Protesters, Miami police clash during free-trade protests

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on November 21, 2003.

Hundreds of North Florida residents, mostly union members, joined the throngs of protesters surging through Miami on Thursday to protest a hemisphere-wide free trade area being negotiated in nearby downtown hotels.

The vast majority of protesters marched and chanted more or less peacefully, although a few blocks from the main gathering point, hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police officers filling the downtown area.

Thirty-six protesters were arrested throughout the day, on charges ranging from battery and aggressive assault to trespassing and resisting arrest, police said. And one officer suffered minor injuries. It was unknown Thursday evening where the arrested protesters were from.

Aubrey Skillman, who drove down to Miami from St. Augustine early Thursday morning, said he was caught up in one minor clash with police while watching some friends dance near a local union headquarters.

The police line pushed forward and used clubs and pepper spray on the group, said Skillman and two friends.

"They just bum-rushed the crowd," said Lauren Bitting-Ellis, also from St. Augustine. "I didn't see any people being malicious or even taunting the cops. My first thought was, 'Am I still in America?' It just blew my mind."

Still, Skillman, a cook in St. Augustine, and the others said it was worth taking the day off work to come to the protest.

"The United States, with all of its riches, does not have the right to exploit workers, the environment -- even other governments -- to get profits," he said. "It's placing corporate greed over people's lives."

Police said Thursday afternoon that they had no report of the incident.

Mid-afternoon, hundreds of protesters clashed with police a few blocks from the site of the main protest. At least 1,000 protesters -- many wearing bandanas across the bottom half of their faces, surgical masks and blue batting helmets -- approached lines of police blocking downtown streets. Others carried gas masks and tried to pull down security fences with large hooks.

The officers used their batons mostly to push back the protesters but occasionally used them to strike the demonstrators.

Police also displayed stun guns and used a spray that smelled like rotten eggs to disperse protesters. The demonstrators sprayed a cream on at least one officer and threw objects at others. Police had at least two armored vehicles at the scene.

"We are holding strong," police spokesman Jorge Pino said. "We're basically trying to maintain the peace downtown, but there are some individuals that are unfortunately trying to disrupt our efforts."

The omnipresent police officers, many clad in RoboCop-like riot gear, did put some activists on edge.

At one point, several protesters chased two men and a woman out of the crowd, cursing at them while saying they were undercover cops. The individuals all denied the accusation.

Nevertheless, the march and rally were, on the whole, rather peaceful. Carrying giant puppets, signs and banners, draped in American flags and dressed as dolphins and orangutans, the protesters said the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement would cost American jobs, pollute the environment and destroy native cultures.

"We're looking at exporting jobs, good jobs," said Tom McQuay, a union member who works at Jacksonville's port.

Although the trade agreement is promoted as increasing imports and exports, McQuay said he was marching because of the effect the agreement would have beyond Jacksonville's economy.

"I'm concerned about everyone's jobs," he said. "This isn't about me alone."

A large portion of the crowd, especially those in their late teens and 20s sported dreadlocks and piercings, but the group also included a large number of retired and active union workers as well as members of religious organizations, environmental groups and activists of all stripes. According to the Miami Herald, police estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 activists participated in the morning protests and about 600 in the late afternoon disturbances.

The largest Jacksonville representation at the protest were from union members, whose four-bus convoy was part of a large group brought in by the AFL-CIO. They said their opposition went beyond union membership, because the proposed agreement would affect all workers.

"It's their future, too," said Bill Dawson, a Jacksonville member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said, nodding at the younger protesters. "Corporate America will open up new areas of trading, but it won't open up new jobs."

David Fowler Jr., a union painter from Jacksonville, said he thinks the large turnout at the march will help the protesters make their voices heard. "I like to think this will all have an effect on our elected officials," he said. "A lot of jobs of regular workers are being shipped overseas. We've let our elected officials know we won't stand for that."

During the final march, 20-year-old Matthew Evinger from New York City donned an orangutan costume to call attention to natural habitats being destroyed around the world. "It's not directly about the FTAA, but free trade definitely contributes to it," he said. "I can't say how much of an effect it will have on the people working on it, but I want to make them aware."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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