Direct Action Reaction

Provoking a cop doesn't exactly improve working conditions for Latin America's poor

Memo to Miuccia Prada: Your fall line is just as well suited to a downtown Miami riot scene as a night out in clubland. That was the lesson Kulchur drew after borrowing one of the designer's military-style black sweaters and heading out to cover the recent Free Trade Area of the Americas fracas. Of course, given that Prada was a devoted member of the Italian Communist Party before launching her billion-dollar fashion company, it's hardly surprising she'd be a modern-day master of radical chic.

Still, after the third reporter in nearly as few minutes approached Kulchur for information on his fellow "anarchists," the joke began to wear thin.

"Are you planning another big march tomorrow?" asked one earnest Sun-Sentinel scribe, hovering around the "Convergence Center," a sprawling 23rd Street building some of the more militant FTAA protesters had transformed into their clubhouse.

FTAA trench warfare in downtown Miami
Jonathan Postal
FTAA trench warfare in downtown Miami

I'm not in charge here.

"Don't you want to publicize your message?" she wheedled.

A TV news producer stepped up. "Can I go inside?" he pleaded, angling for a peek at the center's media room.

I'm not in charge here.

"Oh, I get it. Anarchy means no leaders, right?"

Another TV newsman, flashing his press credentials, began hauling off a chair blocking the center's front door: "Is it okay if I borrow this?"

I'm not in charge here!

He stopped, tentatively asking, "Does the chair belong to the people?"


Our intrepid press corps weren't the only ones with some creative definitions of anarchism. There may have been only several hundred actual bandanna-masked anarchists (most of whom preferred to stand beneath the ideology of "direct action"), but each seemed to have his or her own take on the coming revolution. Some voiced the kind of abstract demands for corporate accountability and democratic participation that would sound familiar at a Howard Dean rally. Others issued strident calls to "smash capitalism" and establish an "anarcho-syndicalist" paradise in its ruins.

What united these adherents of direct action was a willingness to use the rest of the day's demonstrators -- an estimated 8000 AFL-CIO trade unionists and upward of 2000 anti-globalists from the crunchy-granola school of activism -- as cannon fodder. And you hardly needed to be an investigative journalist to discern this strategy.

"When people ask me 'What do you do?' I say I create crisis," Lisa Fithian proudly exclaimed to the New York Times on the eve of the FTAA gathering as she scouted Miami locations for the Convergence Center. "Because crisis is the edge where change is possible."

In other words, direct action is about sparking a dramatic confrontation with police, then making political hay out of the results. And on November 20 that's exactly what happened. After a few futile attempts to crash through police lines and tear down the fence protecting FTAA delegates inside the Inter-Continental Hotel, this several hundred-strong crew contented themselves with lobbing the odd bottle or slingshot-propelled marble through the air. When police upped the ante by beginning to clear Biscayne Boulevard and force people westward, our would-be Che Guevaras played along -- hurling more objects from behind makeshift barricades and setting fires in the street.

Once again, the police dutifully followed the script dangled in front of them: Many simply went nuts. There were countless instances of bystanders being pepper-sprayed and beaten. Other officers fanned out into Overtown, and in a novel change of pace, began arresting almost any group of white faces they could find -- from peaceful demonstrators who'd fled the Biscayne Boulevard melee to New Times's own Celeste Fraser Delgado. Miami Police Chief John Timoney even had his own Mayor Daley moment, promising a WFOR-TV reporter that if protesters "engage in lawful activity, we're gonna arrest them."

By nightfall, back at the Convergence Center, it was virtually impossible to find anyone who'd concede to having engaged in direct action. Instead the talk was about civil rights violations and "police state" brutality. The few who would admit that, well, perhaps a few objects were thrown, insisted on calling it "resistance" -- an act of self-defense in the face of larger state-sanctioned violence. And the setting of those fires? Again, legitimate resistance, a tactical maneuver.

In fact, as some protesters saw it, there were no anarchists in the street, just secret police. Tom Hayden, the fabled Sixties anti-Vietnam War leader turned Harvard academic, was on hand with a flock of his students. The violence captured on TV was "all a hoax," Hayden argued in an account for the Alternet news service. "Protesters seemed to skirmish with heavily armored Miami police," he wrote, "but nothing is as it seems this week. These 'anarchists' were undercover police officers whose mission was to provoke a confrontation.... I watched through a nearby hotel window as two undercover officers disguised as 'anarchists,' thinking they were invisible, hugged each other. They excitedly pulled Tasers and other weapons out of their camouflage cargo pants, and slipped away in an unmarked police van."

To be sure, there were at least two separate squads of police officers dressed up as anarchists -- or at least somebody's approximation of an anarchist. "They're easy to spot," offered "Noon," a Chicago-based demonstrator, after having acted as a volunteer medic throughout the day. "You can tell by their haircuts and their shoes. They all wear the same government-issued black sneakers."

Yet none of this explains away the hundreds of other direct-action advocates doing everything in their power to provoke the police into charging. They weren't all cops acting as agents provocateurs. And just what did our brave teenage warriors imagine the police would do if they'd actually managed to breach the fence and storm the Inter-Continental? Holster their pepper spray and stand aside?

If Hayden seems particularly aggrieved, it's because he certainly knows too well where this direct-action gambit leads. He himself moved from the nonviolent civil disobedience of the 1961 Freedom Rides to, in August 1968, calling for Chicago's antiwar crowds at the Democratic National Convention to refuse to be "good Germans," to march on the police and "turn this overheated military machine against itself. Let us make sure if blood flows, it flows all over the city." By 1970 Hayden was part of Berkeley's Red Family commune, leading target practice outings and preparing for guerrilla warfare. Lest we forget, the end result of all this was the election -- and the decisive reelection -- of Richard Nixon. As for the Vietnam War, it ground on into the Seventies until battlefield realities -- not the rifle-toting Red Family and their ilk -- forced a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

So what's the alternative? To hear our direct-action friends tell it, the choice is between an unbroken string of sweatshops from Tierra del Fuego to Toronto, or physically disrupting the FTAA. Not coincidentally, this is the same stark contrast U.S. trade reps offer (though they tend to portray those sweatshops in a slightly different light). And following that time-honored Sixties script, in the wake of the police's FTAA abuses, protesters of many persuasions are bandying about the Nazi card. Sad to say, even a few New Times reporters have been leveling the cry of "fascist" at Miami's men in blue.

In Latin America itself, however, there are plenty of principled activists who are charting a Third Way. Chile's current socialist government is filled with men and women who've suffered through the true fascism of the Pinochet era. They've dodged steel bullets -- not rubber ones. Yet their response to taking power is hardly to pull out the faded Che T-shirts from their youth. Rather they're hunkering down and grappling with the market economy in hopes of providing a better future for their children.

Likewise in Brazil, the presidential election of lifelong Marxist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his Workers Party has not resulted in the type of wholesale nationalization and class warfare that have plunged Venezuela into a stifling depression. Rather, Lula has tried to honestly build an economy that offers real hope and opportunity to his nation's poor -- and those of the entire region. Lula's rhetoric may be fiery, but his actions -- cutting bloated budgets, reforming unworkable public pensions, initially raising interest rates -- speak louder than any paeans to Fidel Castro.

Leftists in Miami can hold aloft signs that declare "Capitalism Cannot Be Reformed." Leftists in Chile and Brazil can't afford that kind of self-indulgent luxury. They know the difference between causing a ruckus and actually changing the world. For those still working out their middle-class guilt in public, for those still enraptured by the adrenaline rush of facing off against a policeman, they -- and Kulchur -- have a simple message: Get out of the way.

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