The topic of the weekend gathering at Pittsburgh's Thomas Merton Center two weeks ago was the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Miami this November. But those who showed up weren't interested in tariffs and treaties. They were getting ready to rumble.
"We just want to disrupt the meetings as much as possible," reports Marie Skoczylas, the Merton Center's project coordinator. Among the working groups in Pittsburgh: a primer on "Disrupting the FTAA Ministerial" and a brainstorming session about putting together a "padded bloc" of people who could break through police lines. Vegan food was provided.
When representatives from 34 Western Hemisphere nations (except Cuba) gather in Miami on November 17-21 to negotiate trade pacts that would unite North and South America as one vast commercial market, there promise to be street demonstrations the likes of which Miami hasn't seen since the 1980 McDuffie riots. Police crowd estimates look more like guesswork: somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000 protesters, based on similar events in Seattle, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Only a fraction of them are expected to be the hard-core radicals who will don motorcycle helmets, body armor, and protective shields, but they will be organized, well equipped, and experienced -- veterans from other cities where protests turned into street battles. The word about Miami is spreading far and wide. It took Google .86 seconds to produce more than 38,000 hits for a "stop FTAA" search. And many of the Websites promoting the message are not aimed at potbellied, Birkenstocked stoners who plan on singing protest songs.
"This November tens of thousands of people will travel to Miami, Florida, for one of the most important global-justice protests since the WTO meetings of 1999. The Free Trade Area of the Americas is a proposed treaty that will bind the hands of all striving for a more just world," the Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG) declares on its Website (www.organizepittsburgh.org). "The goal of the global-justice movement in Miami must be to materially disrupt the summit to such a degree that it is impossible to continue any negotiation."
The object of their rage is a series of meetings among diplomats whose goal is to hammer out agreements that will ease trade restrictions throughout the Western Hemisphere. Proponents say a new FTAA will stimulate the economies of developing countries, raise the standard of living for everyone, and thus promote stability and democracy. Opponents call it "NAFTA on crack" (referring to a similar arrangement among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico). They claim it will make it easier for corporations to relocate industry to places where wages are low, workers' rights are minimal, and environmental regulations are lax or nonexistent.
Luis Lauredo, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and executive director of Miami FTAA, the local group organizing the event, says he understands those concerns. "They have the right to protest. Free and open dialogue and peaceful demonstrations are allowed and planned for," he relates. "But the right to express your views stops at the point where it infringes on the rights of others."
The trade ministers, Lauredo explains, will have the same amount of time to meet with environmental, human-rights, and labor advocates as they will with representatives from big business. "We've given them equal time," he stresses. "That to me is the most effective way, and it's perplexing why they [opponents] wouldn't put their energies into that process."
But the people who worry Lauredo aren't interested in formal processes. They'd rather read Bodyhammer, an Internet booklet (www.devo.com/sarin bodyhammer.html) with instructions on fashioning shields and other protective gear out of everything from garbage-can lids to inner-tube tires. "Homemade chain mail is nice, but too costly and time-consuming to construct for the average protester.... Life-preserver vests work wonderfully as a strong padding over your chest and back." These are the same determined activists who descended on the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000 (where the police chief in charge of security was John Timoney, now Miami's chief). There they unveiled a tactic dubbed the "sleeping dragon," in which individuals linked arms through PVC piping wrapped in chicken wire. As they spread out they created undulating lines of bodies police could not easily round up. Police were forced to subdue protesters by carefully cutting through the piping, a process complicated by the chicken wire.
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This year, as part of its strategy to literally prevent FTAA delegates from meeting, the Pittsburgh Organizing Group has put out a "call to action" for "padded blocs" -- throngs of protesters insulated under enough material to withstand blows from police batons. "We came to the conclusion that our best chance of materially disrupting the summit lies in a Padded Bloc (a self-contained contingent of people protected from police violence through the use of padding, shields, banners, and/or other materials). This contingent would take action with a determination to disrupt the meeting, protecting our bodies from the forces of state oppression." The padded blocs would be pushed from behind by thousands of protesters until they broke through police lines, and when breached, it would be like a downed fence at a Rolling Stones concert -- the crowd would rush in. (POG members declined an interview via e-mail.)
The City of Miami, which will host the summit at downtown's Hotel Inter-Continental, hopes to seal off strategic areas by means of special fencing leased from Nashville-based Premier Global Production. The ProActConcept barricades, as they're known, were designed to control crowds at concerts, but they can be configured in double panels like "mini-cages," as one Premier employee describes them. The company's Website www.premierglobalproduction.com boasts that protesters cannot hurl objects such as "ball bearings, pucks, golf balls, and marbles" through the fence's metal mesh. "ProActConcept barricades cannot be pulled over, taken apart, or thrown like other barricades," the Website states. "Their design makes scaling them nearly impossible." But just in case, special platforms on the defensive side allow police to turn back anyone who might try climbing over. This kind of security comes at a price: $24 per linear foot. Police requested, and the city commission approved, leasing about 5000 feet of the fencing.
Police are not talking publicly about other security measures, although they are aware of the padded bloc plans and sent officers to Mexico to assess security measures at World Trade Organization talks there. Lauredo will only say that local, state, and federal agencies are working together. In Philadelphia three years ago, Chief Timoney used a beefed-up bike patrol to maneuver around and herd crowds. Cops were also tutored to ignore verbal abuse from protesters attempting to provoke them. Both stratagems are likely to be used in Miami.
Should be fun.