In early August video footage of police conduct at the November 2003 FTAA protests in Miami was released to the media. One video showed Elizabeth Ritter, a Miami lawyer dressed in a skirt, red jacket, and heels take cover under a handheld sign as local officers repeatedly fired rubber bullets at her. Another exposes Broward Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Michael Kallman addressing a group of his officers about that incident.
“The good news about watching you guys live on TV was the lady in the red dress. I don’t know who got her, but it went through the sign and hit her smack dab in the head,” said a “pumped up” Kallman, to applause and cheers. Later, another unidentified officer referred to protesters as “scurrying cockroaches.”
This followed the release of Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel’s (CIP) 50-page report investigating the actions of the Miami Police Department (MPD) leading up to and during the protests. What was revealed—much of which was already known—was that: the police had wanton disregard and contempt for the rights and well-being of the protesters; there was and still continues to be no accountability; and the media played a vital role in fomenting and vindicating draconian security policies, which turned the city of Miami into a police state.
The CIP was created to provide independent oversight of the MPD. It has the authority to conduct investigations, inquiries, and public hearings into allegations of police misconduct, though the panel’s recommendations are not binding. The panel began their investigations after numerous complaints of police brutality were filed.
One of the more interesting and relevant findings in the report was that the media should assume some responsibility for the mayhem that occurred. “For several months preceding the FTAA, the local media devoted considerable coverage to violent protests and wanton vandalism that had taken place at other locations where international economic conferences were held…this contributed to an apprehension that similar chaos and violence would occur,” the report stated. In addition, “Very little coverage was directed towards peaceful protestors or the underlying reasons for the protest” and the media unjustifiably fixated on “anarchists.”
“Distorted news media coverage of the FTAA protest and other similar actions increases the likelihood that the public will support overly aggressive police actions that result in the violations of protesters’ constitutional rights,” said Robert Jensen, associate professor of Journalism Law and Ethics at the University of Texas Austin. “If readers and viewers are told repeatedly that protesters are crazy anarchists bent on violence, what other conclusion can they reach, but that heavy- handed police tactics are necessary to keep the peace?”
Jensen said that mainstream corporate journalists are often biased in favor of people in power, which is why they often accept their “spin.” Coincidentally, this reflects the nature of the FTAA Ministerial Meeting where civil society has had no voice in the creation of policies that would ultimately affect them. Corporate journalists also view themselves as being part of a professional class, closer to the power brokers they rely on as sources than to their readers—in this case the union members, farmworkers, activists, students, and retirees whose concerns about the hemispheric trade pact were ignored.
Another problem with the coverage was the media’s decision to embed reporters with the police. Michael Putney, Miami ABC political reporter, put it best when he wrote in his guest opinion for the Miami Herald: “I spent most of the FTAA summit reporting from inside the drum-tight ‘security zone’ and saw demonstrations only occasionally from the safe side of police lines. From my vantage point, I thought that police generally showed professionalism, discipline, and restraint. Now, I’m not so sure” (“Citizens’ Panel Should Review Complaints,” 12/03/03).
It’s also troubling, but not surprising, that there has been deafening silence from the corporate media on the report’s findings regarding their sensationalist, inadequate, and unprofessional coverage. In fact, the media is still guilty of incessant incompetence. In an article in the Miami Herald (“Attorney Incensed After Viewing FTAA Police Video,” 08/09/06), it was reported that the CIP “found no evidence of excessive force.”
Luckily, a vigilant Larry R. Handfield, chair of the CIP, wrote a letter to the editor pointing out the paper’s glaring mistake. He wrote that the report concluded “indiscriminate force was utilized against protestors” and that “a review of the video footage from the FTAA protests revealed police officers targeting retreating subjects, and in the case of Ms. Elizabeth Ritter, inappropriately aiming and shooting where her head appeared to be as she knelt down in the street seeking cover behind a placard she was holding.”
The information used to write the report included public hearings with testimony by civilians, MPD officials and experts, MPD materials and departmental orders, hundreds of hours of video tape, arrest affidavits, and court records.
