FTAA Protesters Say Miami Police Violating 1st Amendment Rights

StoryNovember 18, 2003
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More than 20,000 protesters are expected to descend on Miami where trade ministers from 34 Caribbean and Latin American countries are convening for free trade talks. We go to Miami to host a debate between the Miami Police Department and the ACLU and we hear from Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript Police arrested five people opposed to the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas in Miami Saturday for obstructing the sidewalk and refusing to clear out after repeated requests.

The arrests were made two days before the official start of sessions in the free-trade talks, which began yesterday and will continue through to Friday.

Deputy trade ministers from 34 countries convened in Miami over the weekend to craft the world’s largest trade bloc among all countries of the Americas, excluding Cuba. Security forces deployed bomb-sniffing dogs, offshore patrols, metal detectors, fences and more to keep protesters away.

Miami police said they’re ready to handle more than 20,000 demonstrators expected in the city this week. Activist groups include environmentalists, union activists and anarchists who reject moves toward free trade as a corporate grab and a means to exploit labor.

On Thursday, the Miami City Commission unanimously adopted an ordinance to bar protesters from carrying glass bottles, water balloons, pieces of wood more than one-fourth-inch thick and any hard metal or plastic objects. Critics say the law is targeted specifically at opponents of the FTAA, overly vague and a violation of 1st Amendment rights of free speech.


AMY GOODMAN: Joining us right now is Lida Rodriguez-Taseff a lawyer and president of the American Civil Liberties Union of greater Miami; and we are also joined on the phone by Amy Salas Jacobson, who is public information officer for the Miami Police Department.

Well, can we start off with Amy Salas Jacobson of the Miami Police Department. How are you preparing for these protests?

AMY SALAS JACOBSON: Good Morning. Well, we are aware that there’s to be large group that’s going to be coming down for this particular event. Actually, a lot of different groups are going to be participating. We do have police presence, and we are speaking to our officers. Everybody is aware of that.

The majority of the people that are coming down to Miami are simply out here to express their views. And we don’t expect to have any incidents with these groups. But we are aware that there’s a smaller group in comparison, which has already made it public what their intentions are, and that includes simply destroying property and interrupting the events, not only the FTAA events, but also the different protests, the demonstration events that will take place.

AMY GOODMAN: Lida Rodriguez-Taseff of the American Civil Liberties Union, what are your concerns?

LIDA RODRIGUEZ-TASEFF: Good Morning. We are very concerned about the fact that what is occurring here is a pattern that is beginning of preemptive arrests, of arresting people that are doing nothing wrong, simply for obstructing the sidewalk.

I’m curious as to when the last time that this police department has used the obstructing the sidewalk statutes extensively.

I think that this arises from the fact that there’s a pattern here; and the pattern is that the City of Miami Police Department has taken a very clear position on the substance of the FTAA.

The police department has taken the position: FTAA, good. Anything that opposes FTAA, bad.

And that is exactly what the root cause of why we’re here. If the police department had remained completely neutral on the issue, it would be clear that it not be engaging in these arrests of people who are not violent, who are not doing anything wrong, and that we could go forward with the hope that this police department would do — as Amy is saying, which is allegedly would protect the rights of all.

It’s not going to happen, and the reason it’s not going to happen is because this police department is speaking in favor of the FTAA, and that’s not the police’s job.

AMY GOODMAN: Amy Salas Jacobson, of the Miami Police Department, I think some were surprised to hear that the $87 billion bill that was signed off on by Congress that was supposed to go to Iraq and Afghanistan, that $8 million of it was going to Miami police to deal with these protests.

Can you talk about where it is going?

AMY SALAS JACOBSON: Well, there is monies, different things that are being done as far as for security purposes. So, obviously, some of that money is going to be used towards the security concerns and the fact that we are going to be present and we are going to have police presence for the event.

