAA, resistance from Brazil and other developing countries led to a stalemate inside the hall, with all substantive issues postponed. Instead, the Bush administration is adopting a "divide and conquer" strategy by pursuing free-trade pacts with smaller blocs of the weakest countries in Latin America; Congress is expected to take up a proposed CAFTAthe Central American Free Trade Agreementthis fall. Paul RauberUp to Top
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