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Fragments of the Future: The FTAA in Miami

Rebecca Solnit

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The future was being modelled on both sides of the massive steel fence erected around the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami last Thursday. Inside, delegates from every nation in the western hemisphere but Cuba watered down some portions of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement and postponed deciding on others in an attempt to prevent a failure as stark as that of the World Trade Organization ministerial in Cancun two months before. Outside, an army of 2,500 police in full armour used a broad arsenal of weapons against thousands of demonstrators and their constitutional rights. “Not every day do you get tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, and hit in the face,” said Starhawk, a prominent figure in the global anti-capitalism movement, who experienced all three Thursday.
The sight of heavily armed police, acting on behalf of big business, has become common to anti-capitalist protests across the globe.
Since the Seattle surprise of 1999, it has become standard procedure to erect a miniature police state around globalization summits, and it’s hard not to read these rights-free zones as prefigurations of what full-blown corporate globalization might bring. After all, this form of globalization would essentially suspend local, regional, and national rights of self-determination over labour, environmental, and agricultural conditions in the name of the dubious benefits of the free market, benefits that would be enforced by unaccountable transnational authorities acting primarily to protect the rights of capital. At a labour forum held the day before the major actions, Dave Bevard, a laid-off union metalworker, referred to this new world order as “government of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations.”

The corporate agenda of NAFTA and related globalization treaties is demonstrated most famously by the case of MTBE, a gasoline additive that causes severe damage to human health and the environment. When California phased it out, the Canadian corporation Methanex filed a lawsuit demanding nearly a billion dollars in compensation from the USA government for profit lost because of the ban. Under NAFTA rules, corporations have an absolute right to profit with which local laws must not interfere. Poisoning the well is no longer a crime; stopping the free flow of poison is.

The FTAA, modelled after NAFTA, was originally intended to create a borderless trade zone that would encompass the whole hemisphere (except, of course, for Cuba). That globalization is an economic disaster for many existing industries is so apparent that, while paying lip service to a borderless economy, both Presidents Clinton and Bush have attempted to protect the USA steel industry from cheap foreign imports, though neither has done anything about the export of former union jobs to the maquilladoras of Mexico (and now those jobs are fleeing Mexico for yet cheaper venues in the infamous “race to the bottom,” while more and more white-collar USA jobs, from programming to data processing, are also being exported).

And it’s the fact that even the richest nations ? the United States and the European Union ? won’t live up to their own rhetoric of capitalism without borders that trips up the globalization agendas they pursue. Both maintain high agricultural subsidies that undermine the ability of poorer nations to generate export-crop income or in some cases ? as with corn in Mexico ? even to compete successfully domestically. NAFTA, which will be a decade old this New Year’s, devastated hundreds of thousands of Mexican subsistence farmers. Florida’s citrus industry would be devastated by tariff-free Brazilian imports, and small Kentucky tobacco farmers are going out of business because of developing-world imports of the crop. The question now is not whether globalised commodities are profitable but who profits, and the answer is usually the already rich, while the rest get poorer.
Oscar Olivera, from the Cochabamba Federation of Factory Workers and the Coalition in Defence of Water and Life, speaking last week at the People's Gala for Global Justice, Miami.
The Clinton administration genuinely believed in the corporate internationalism that the word ‘globalization’ stands for, and Clinton first launched the FTAA talks nine years ago. If there’s one thing to be grateful to the Bush junta for, it’s their commitment to a narrowly defined national self-interest that makes their pursuit of globalization pretty indistinguishable from old-fashioned colonialism: you open your borders to our products and principles, perhaps after a little arm-twisting, and then we’ll pretty much do whatever we want. This is much the same screw-the-world-community policy that made Bush and Co. disregard the UN Security Council and world opinion to pursue the current war in Iraq with only a few allies. The solution to the collapse in Cancun and stalemate in Miami will be pursuit of a similarly splintering agenda ? bilateral trade agreements, mostly with nations the USA can bully. As the WTO was collapsing, the USA was already turning to the FTAA, and as it becomes evident that the FTAA would flop, the USA has stepped up its pursuit of bilateral trade agreements with Latin American, southern African and other nations.