I can’t really get into specifics as to all of it, because that has to do with logistics and different areas. But, yes, part of it is obviously because of the fact that we’re going to be here and we’re going to be present and we’re going to be insuring the safety, not only of the people that are participating in the event, but also of the people that are coming down to simply express themselves. And that requires a lot of police obviously, because apart from having to be in Miami, we are also going to maintain services throughout the city. You know, the city doesn’t stop functioning just because we’re having the FTAA this week. So, we got to make sure that everything is taken care of.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone by Lori Wallach, Director of Public Citizens Global Trade Watch. We are dealing with separate issues here. One is how the police are dealing with the protests. The other is what are the issues. But so often with these anti-globalization protests, the two issues merge. Can you talk about that, Lori Wallach?

LORI WALLACH: The reason why there are people here, some of whom have taken two and three-day bus rides from the midwest and the northern part of the east coast to come to Miami is because they’re motivated to try to stop FTAA because it’s an expansion of NAFTA. We have had a ten year track record of NAFTA destroying good jobs, lowering wages, ripping up the rural lifestyle and economy in Mexico. In all three of the NAFTA countries, NAFTA has been a disaster for most people. So people are coming from not only from all over the country but from all over the hemisphere to say, we’re for partnerships in the hemisphere, but we’re not going to allow a NAFTA expansion.

The problem is the process of negotiation of FTAA, the 31-country NAFTA expansion being discussed here is so secretive and so closed that the only time there’s any way for the public to voice its concern and opposition to the current plan is in protests. And unfortunately, the–if ask you me–the overreaction, near hysteria caused here in Miami by the police, slideshows, showing dangerous terroristic looking figures as the opposition to the FTAA and by the mainstream media has resulted in what is an incredibly oppressive feel and frankly, the show of police force is more likely to cause a problem than to resolve it.

I mean, last night, large caravans of 20 police cars, all with sirens on were zig-zagging through town, just showing that they were there, columns of horses trotting around, and it’s two days before the meeting. No one is even here yet! It’s — so, you know, it’s quite an oppressive feel and I guess that goes hand in hand with what the FTAA is substantively about, but it’s the substance that brought people here.

LIDA RODRIGUEZ-TASEFF: If I may add with respect to that. I think Lori is absolutely right. One of the concerns that we have is that what is happening here with the passage of an overly broad ordinance that you were talking about earlier that is designed and was tailor-made just for this protest, that in its first draft had a sunset provision on Thanksgiving Day, it would have been… The ordinance would have been off books once the protesters left is that you have you have a sense in the eyes of the protesters, and in the eyes of the people that are coming here that the police have already decided what — what the police thinks of them, and it decided what it thinks of them not because they throw a rock or bottle or because they assaulted anyone, but simply because of the position that they take, and this is really crucial. I am going to hammer on this again. I think it’s very important. Police departments are not supposed to be in the business of carrying out the political whim of politicians. And yet, this police department is doing exactly that.

In the very materials that Lori was talking about, and in a brochure that has the police department’s logo and a letter from the police chief, the question is asked, what is NAFTA?

And the answer is a one-sided, very biased answer that shows that the police department has taken a position.

And the answer is: the mission of the FTAA is to preserve and strengthen the democratic institutions of the western hemisphere and on and on and on.

I will tell you that that’s a position that some people would completely disagree with.

When you have a police department in the business of carrying out the political wishes of the politicians, you have a recipe for disaster because that police department is already trained to disregard the views of other people, and to punish people and arrest them not because they have done anything wrong, but because of their views.

AMY GOODMAN: Amy Salas Jacobson of the Miami Police Department, your response to Lida Rodriguez-Taseff from the ACLU.

AMY SALAS JACOBSON: I have worked with Lida in the past and she knows that we have always gone out of our way to try to make events happen for everyone and to try to satisfy the needs, but as a department, as a police department, as a you know, as a resident in the area, we can’t ignore the fact that there is this group, and this is not something we invented, this is not something that we are pushing, but, yes, the media is portraying these small groups. And you see the events that occurred in Seattle, and the events that occurred in Mexico and in so many other places where the FTAA and other organizations have presented themselves, but as a police department, and as a police officer, actually, my job is to insure that not just the people inside of the Intercontinental and the Hyatt, but the people outside at the amphitheater, at Bayfront Park, that all of those people are safe, that if anybody needs help, we get to them.

