The Miami Model
journalists, and "illegal" protests
by Jeremy Scahill
Z magazine, January 2004
We were loading our video equipment into
the trunk of our car when a fleet of bicycle cops sped up and
formed a semi-circle around us. The lead cop was Miami police
chief John Timoney. The former police commissioner of Philadelphia,
Timoney, has a reputation for brutality and hatred of protesters
of any kind. He calls them "punks," "knuckleheads,"
and a whole slew of expletives. He coordinated the brutal police
response to the mass protests at the Republican National Convention
in Philadelphia in 2000. After a brief stint in the private sector,
Timoney took the post of Miami police chief as part of Mayor Manny
Diaz's efforts to "clean up the department. "
We had watched him the night before on
the local news in Miami praising his "men" for the restraint
they had shown in the face of "violent anarchists" intent
on destroying the city. In reality, the tens of thousands who
gathered in Miami in November 2003 to protest the ministerial
meetings of the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit were seeking
to peacefully demonstrate against what they consider to be a deadly
expansion of NAFTA and U.S.-led policies of free trade. There
were environmental groups, labor unions, indigenous activists,
church groups, grassroots organizations, students, and many others
in the streets.
What they encountered as they assembled
outside the gates to the building housing the FTAA talks was nothing
short of a police riot. It only took a few hours on Thursday,
November 20 before downtown Miami looked like a city under martial
On the news, Chief Timoney spoke in sober
tones about the tear gas that demonstrators fired at his officers.
No, that is not a typo. Timoney said the protesters were the ones
launching the tear gas. He also said the demonstrators had hurled
"missiles" at the police. "I got a lot of tear
gas," Timoney said. "We all got gassed. They were loaded
to the hilt. A lot of missiles, bottles, rocks, tear gas from
Back at our car, Timoney hopped off his
bike as a police camera person recorded his every move. It felt
like an episode of "COPS." He demanded the license and
registration for the car. Norm Stockwell of community radio station
WORT in Madison, Wisconsin gave him his license and we informed
him we were journalists. One of the police grabbed Stockwell's
press pass, looking it over as though it was fake. They looked
at all of us with nasty stares before getting back on their bikes
to further "protect" Miami.
As Timoney was talking with his cops,
one of the police approached us with a notepad. "Can I have
your names?" he asked. I thought he was a police officer
preparing a report. He had on a Miami police polo shirt, just
like Timoney's. He had a Miami police bike helmet, just like Timoney's.
He had a bike, just like Timoney's. There was only one small detail
that separated him from Timoney-a small badge around his neck
identifying him as a reporter with the Miami Herald.
That reporter was one of dozens embedded
with the Miami forces. In another incident, we saw a Miami Herald
photographer who had somehow gotten pushed onto the "protesters'
side" of a standoff with the police. He was behind a line
of young kids who had locked arms to try and prevent the police
from advancing and attacking the crowds outside of the Inter-Continental
Hotel. He was shouting at the kids to move so he could get back
to the "safe" side. The protesters ignored him and continued
The photographer grew angrier and angrier
before he began hitting one of the young kids on the line. He
punched him in the back of the head before other journalists grabbed
him and calmed him down. His colleagues seemed shocked at the
conduct. He was a big guy wearing a bulletproof vest and a police-issue
riot helmet, but I really think he was scared of the skinny, dreadlocked,
Watching the embedded journalists on Miami
TV was quite entertaining. They spoke of venturing into "Protesterland"
as though they were entering secret al Qaeda headquarters in the
mountains of Afghanistan. Interviews with protest leaders were
sort of like the secret bin Laden tapes. There was something risqué,
even sexy about having the courage to venture over to the convergence
space (the epicenter of protest organizing at the FTAA) and the
Independent Media Center (IMC). Several reporters told of brushes
they had with "the protesters." One reporter was quite
shaken after a group of "anarchists" slashed her news
van's tires and wrote the word "propaganda" across the
side door. She feared for the life of her cameraperson, she somberly
told the anchor back in the studio. The anchor warned her to "be
careful out there. "
So "dangerous" was the scene
that the overwhelming majority of the images on TV were from helicopter
shots, where very little could be seen except that there was a
confrontation between police and "the protesters." This
gave cover for Timoney and other officials to make their outrageous
and false statements. Timoney spun his tales of "hard-core
anarchists" rampaging through the streets of Miami; "outsiders
coming to terrorize and vandalize our city." He painted a
picture of friendly, restrained police enduring constant attacks
from rocks, paint, gas canisters, smoke bombs, and fruit. "We
are very proud of the police officers and their restraint. Lots
of objects were thrown at the police officers," Timoney said.
"If we didn't act when we did, it would have been much worse."
It was much worse.
After the Miami protests, 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 armor and gas masks, marching in unison through the
streets, banging batons against their shields, chanting, "back...
back... back." There were armored personnel carriers and
The forces fired indiscriminately into
crowds of unarmed protesters. Scores of people were hit with skin-piercing
rubber bullets; thousands were gassed with an array of chemicals.
On several occasions, police fired loud concussion grenades into
the crowds. Police shocked people with electric tazers. Demonstrators
were shot in the back as they retreated. One young person's apparent
crime was holding his fingers in a peace sign in front of the
troops. They shot him multiple times, including once in the stomach
at point blank range.