Cancun was a watershed victory because more than twenty nations in the global south, led by Brazil, stood up to the USA and the EU, urged on by the activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which were part of the continuum of conversation there. In Miami there was no such continuum and no exhilarating victory, but there is room enough for those who oppose corporate globalization to continue resisting it. The FTAA conference dissolved a day early, having only achieved what has been dubbed “FTAA lite.” This version allows member nations to withdraw from specific aspects of the FTAA agreement and otherwise weakens its impact. Brazil, the economic giant in the south, had objected to two provisions: protection of foreign investment and intellectual property rules; FTAA lite let Brazil win on those fronts. As Lori Wallach of the NGO Public Citizen put it, “All that was agreed was to scale back the FTAA’s scope and punt all of the hard decisions to an undefined future venue so as to not make Miami the Waterloo of the FTAA.”

The War at Home

It’s popular to say that corporate globalization is war by other means, but what went down in Miami during the FTAA skipped the part about other means. And though it was most directly ? thanks to clubs, pellet guns, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and other weapons ? an assault on the bodies of protestors, it was first an assault against the right of the people peaceably to assemble and other first amendment rights, a dramatic example of how hallowed American rights are being dismantled in the name of the war on terrorism.

For months beforehand, Police Chief John Timoney ? engineer of the coup against constitutional rights at the 2000 Republican National Convention when he headed Philadelphia’s police force ? had portrayed protestors as terrorists and the gathering in Miami as a siege of the city. Much of the money for militarizing Miami came, appropriately enough, from an $8.5 million rider tacked onto the $87 billion spending bill for the war in Iraq. Miami will pay directly, however, both in revenue lost from shutting the city down and, presumably, for activists’ police brutality and civil-rights-violation lawsuits.

Perhaps the silliest example of the paranoiac reaction to the arrival of protestors was the removal of all coconuts from downtown Miami palm trees, lest activists throw them at the authorities ? whether after first shaking or scaling the trees was not made clear. Every outdoor trashcan had also apparently been removed from downtown; second-guessing terrorists is an exercise whose creativity knows no bounds.

One of the most explicit ways the FTAA policing was modelled after “the war on terror” abroad was the police decision to “embed” reporters. While a number of reporters ? looking dorky in their borrowed helmets ? joined the Miami cops, protestors invited the press to join the other side as well, and many did. (Some got tear-gassed, and reported on it.)

One aim of the corporate-media strategy has been to desensitise the general public to the presence of militarised police forces on global city streets.

One aim of the corporate-media strategy has been to desensitise the general public to the presence of militarised police forces on global city streets.

Many activists in the streets said that one of the functions of this Miami police mobilization was to adjust the American public to the militarization of public space and public life, to a John-Ashcroft-style America. It may also have been an attempt to condition police to functioning as a military force against the civil society they’re supposed to serve. The city of Miami and a few nearby communities passed emergency laws banning basic civil liberties such as the right of assembly, laws that could easily be challenged ? but not before the FTAA was over. Activists were already talking about what kind of police state will take hold of Manhattan during the Republican Convention next year. And civil libertarians are taking note of the way dissent of every kind is being reconfigured as terrorism.

The War of the Possible Worlds

Thursday, November 20, was like a day out of the science fiction movies I grew up on, the ones where the world we know is in ruins and guerrilla war rages in the rubble. Central Miami had been totally shut down. Stores and offices were closed, nothing was being bought or sold, no one was driving, the Metromover elevated rail system was locked up, few went to work that day. The FTAA negotiators from the 34 nations of the western hemisphere were sequestered in the tower of the Intercontinental Hotel, and occasionally I’d see some of the hotel people, tiny on the roof of that skyscraper, watching the turbulence below. We must have looked like ants. Helicopters droned overhead, reportedly using high-tech surveillance equipment to pinpoint activists for arrest or assault by ground forces.