So, ultimately, the goal of this police department is 100% to make sure that the people that come here are safe. Now, everybody has obviously their interpretations, and their opinions about what’s going on, but I can tell you, as a police officer, we have had a lot of training. We have had numerous meetings. We recognize that these groups that are coming have an opinion. They have their views, and they have the right to come out here and express themselves. I obviously cannot go out there and express my views while I’m working because I have a job. And my job is the safety of everybody that is there, regardless of what my opinion is. That’s something that we drill into the police officers in this department. Now, obviously, there’s going to be arrests throughout the event. I’m not going to tell you that’s not going to happen, but our goal is not to, you know, interrupt what’s going on, the events taking place. Our goal is to simply maintain the order throughout this week, and to make sure that everything goes smoothly. Not just for FTAA, but also for the people that are coming out here to say what they feel and express themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: How many police do you have out on the streets?

AMY SALAS JACOBSON: We have numerous officers on the street. This is not just a city of Miami event. We have every local agency participating. Part of the reason for that is the fact that these smaller groups can very well go into different parts of town. You know, they don’t necessarily have to come to downtown Miami. They could just go into the Coral Gables area. They could go into Miami Beach.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you working with police departments from other places in the country, for example, like Seattle, like the NYPD, like the Philadelphia Police? Your police chief is from Philadelphia.

AMY SALAS JACOBSON: We have obviously dealt with them, because they already had the event. Like any other thing, you try to get feedback from these departments to see what went wrong, what could be done differently, what — you know, you try to learn from the experiences that other departments have had.

AMY GOODMAN: Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, what about the issue of undercover police officers gathering intelligence on protesters, an issue that has become a major one at other protests.

LORI WALLACH: Amy, before we go to that, can I just jump in…

AMY GOODMAN: Lori Wallach.

LORI WALLACH: I want to go to the idea of learning lessons, because what I am seeing here is: no lessons have been learned. For instance, having been in Seattle and Quebec City, the real fighting started after police provocation, after heavy-handed police — after setting up conditions that allowed huge, sweeping arrests and crackdowns.

The city of Miami, the county, have been going out of their way to try to dissuade protesters from coming here, denying public space for camping, creating a huge housing crisis. lots of people are coming. They have no play to stay. The city and the county has not only not been helpful, but they have gone out of their way to basically try to scare people away, and when it didn’t work, they’re just not going to do anything about it. They’re going to create a huge crisis where people can get arrested for loitering at the same time that the city won’t give people any place to stay. Yet by inviting the FTAA ministerial to happen here, they have invited all of us to come here and protest.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the issue of churches and other spaces that were making space available for people coming in to voice their opinion. We’re being told that there would be fire inspections, that they would be carefully watched, causing a number of them to pull out?

AMY SALAS JACOBSON: That the zoning would be changed.

LORI WALLACH: That did in fact happen. That did in fact happen. We have reports from churches who are — we were trying to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the churches because of this, because they were threatened. And the churches are so scared of having to close down their sanctuaries that we have not been able to go forward. But that is happening. Not only that, but the other things that are happening include police officers going to local businesses and forcing them to take down any literature that in any way raises questions about the FTAA. One police officer in fact told several businesspeople and we have interviewed these people. One city of Miami police officer told several businesspeople that they needed to take those materials down because they spoke ill of the FTAA and they spoke ill of the city of Miami Police Department, and that that would not be tolerated. This is the climate that we have created. Amy talks about Seattle, but as Lori was pointing out, they’re not teaching the — the police department is really not learning the lessons of Seattle. What happened in Seattle is very well documented. Somebody in the Clinton administration gave the order to clear the streets because the protesters had been sitting on the streets, blocking intersections, peacefully. The only way to get them up was to arrest them. Logically, arrests would have taken hours. Rather than taking the hours necessary to arrest them, the police took out their sticks and starting beating them.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we are going to have to call it a day. I want to thank our guests for joining us.

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