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Silencing Dissent With Excessive Force
Excerpt from "Protest At Your Own Risk"
Mathew Rothschild
The Progressive
January 21, 2004

The Case in Miami

It's not every day that a sitting judge will allege he saw the police commit felonies. But that's what Judge Richard Margolius said on December 11 in regard to police misconduct in Miami during the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in late November.

Judge Margolius was presiding over a case that the protesters brought against the city. In court, he said he saw the police commit at least twenty felonies, Amy Driscoll of the Miami Herald reported. "Pretty disgraceful what I saw with my own eyes," he said, according to the paper. "This was a real eye-opener. A disgrace for the community."

Police used tasers, shock batons, rubber bullets, beanbags filled with chemicals, large sticks, and concussion grenades against lawful protesters. (Just prior to the FTAA protests, the city of Miami passed an ordinance requiring a permit for any gathering of more than six people for longer than twenty-nine minutes.) They took the offensive, wading into crowds and driving after the demonstrators. Police arrested more than 250 protesters. Almost all of them were simply exercising their First Amendment rights. Police also seized protest material and destroyed it, and they confiscated personal property, demonstrators say.

"How many police officers have been charged by the state attorney so far for what happened out there during the FTAA?" the judge asked in court, according to the Herald. The prosecutor said none. "Pretty sad commentary, at least from what I saw," the judge retorted.

Even for veterans of protests, the police actions in Miami were unlike any they had encountered before. "I've been to a number of the anti-globalization protests – Seattle, Cancun, D.C. – and this was different," says Norm Stockwell, operations coordinator for WORT, the community radio station in Madison, Wisconsin. "At previous events, the police force was defensive, with heavy armor hoping to hold back protests. In Miami, police were in light armor and were poised to go after the protesters, and that's what they did. They actually went into the crowds to divide the protesters, then chased them into different neighborhoods."

Stockwell says some reporters were mistreated, especially if they were not "embedded" with the Miami police.

"I got shot twice [with rubber projectiles], once in the back, another time in the leg," reported Jeremy Scahill of Democracy Now! "John Hamilton from the Workers Independent News Service was shot in the neck by a pepper-spray pellet." Ana Nogueira, Scahill's colleague from Democracy Now!, was videotaping some of the police mayhem when she was arrested, Scahill said. "In police custody, the authorities made Ana remove her clothes because they were pepper sprayed. The police forced her to strip naked in front of male officers."

John Heckenlively, former head of the Racine County Democratic Party in Wisconsin, says he was cornered by the police late in the afternoon of November 20. Heckenlively and a few companions were trying to move away from the protest area when "a large cordon of police, filling the entire block edge to edge, was moving up the street," he says. "As they approached, an officer told us that we should leave the area. We informed him that was precisely what we were attempting to do, and seconds later, he placed us under arrest."

Police kept Heckenlively in tight handcuffs behind his back for more than six hours, he says, adding that he was held for a total of sixty hours.

Trade unionists were particularly outraged at the treatment they received in Miami. John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, wrote Attorney General John Ashcroft on December 3 to urge the Justice Department to investigate "the massive and unwarranted repression of constitutional rights and civil liberties that took place in Miami."

Sweeney wrote that on November 20, police interfered with the federation's demonstration "by denying access to buses, blocking access to the amphitheater where the rally was occurring, and deploying armored personnel carriers, water cannons, and scores of police in riot gear with clubs in front of the amphitheater entrance. Some union retirees had their buses turned away from Miami altogether by the police, and were sent back home."

Blocking access to the rally was the least of it. After the march, "police advanced on groups of peaceful protesters without provocation," Sweeney wrote. "The police failed to provide those in the crowd with a safe route to disperse, and then deployed pepper spray and rubber bullets against protesters as they tried to leave the scene. Along with the other peaceful protesters, AFL-CIO staff, union peacekeepers, and retirees were trapped in the police advance. One retiree sitting on a chair was sprayed directly in the face with pepper spray. An AFL-CIO staff member was hit by a rubber bullet while trying to leave the scene. When the wife of a retired Steelworker verbally protested police tactics, she was thrown to the ground on her face and a gun was pointed to her head."

The ACLU of Greater Miami is planning on filing several suits against the Miami Police Department, says Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, president of the group. "This was a clear abuse of power by the police, and an indiscriminate use of force," she says. "People who were retreating were being shot in the back with rubber bullets. One photojournalist, Carl Kesser, was filming the police, and he was hit in the head with a beanbag above his eye socket. If it had hit him a little bit lower, he could have lost his eye. The police were using tasers on people who were down, who were already restrained. These police officers were using these weapons as if they were Pez dispensers. They acted like as long as it wasn't a firearm, they could use the weapons to their hearts' content." 

The Case In Oakland

Seven months before the FTAA in Miami, police used brutal force on the West Coast. At the Port of Oakland on the morning of April 7, more than 500 anti-war demonstrators gathered to protest against two shipping companies that were involved in George Bush's Iraq War.

The police responded by firing rubber bullets, wooden pellets, and tear gas into the crowd. Nine members of Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union were injured, as were at least thirty-one demonstrators. These forty individuals have filed a class action lawsuit against the city of Oakland and several Oakland police officers.

"I was hit on the back of the right calf as I attempted to run away from the police fire," wrote Willow Rosenthal, one of the plaintiffs, in her statement. "The entire back of my calf was blood red and swollen with a circular mark of broken skin about three quarters of an inch across in the center. The calf was numb about three inches around the point of impact, and I wasn't able to walk without assistance."

Another plaintiff, Scott Fleming, was "shot five times in the back, shoulder, and under his arms with wooden dowels fired directly at him as he fled," the suit says. The police also allegedly attacked at least two legal observers and two people videotaping the event.

"This was the most outrageous incident of unprovoked mass police violence the National Lawyers Guild has seen in our twenty years of providing legal support to Bay Area demonstrations," said National Lawyers Guild attorney Rachel Lederman, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, in a press release.

This case hopes "to reestablish the constitutional principle that the police cannot choose to impose the price of serious physical injury on persons engaging in nonviolent protest activities," said Alan Schlosser, legal director of the ACLU of Northern California, which is part of the case, as well.

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