Thursday morning the city was abandoned but for those 2,500 cops and an approximately equivalent number of activists. We’ve seen the world Miami was that day in movies that range from The Terminator to Tank Girl to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Maybe the earliest and most sombre version can be found in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, in which humanity has diverged into two species: the bestial subterranean Morlocks who prey on the pretty lamblike Eloi. We had moments of being Tank Girl and moments of being lambs to the slaughter. Friday afternoon, Eddie Yuen, who’s written about the anti-globalization movement since Seattle, commented to me that at these anti-globalization summits, “There are laboratories of dissent and laboratories of repression, and right now the laboratories of repression are dominant.”
The vast majority of the hundreds of people beaten-up by police at anti-capitalist protests are peaceful concerned citizens.
The police ? except for a squadron of bare-kneed bicycle cops ? were in full riot gear: black helmets with visors, black body armour that protected limbs, crotches and torso, combat boots. All seemed to carry long wooden clubs and many had the rifles that fire “sub-lethal” rubber bullets, beanbags and other projectiles capable of causing severe injury ? and even death. Four years before, in Seattle, I had seen the dystopian future: it was a Darth Vader cop guarding the ruins of a shattered Starbucks; now there were 2,500 of them and they weren’t guarding, they were marching. As Starhawk commented, “It wasn’t the worst I’ve ever seen, compared to Israel and Palestine, and Genoa [where Italian police engaged in bloody assault and torture against 300,000 activists come to protest the G8 summit in the summer of 2001]. But there was a quality of sheer brute calculated fascism that’s hard to equal.”

Some activists were picked off or hassled long before they got to the site of the early-morning demonstration. More police were waiting for us when we got there, ranks of cops, two or three thick, blocking off streets, clubs clutched ready for action. Periodically they would move in and herd us in yet another direction, and they never let us get near the steel fence that steelworkers shouting against the FTAA had marched past the afternoon before. Sometimes they would come out clubbing and shooting. Local television claimed that activists threw smoke bombs at the police, but what they videotaped was activists lobbing back the tear-gas canisters that had been fired at us.

At midmorning, when it looked like they might surround us and engage in wholesale arrests, I escorted a non-citizen out of the last possible exit from the scene. Another member of our group, a professor with a bandage around his head ? he’d been clubbed from behind and bled profusely ? joined us, and we stayed on the sidelines until the permitted march of perhaps 10,000 union members came by at noon on its way through the abandoned city and then back to the safety zone of a rented arena.

As the unions dispersed, the violence resurfaced. Puffs of tear-gas rose up from the crowd in the distance. The helicopters roared overhead, the only machine sound on that day when cars had been shut out of the central city but for the occasional police vans and buses bringing reinforcements or hauling away the arrested. What looked like an amphibious tank rolled around in front of the steel fence. Snatch squads moved into the crowd to seize individuals. A few vultures had circled the skyscrapers in the morning, and by mid-afternoon there must have been fifty of them, a flock of black carrion-eaters soaring sometimes above, sometimes below the level of the helicopters.
Is a world without oppression by big business, where the will of ordinary people is taken into account, possible without a revolution in advanced-capitalist societies?
The police rushed the crowd again, becoming so violent that the activists splintered into small groups fleeing north into Overtown, an African-American neighbourhood of lush vacant lots, boarded-up buildings, affable people out on the streets, and evident destitution. Sirens screamed past us and small groups were pounced upon or hunted further from downtown. My group was carrying a number of huge puppets that had been used in the morning’s procession and, weary, we came to stop under a row of street trees where we wouldn’t be so visible to the helicopters hovering low for surveillance. Just this kind of hiding and being hunted made it clear that what was going on was warfare of a sort. This day, more than a hundred would be injured, twelve hospitalized, and more than 200 arrested.

Later that night people would be pulled out of their cars at gunpoint or stopped on the street for no particular reason ? not just the young but ministers, middle-aged NGO workers, anyone and everyone. And the next day, more than fifty more activists were arrested in a peaceful vigil outside the jail, where many of the previously arrested languished. “They were surrounded by riot police and ordered to disperse,” reported organizers. “As they did, police opened fire and blocked the streets preventing many from leaving. We are now receiving reports from people being released or calling from jail that there is excessive brutality, sexual assault and torture going on inside. People of colour, queer and transgender prisoners are particularly being targeted.” Sunday many of those arrested were released.

The visionary slogan of the anti-globalization movement is “Another world is possible.” This time around some of the steelworkers had the slogan emblazoned across the backs of their royal-blue union t-shirts. What we don’t talk about so much is that many worlds are possible, and some of them are hell.

Published Wednesday, November 26th, 2003 - 01:16pm GMT

Article courtesy of AlterNet

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