MPD Police Chief John Timoney has refused to comment on the report, just as he refused to comment on a draft released in May. Both times he cited not reading the report as the reason. And why should he bother? The report is nonbinding and the media surely can’t be relied on to do their job and follow up on the story.
Three months after the FTAA protests, the PBS Show “NOW with Bill Moyers” (02/27/04) did a segment examining the way police handled the event in which Timon- ey was a guest. Kathleen Hughes, the producer/correspondent for the segment, opened the piece by pointing out all of the power brokers that supported the free trade agreement: both the Clinton and Bush administrations, as well as “corporate America.”
“With all that power behind the agreement, why were the police out in such force?” asked Hughes, essentially answering her own question. Timoney told Hughes that, “I am completely satisfied that we did everything according to the book. The way we planned it.”
There is no reason to believe that Timoney has changed positions. The fact that the CIP launched unsuccessful legal attempts to acquire a copy of the MPD Operational Plan (OP) for policing the FTAA protests reinforces that everything was done “the way we planned it.” The panel’s report revealed that MPD’s after action reports repeatedly referenced that the OP contained policies concerning appropriate conduct for personnel.
The CIP wanted to review the document to evaluate just how it “addressed and provided for the protection of ‘constitutional guarantees.'” But there was no way Timoney, or the federal government, Homeland Security, and the FBI—who all collaborated in developing the OP—would give up what then Miami Mayor Manny Diaz touted as “a model for homeland defense”—the so-called “Miami Model.” (Congress gave Miami $8.5 million for security during the FTAA meetings tucked inside an $87 billion spending bill for Iraq.) Police officials said the report contained information that could jeopardize security operations, not only in Miami, but nationally as well.
According to Eric Rubin, director of the Florida Fair Trade Coalition (FFTC), the fact that the CIP did not acquire the OP underscores one of the main weaknesses of the report. The FFTC is a grassroots statewide coalition to develop a mass political and social base in Florida, recognizing that free trade is a link that can bring together the various components of civil society negatively impacted by transnational capitalism. “The best analogy that I can make is an investigation of a plane crash where the manufacturer of the plane has possession of the black box, but is unwilling to turn it over to the investigating body,” said Rubin who was involved in negotiations with the police leading up to the event.
Other weaknesses of the report include the CIP’s limited jurisdiction over the MPD. Other local, state and federal agencies contributed officers in riot gear with no identification. The MPD officers wore identification, but during the days’ events some wore off and became illegible. This helps explain why the CIP was unable to conclude any findings of guilt in the 20 complaints reviewed in the report. Could using officers with no visible identification to evade accountability have been included in the Operational Plan? Most likely, but unfortunately it may never be proven. In addition, there was no investigation of undercover cops dressed as the “anarchists” we were told repeatedly to fear (which has been captured on video) and their role in any violence that happened. Timoney used similar tactics at the 2000 Republican National Convention (RNC) when he was police chief in Philadelphia.
The CIP report concluded that “more time and attention was devoted to training personnel to protect property rather than persons and even less time was spent addressing the constitutional pro- tections guaranteed to all.” This would help explain police officers’ indiscriminate use of pepper spray, tear gas, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, stun guns, and arrests during the protests—on everyone from journalists to senior citizens.
There were about 220 arrests during the protests with only 4 convictions. State Circuit Court Judge Richard Margolius, while presiding over the cases of free trade protesters in December 2003, said in court that he saw “no less than 20 felonies committed by police officers.” Margolis went to the protests and commented that it was “pretty disgraceful what I saw with my own eyes.”
It is important to keep what happened in Miami in the public’s collective consciousness, so when it happens again in some other city, it won’t be viewed as an anomaly, as suggested by PBS’s “NOW.” Activists and critics who refer to the police state in Miami as the “Miami Model” should recognize the security operation as just an evolved manifestation of a larger model, namely one that impels the state to maintain the desired social order by hammering any dissent.
“If this model is being utilized as a future model by the government and transnational supporters, what are the preemptive legal actions that can be taken (if any) to prevent this model from being used again?” asked the FFTC’s Rubin. “Secondly, it must be put into an international perspective that this Operational Plan is a mild component of the repression that is being used against our brothers and sisters internationally, where real bullets and death squads are the ‘normal way of life.'”