My colleagues and I spent several days
in the streets, going from conflict to conflict. We saw no attempts
by any protesters to attack a business or corporation. With the
exception of some graffiti and an occasional garbage can set on
fire, there was very little in the way of action not aimed directly
at the site of the FTAA meetings. Even the Black Bloc youth, who
have a reputation for wanting to smash everything up, were incredibly
restrained and focused.
In any event, there was no need for any
demonstrator to hurl anything at the forces to spark police violence.
It was clear from the jump that Timoney's forces came prepared
to crack heads. After receiving $8.5 million in federal funds
from the $87 billion Iraq spending bill, Miami needed to have
a major combat operation. It didn't matter if it was "warranted.
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz called the police
actions a model for homeland security. FTAA officials called it
extraordinary. Several cities sent law enforcement observers to
the protests to study what some are now referring to as the "Miami
Model." This model also included the embedding of undercover
police with the protesters. At one point during a standoff with
police, it appeared as though a group of protesters had gotten
into a brawl among themselves. But as others moved in to break
up the melee, two of them pulled out electric tazers and shocked
protesters, before being "liberated" back behind police
lines. These people, clearly undercover agents, were dressed like
any other protester. One had a sticker on his backpack that read:
"FTAA No Way." The IMC has since published pictures
of people dressed like Black Bloc kids-ski masks and all-walking
with uniformed police behind police lines.
The only pause in the heavy police violence
in Miami came on Thursday afternoon when the major labor unions
held their mass-rally and march. Led by AFL-CIO President John
Sweeney, the march had a legal permit and was carefully coordinated
with the police. Many of the union guys applauded the police as
they marched past columns of body-armored officers on a break
from gassing and shooting unarmed demonstrators.
But as soon as the unions and their permits
began to disperse, the police seized the moment to escalate the
violence against the other protesters. Fresh from their break
during the union rally, Timoney's forces ordered the protesters
to clear the area in front of the Inter-Continental. Some of the
demonstrators shouted back that they had a right to peaceably
protest the FTAA. Then concussion grenades started flying. Tear
gas was sprayed. Rubber bullets were fired. Batons were swinging.
The police methodically marched in a long
column directly at the several hundred protesters who believed
they had a right to protest. They fired indiscriminately at the
crowds. One person had part of her ear blown off. Another was
shot in the forehead. I got shot twice, once in the back, another
time in the leg. John Hamilton from the Workers Independent News
Service, was shot in the neck by a pepper-spray pellet-a small
ball that explodes into a white powder. After a few moments, he
began complaining that his neck was burning from the powder. We
doused him in water, but the burning continued. When I tried to
ask the police what the powder was, they told me to "mind
Eventually, the police forced the dissipating
group of protesters into one of the poorest sections of Miami,
surrounding them on all sides. We stood there in the streets with
the eerie feeling of a high-noon showdown. Except there were hundreds
of them with guns and dozens of us with cameras and banners. They
fired gas and rubber bullets at us as they moved in. All of us
realized we had nothing to do but run. We scattered down side
streets and alleys, ducking as we fled. Eventually, we made it
The next day, we went to a midday rally
outside the Dade County Jail where more than 150 people were being
held prisoner. It was a peaceful assembly of about 300 people.
The crowd sang "We all live in a failed democracy" to
the tune of "We all live in a yellow submarine." They
chanted "Free the Prisoners, Not Free Trade" and "Take
off your riot gear, there ain't no riot here. "
Representatives of the protesters met
with police officials at the scene. The activists said they would
agree to remain in a parking lot across the street from the jail
if the police would call off the swelling presence of the riot
police. They reached an agreement, or so the police said. As the
demonstration continued, the numbers of fully armed troops grew.
They announced that people had three minutes to disperse from
the "unlawful assembly." Even though the police violated
their agreement, the protesters complied. A group of five activists
led by Puppetista David Solnit informed the police they would
not leave. The police began arresting them.
But that was not enough. The police then
attacked the dispersing crowd, chasing about 30 people into a
corner. They shoved them to the ground and beat them. They gassed
them at close range. Ana Nogueira from "Democracy Now!,"
and I got separated in the mayhem. I was lucky to end up on the
"safe" side of the street. Noguiera was in the melee.
As she did her job-videotaping the action-Nogueira was wearing
her press credentials in plain sight. When the police began handcuffing
people, Nogueira told them she was a journalist. One of the officers
said, "She's not with us, she's not with us," meaning
that she was not embedded with the police and therefore had to
In police custody, the authorities made
Nogueira remove her clothes in front of male officers because
they were soaked with pepper spray. Despite calls from "Democracy
Now!," the ACLU, lawyers, and others protesting Nogueira's
arrest and detention, she was held in a cockroach-filled jail
cell until 3:30 AM. She was only released after I posted a $500
bond. Other independent journalists remained locked up for much
longer and face serious charges, some of them felonies. In the
end, Nogueira was charged with "failure to disperse,"
but the real crime seems to be "failure to embed."
This is what democracy looks like-thousands
of soldiers, calling themselves police, deployed in U.S. cities
to protect the power brokers from the masses. Vigilantes like
John Timoney roam from city to city, organizing militias to hunt
the dangerous radicals who threaten the good order. Damned be
the journalist who dares to say it-or film it-like it is.
Jeremy Scahill is a producer and correspondent
for the nationally syndicated radio and TV program "Democracy
Now!" (www.democracynow.org ).