Miami’s Mixed Bag: Solidarity and Misdirection

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The week of action began promisingly. About 100 young, white global justice activists from throughout North America united with a coalition of poor people of color for a 34-mile march from Fort Lauderdale to Miami Nov. 16-18. Walking together, eating together and sleeping together under a large tent for three days, members of the diverse group linked our individual struggles to the common battle against corporate globalization and its most recent incarnation: the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Colorful banners, signs and puppets illustrated effects of and alternatives to free-trade imperialism. Marchers handed informative fliers to spectators who stopped to watch the chanting, singing, drumming and flag-twirling procession. Police turned out in full force, but there were no arrests or incidents, and media coverage was overwhelmingly positive.  

Rallies in downtown Miami two days later contained many of those components — puppets, bright placards, drum corps, radical cheerleaders, high energy and some of the same people — but little of the focus or benefit of the People’s March. Thousands of anti-capitalists assembled Nov. 20 with no obvious goal other than to protest the FTAA summit happening at the excessively guarded InterContinental Hotel. We faced well-prepared riot police, who fired tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and beanbags at the predominantly non-violent crowd and chased and surrounded clusters of peaceful protestors. More than 100 people were arrested that day.  

The People’s March could have served as an inspiring prelude to a week of amazing activities celebrating broad resistance to corporate globalization. Instead, as a result of police repression, poor planning and undue emphasis on mass mobilization, the march was the highlight of the week, and the much-hyped day of action Nov. 20 was a bust.  

Weeks after Nov. 20, white, political punks such as myself felt frustrated and disappointed with the way events went down in Miami. As we nursed our physical and psychological wounds, we also started questioning our strategies, particularly the strategy of organizing large-scale direct action and protests. When we acknowledge what didn’t work in Miami and what did, we will recognize where we should go from here: away from reactive, confrontational tactics and toward proactive, localized campaigns in solidarity with oppressed peoples around the world.  

Past anti-globalization mobilizations in North America have utilized direct action (DA) to stop or delay official meetings. In Seattle in November 1999 and in Washington, D.C., in April 2000, activists locked down at strategic intersections to prevent World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund delegates from arriving or leaving. In Quebec in April 2001, protestors pulled down parts of the fence erected to keep them away from the FTAA meeting place. It was only natural, then, that people organizing to protest the most recent round of free-trade talks would expect to incorporate direct action into their plans.  

Direct action was not used to good effect in Miami, though, and actions that don’t actually qualify as DA – such as shutting down a city street just for the sake of shutting it down – were billed as such. Since the ‘Battle in Seattle’ four years ago birthed a new U.S. protest era, the term direct action has been highly misused as a synonym for marches, protests and sit-ins. Actually, DA is a means of achieving a prescribed goal without an intermediary (government, city council, NGO). DA is usually performed by an affinity group composed of about five trusted friends. Growing organic food in a community garden instead of petitioning a grocery store to carry organic produce is an example of DA.  

Autonomy and flexibility are two benefits of direct action, but activists in Miami nullified these advantages by announcing beforehand their intention to engage in DA on Nov. 20. Hence, cops were tipped off to the possibility of DA and acted to stop it before it started. The mass gathering downtown was also weakened as police harassed and terrorized even those with no intentions of breaking windows, spray painting or tearing down the security fence.  

Two thousand militarized police descended on downtown Miami on Nov. 20 and spilled over into the impoverished neighborhoods of Overtown and Wynwood. In a move apparently aimed at turning locals against the predominantly white activists, cops pushed protestors northwest out of downtown and into these two black communities. Many residents said they were afraid to venture out of their homes because of the police presence. M-1 of the political hip-hop duo Dead Prez had warned of this possibility at a free concert the previous night. ‘When you’re out there doing you’re thing tomorrow,’ he told the mostly white audience, ‘make sure your actions don’t come down on the ghetto because you know my people don’t need that.’  

The wisdom of M-1’s message seemed to have been lost on some of the demonstrators in Miami who were more interested in a showdown than positive, thoughtful action. This was illustrated for me early on Nov. 20 when the 200-person Black Bloc en route downtown was trapped by police officers on bicycles. One supposed anarchist, sounding alarmingly like a drill sergeant, ordered his companions to face off against the cops. ‘This is what it’s all about!’ he shouted. ‘Get the fuck up there!’  

This tendency for white anarcho-punks, especially men, to view confrontation with authority as the pinnacle of revolutionary action greatly hurts our movement by making us reactive instead of proactive. We will always lose when we allow the state to decide where and when we resist. We as a movement have lost the element of surprise that aided us in Seattle, and we face escalating levels of militarization with each successive convergence. The pre-emptive tactics utilized by the robo-riot cops in Miami have been hailed as a prototype for smothering future mass dissent. Having been beaten at our own game, those of us committed to global justice must draw on our strengths and evolve beyond reactive, cat-and-mouse games with police.  

One article posted on the FTAA Independent Media Center website (www.ftaaimc.org) asserts that the police’s extreme use of force and our lack of direct action actually coalesced in a victory: ‘the support of the hearts and minds of the citizens of Miami’ shocked by the militarism marshaled against us. But I would argue that we young, white activists could have won the support of Miami residents more effectively by building relationships with them before the day of action. We should have used these latest free-trade meetings as a springboard for education and community organizing. Then, when the cops attacked us, as they invariably would have, people in Overtown and Wynwood would have sympathized with us not just because the violence against us was excessive but also because they understood and agreed with our message.  

