It is not comforting to watch our elected officials squirm in fear, and make no mistake -- the Miami City Commission is scared right now. Johnny Winton, Art Teele, Joe Sanchez, and the others are twisting in their seats, worried that the city won't be able to control the throngs of protesters planning to come here during the Free Trade Area of the Americas meetings, which begin in earnest in two weeks.
Conventional wisdom has it that some of the protesters will arrive with mayhem in their hearts. They might overturn cars and smash windows, as happened in Seattle in 1999. Then again, they might not. But our elected leaders are so frightened they're about to pass an ordinance that would make it illegal to possess a wide range of innocuous objects while attending public events -- namely parades and protests.
If approved by the city commission on November 13, the ordinance will be permanent. When first proposed last month, the law was designed to apply only during the FTAA meetings. But free-speech advocates rightly pointed out this would be unconstitutional: The government would be creating a law specific to this one gathering of FTAA protesters and consequently would infringe on their message. So commissioners were forced to drop that idea.
Now if the city passes the law, we'll be stuck with it. Perfectly innocent events like Calle Ocho and the Goombay festival would be affected. "My guess is that police are not going to enforce this ordinance at the Miami Book Fair," says Max Rameau with the Miami Workers Center. He's right. And that means police would selectively enforce the law. Same problem. The city would become a big fat target for lawsuits.
Specifically the ordinance would prohibit all signs, "unless such sign is constructed solely of a cloth, paper, flexible or cardboard material no greater than one-quarter inch in thickness." The handle for the sign can be no bigger than a quarter-inch thick by two inches wide. And of course it can't have sharp ends.
Here's another provision: "It shall be unlawful for any person to carry or possess any length of metal, plastic, or other similar hard or stiff material." Any length? Any hard material? The mind boggles. Also balloons can't be filled with anything other than air, helium, or oxygen. Water guns are out too.
There's more. "No person may carry or possess with the intent to unlawfully use any materials or substances or pieces of hard materials or substances that are capable of being thrown or projected." Repeat that: materials or substances that are capable of being thrown or projected. They must have worked late into the night to render such specific language.
Much of this ridiculousness was eloquently explained to commissioners at their most recent meeting on October 16. As activists from Palm Beach County beat drums and walked on stilts outside city hall, one of them told those inside that he and his friends needed to use large puppets and be up on stilts to effectively communicate their message because the protest area was so far from where the trade ministers would be gathering.
"This ordinance criminalizes objects whether they are being used innocently or not," noted Jeanne Baker, Florida president of the American Civil Liberties Union; she warned that the commission was invoking "the law of unintended consequences -- the King Mango Strut and color guards would be affected."
When it was pointed out that stilts would be illegal under the ordinance, Teele, who has declared himself a supporter of the FTAA's goals, voiced concern. Stilts are an important part of Bahamian street festivals like Goombay. "I cannot support any ordinance that outlaws clearly innocent activities," he intoned. But just when common sense seemed to be taking hold, Teele ordered the city attorney's office to amend the ordinance and decriminalize stilts.
Winton launched into a monologue of tortured logic, along the lines of how he'd protested the Vietnam War but gone on to make money, which would probably make him the enemy in the eyes of the protesters -- or something like that. He hated having to support such an ordinance, but "very bad people" were planning on coming to Miami and making trouble, so his hand was forced.
Miami's would-be protest law is about as moronic as Winton's harangue.
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Commissioners should trust the laws already on the books -- and there are plenty. Anyone who throws anything in a threatening way can be detained for assault. In addition police already have a powerful tool in "probable cause." If they see someone gripping a rock (or a golf ball for that matter) or carrying a bag of such items, they can stop that person in the belief he is about to throw the object(s) with the intention of inflicting harm. It's fruitless to make the golf ball illegal; there'll always be something else to throw. Besides, if the protests get out of hand, police could impose a curfew.
I'm no patsy for the protesters, who have excoriated me for a column I wrote about plans, posted on Internet sites, to "physically disrupt" the meetings and to form a "padded bloc" of people who could withstand blows as they push past police. I was labeled a reckless sensationalist.
Potato. Po-tah-toe. One person's recklessness is another's effort to inform readers of what may lie ahead. That doesn't mean I'm in favor of herding hundreds of protesters into holding pens or creating stupid laws that would curtail constitutional rights and be impossible to enforce. At the same time, I don't look forward to seeing a bunch of self-righteous activists plot assault under the guise of global justice.
On a recent Monday night I watched the Miami-Dade Police Department go through maneuvers on the deserted streets of downtown Miami. A phalanx of cops decked out in black helmets, body armor, shields, tear-gas guns, and truncheons marched up Third Street to a group of mock protesters. It was unnerving and disorienting, a scene suited to more desperate places. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad the cops are practicing and am hopeful the discipline will keep them from overreacting during the FTAA. But the exercise highlighted exactly why the city commission should not pass the protester ordinance. As a nation we've already succumbed too much to fear. No one felt it necessary to enact draconian laws after the riots of the Eighties and Nineties, after the Elian Gonzalez melee, or following the many Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez protests. And it's not necessary now.