The Police State of Florida

FTAA protests

by Lee Sustar

International Socialist Review, January/February 2004


For more than 70 years, South Florida symbolized everything that was wrong with the U.S. Iabor movement. Since the 1920s, the leaders of the American Federation of Labor-and later, the AFL-CIO-traveled to the resort of Bal Harbour for their winter executive board meetings in luxurious semi-tropical surroundings in the depths of the union-hostile South. The only Latinos around were the busboys and dishwashers. At the November protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Miami, however, the union's top officials were treated as just another bunch of agitators among the global justice activists who converged on the city.

Some 2,500 police from 40 different law enforcement agencies-local, state and federal-carried out a militarized Homeland Security operation that included tanks, helicopters, pepper spray, rubber and plastic bullets, Taser stun guns and more. In a series of unprovoked attacks, cops roughed up and threatened dozens of workers-including retirees. Several union members were among the approximately 200 arrested during several days protests. And just to drive the message of intimidation home, a police helicopter buzzed the November 20 labor rally at the Bayfront Park Amphitheater just as AFL-CIO President John Sweeney began to speak.

Sweeney denounced the police in his speech and wrote to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Florida Governor Jeb Bush to criticize "massive and unwarranted repression of constitutional rights and civil liberties," adding that "our right to deliver [our] message in a peaceful environment was systematically thwarted by police in Miami." The Miami police's response: "The AFL-CIO should look inward and question the wisdom of inviting avowed troublemakers to participate in a rally."

Yet the hard line by Miami Police Chief John Tlmoney-who gained notoriety for preemptive arrests and cracking heads as Philadelphia's top cop at the Republican National Convention in 2000-only served to consolidate the unity forged in Miami between the unions and global justice activists. AFL/CIO Western Regional Director Ron Judd and South Florida AFL-CIO President Fred Frost went to the activists' welcome center in a rented warehouse in order to map out a common strategy that would allow both direct action and permitted protests. John Sweeney and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumca visited the next day.

On the day of the protest, however, the police used tear gas, pepper spray and concussion grenades to systematically drive protesters into the "green zone" near the union rally. There, rows of riot cops trained their rifles with plastic bullets at the heads of workers at point blank range. Buses of retirees were diverted from the area, and only half the workers got into the area. The march-led by 1,500 members of the United Steelworkers of America-led the way, along with big delegations from UNITE workers at the closed Pillowtex plant in Kannapolis, N.C. There were also big turnouts from the public-sector and health-care unions AFSCME and SEIU, plus delegations from unions rarely seen on political demonstrations, such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the National Association of Letter Carriers and more. Most of the direct action and other global justice groups joined the contingent as well. The cops bided their time until the crowd began to disperse, launching a new round of attacks as the sun set. When more than 100 activists held a solidarity sit-in on the sidewalk outside the police station the following day, about 60 more were arrested.

Understandably, the police violence in Miami has dominated discussion of the protests. Anyone who witnessed the crackdown and the injuries it caused will agree that someone could have been killed by Timoney's cops' "sub-lethal" force. But the Miami protests also gave insight into the process of radicalization in the American working class-and also to the type of politics and organization that will be needed to rebuild the unions and global justice activism, not as separate currents but as a single movement.

The potential for such unity was seen in the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, when the slogan "Teamsters and turtles together" symbolized the alliance between environmentalists, labor and a new layer of young left-wing activists. During the next big mobilization in April 2000-this time targeting the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, the AFL-CIO endorsed the protest but concentrated its fire on the effort to prevent China from getting normal trade relations. Right-winger Pat Buchanan was invited to address a rally by the Teamsters, and few union members joined the global justice protest. Another mobilization against the IMF and World Bank was scheduled for September 2001, but was canceled following the September 11 attacks.

Since then, labor has vacillated on questions of U.S. foreign policy. Lockstep support for the war on Afghanistan was followed by criticism over Iraq, then endorsement of the invasion by Sweeney despite the passage of numerous antiwar resolutions by union bodies. In August, the AFL-CIO Executive Council voted to take no position on foreign policy at all during the 2004 elections.

Nevertheless, Miami represented not just opposition to U.S. free trade policies, but inevitably challenged Washington's overall intervention in Latin America as well. The AFL-CIO Peoples' Gala featured speakers such as the Bolivian trade union leader Oscar Olivera and the Ecuadoran indigenous movement leader Blanca Chancoso and other speakers who denounced the FTAA as part of the long and bloody history of U.S. imperialism in the region. The event-which featured popular musicians on stage and jam-packed crowds around political literature tables in the back-recalled the excitement of the World Social Forum meetings in Brazil.

Nevertheless, some of the global justice activists in Miami were hesitant to embrace unity with organized labor- some because they expected the unions to try to curb their militancy, others because they perceived organized labor to be a conservative institution. Yet the police crackdown in Miami has posed point-blank the question of how the Left can mobilize to challenge institutions like the FTAA and the IMF. Direct action tactics to cause disruptions carried an element of surprise in Seattle that will never be seen again. And in the post-9/11 national security state, law enforcement authorities won't hesitate to use the pretext of "violent protests" to criminalize dissent-as the recent disclosure of FBI spying on protests makes dear.

To be effective, tactics have to be related to an overall strategy-in this case, to mobilize the largest numbers and broadest social forces around a common aim of challenging not only international financial and trade institutions, but the corporate agenda they represent. Such a strategy, in turn, depends on politics that can appeal to both those who are most directly affected and those who have the social power to fight back-the organized working class.

Some will doubtless argue that it is unrealistic to expect the unions-hammered by employers and committed to Democratic Party electoral politics-to become a driving force in the global justice movement. But Miami showed that young global justice activists aren't the only ones receptive to radical ideas and the notion of militant action. Just before the AFL-CIO forum featuring workers of the Americas, the Steelworkers very nearly got into a brawl when they tried to prevent aggressive cops from harassing a group of young activists. Once inside, they cheered workers from Brazil, Colombia and Nicaragua, shouted disapproval of the cops and heckled references to the war on Iraq. There were contradictions, to be sure: The union had invited the CEO of International Steel Group to address them in Miami and make common cause on steel tariffs, which have affected the Brazilian steelworkers represented at the forum. But the workers' internationalism was unmistakable and heartfelt. The labor forum was a long way from the days when labor's only slogans on trade were jingoistic appeals to "Buy American" and labor's ties to the State Department earned it the nickname, "AFL-CIA." One speaker, steelworker Allen Long-who lost his pension after 30 years at Bethlehem Steel when the company went bankrupt-summed up the mood: "We should be the Steelworkers of the Americas," he said, "not the United Steelworkers of America."

The next mobilization for global justice is set for April, when the IMF and the World Bank meet in Washington, D.C. In the meantime, Miami can serve as a starting point not just for strategizing for the protests themselves, but for building on the unity among workers, students and left-wing activists on a variety of local issues. For while the police crackdown in Miami may have been designed to intimidate and divide, it has instead pointed the way to build a more united-and more powerful-global justice movement.

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