Root Cause, which coordinated the three-day People’s March, is a coalition of South Florida groups that recognized the importance of an education campaign for building a local base of resistance to the FTAA. Root Cause (www.therootcause.org) is comprised of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a union of immigrant tomato pickers in Immokalee, Fla.; the Miami Workers Center, which organizes low-income workers; and Power U, focused on leadership development and political education in poor communities of color. The organizations employed a ‘Circle of Consciousness,’ teach-ins and meetings to inform their members about the FTAA and the ways that they and others like them suffer under free-trade capitalism. Consequently, Root Cause’s People’s March marked the first occasion that people of color in the U.S. independently mobilized to publicly oppose corporate globalization.  

Through Root Cause, low-income people of color responded to the question posed by Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez in her article Where Was the Color in Seattle? by saying, ‘Here we are. These are the issues important to us, and this is why we’re a part of the global justice movement.’ They joined the movement on their own terms and not because white activists needed or wanted them to be represented. Featuring a team of young, white people supporting and working in solidarity with communities of color, Root Cause epitomizes the direction the global justice movement — especially the white, anarcho-punk element of that movement — must take to be truly effective.  

Besides the People’s March, there were many other displays of non-white resistance to the FTAA during the week of action. There was an Anarchist People of Color contingent in the streets on Nov. 20. Jobs with Justice, Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, Haitian Women of Miami and numerous other groups held workshops throughout the week to explain the FTAA from the perspective of those most affected. At the People’s Tribunal organized by Root Cause, Latinos and Chicanos spoke of their setbacks and victories in the struggle against corporate globalization.  

In comparison to these events, the priorities of the white punks in attendance in Miami seem highly out of whack. We achieved next to nothing in exchange for the time and energy we expended preparing for the day of action and working to free our imprisoned comrades afterward. In those situations where our efforts could have been put to better use, where we could have lent our support and creativity, as well as learned a great deal, we failed to turn out in numbers in proportion to our population. Instead, we networked with other people who looked a lot like us. The Convergence Center was a living example of the world we want to create — food free to all, collectivized projects, consensus-based decision-making – yet it lacked racial and ethnic diversity. The warehouse remained a pathetically segregated enclave in a low-income, black community, and the mostly white, young punks congregating there were clearly identifiable as outsiders. Many of our neighbors in Overtown and Wynwood learned about us from fear-fomenting TV and print news instead of from our own mouths.  

My interactions with local residents — curiosity, raised-fist salutes and at least one urge to ‘fight the power’ — indicate that the area was ripe with possibility, but few of us attempted to explore those possibilities to their fullest. Sure, we planted a community garden in Overtown, and some of us distributed fliers about the FTAA. A friend and I invited a 10-year-old boy and his friend to tour the Convergence Center, a few blocks away from their houses in Wynwood. The art area impressed them, and greetings from white punks hanging out at the space reassured them that we weren’t all mean, as they’d worried. I bought the boys copies of the Beehive Collective’s FTAA poster to share and encouraged them to return. The next day, Nov. 20, a group of neighborhood school kids visited the IMC even as police nearby were arresting protestors by the dozens.  

These outreach endeavors were great, but we should have done all of this and more. Had we white anarcho-punks made stronger alliances with grassroots groups, had we talked more with people residing in the communities we invaded, had some of us been living and working in those impoverished communities instead of traveling there from afar, rallying and then departing, the protests in Miami may have been a more rousing success.  

As it stands, we can build on our triumphs in Miami and elsewhere and right our wrongs. Our power is in the possibilities we represent. A commentator on the Miami Fox TV news affiliate unintentionally summed up our vision during the overly dramatic protest coverage on the evening of Nov. 20: ‘Many of the protestors don’t seek treatment in hospitals when they’re injured by police. Their friends take care of them.’ The state aims to harm us, but we harbor compassion for one another.  

We white activist punks can look to the people of Latin America for inspiration. We can emulate Bolivia’s poorest citizens, who revolted in late 1999 and early 2000 and evicted Bechtel from their country’s capital, Cochabamba, after the multinational corporation privatized their water service and doubled, tripled, even quadrupled their rates. Following a ceaseless grassroots campaign, the water service was turned over to the people. We can also draw on the experiences of the Unemployed Workers Movement of Argentina, which practices direct democracy, insists that ‘All politicians should go,’ and demands food parcels, living wages and public services. To achieve its goals, the movement utilizes road blockages that tie up traffic and disrupt business. We can follow the lead of middle-class people of Caracas, Venezuela, who squat abandoned buildings because they can’t afford to pay rent. We can do as Argentineans, Ecuadorians, Brazilians, Colombians and Bolivians have done: expel corrupt, free-trade-friendly politicians from office.  

We can also learn from the poor communities of color in our own hometowns. They are probably already organizing to meet their daily needs and may welcome our help, if we approach them humbly. We can assist them in their struggles for quality, affordable housing and schooling; for safe neighborhoods and futures that don’t include prison; for good-paying, fulfilling jobs; and for clean, healthy food, air, water and soil. We can share our skills and resources with them and develop a new understanding of activism. We can continue to strengthen our mutual aid networks by providing food and clothes to anyone who needs them, by supporting free clinics and counseling services, by trading and bartering, and by organizing child-care collectives and housing cooperatives. We can subvert capitalism by refusing to live within its confines.  

Voicing opposition every time one of the agencies of global capitalism meets is important, but we politicized white punks must also support grassroots initiatives and continue to connect these local efforts to the broader issue of global justice. By shifting our focus away from mass mobilizations and toward community projects, we unite our struggles and add more experience and insight to the movement. If we do this vital, ground-laying work, the global justice movement will have a solid foundation of people prepared to resist the next round of globalization. Miami was definitely a step in the right direction toward an integrated, proactive global justice movement with the potential to outlast capitalism and its inevitable disparity. In order to do so, though, white activists must build stronger connections with the most oppressed, the most affected by the system we oppose, and together create sustainable alternatives that benefit us all.

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