Storm Clouds


The people united will never be defeated,” with its amphibrachic optimism, is unavoidable at any progressive rally. Promised as the biggest U.S. direct-action protest since Seattle, the FTAA protest in Miami last week was short on people, despite the financiers’ persistence in booking sites as if it were spring break at Billionaire U. The estimated 15,000 were not in fact united, as squabbles between the officially nonconfrontational labor contingent, the movement-building activists, and the dreaming barricadistas produced irreducible fissures. And still the people were not defeated. The tycoons slumming as politicians were less united still, and their new baby, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, emerged stillborn.

It’s been suggested the protest movement exists in symbiotic embrace with its visible antagonists: the WTO, World Bank, World Economic Forum, IMF, NAFTA/GATT—acronymic coagulations of global capital’s imperial dreams. It’s a relationship exercising protesters’ urge toward refusal, while allowing totalitarian moneymen to appear phantasmically as representatives of civil society. The ritualistic repetitions of the engagements can’t help but feed such a cynical suspicion.

If there’s a current symbiosis, it joins protesters and the police. The street struggles are now cast as tactical contests for their own sake. Popular media enthusiastically raise the specter of “another Seattle,” by which they mean broken windows—not breakdowns in the corporate conspiracies seen in Seattle, or last month in Cancún. Meanwhile, offscreen, the hubristic schemes of bunkered negotiators derail agreements more incisively than any peaceful march or downtown shutdown.

The planned big day of action, Thursday the 20th, ended with over 100 arrests, somewhat fewer injuries among protesters, and fewer still among the profusion of puffy riot cops who unleashed their array of noxious gases, “less lethal” ordnance, tasers, and the occasional baton applied to the scalp until bloody. Police Chief John Timoney struck his ritual pose: “I thought the officers showed remarkable restraint. These are outsiders coming in to terrorize and vandalize our city.”

Everybody likes an ironic man in uniform. Timoney, after all, is more the violent mercenary than any eco-activist or Black Blocker: The ex-NYPD bigwig was last seen rendering Philadelphia a Constitution-free zone for the 2000 Republican National Convention. Timoney traveled a fair distance to Miami to imprison more citizens for carrying big puppets.

In this newest showdown, if anything was achieved, it was the extension of police state adventurism, and the slow commonplacement of the hypothesis that political dissent ought not be distinguished from terrorism. Behind a vast outlay including eight-plus million federal dollars, no one recalled a greater profusion of gizmo-draped robocops, or as many police choppers swooping down to harry activists departing the toxic clouds of Biscayne Boulevard. As these reputedly dangerous agitators picked their way through the poverty-blasted ‘hoods around downtown, residents had little difficulty parsing the scene and offering help. Very poor people, one notices, rarely experience helicopter troops as their allies.

Locals might note that the FTAA was an outsider coming to terrorize their city. It’s often diagnosed as “NAFTA on steroids”: a unified economic zone of 34 countries, wherein corporations achieve sovereignty, including the capacity to enter “favored nation” pacts and the confirmed right to sue governments for restraint of trade (as Bechtel has already done with Bolivia). The theory claims this will achieve greater economies of scale, so that farmers in, say, Mexico can compete with China—except it doesn’t explain how this race to the bottom of the pool of wage labor will splash Mexican jobs to Colombia. And it ignores the fact that the FTAA would drown community self-reliance, divide temporary beneficiaries and the disenfranchised even further, and return commodities to the U.S. so “cheaply” that domestic producers will pay the price with their own destitution.

Such design flaws led to the walkout of Global South nations at September’s WTO ministerial. Facing another Cancún, the FTAA declared victory on opening day and went home. The “victory” consisted of a few nonbinding agreements, the return of disputed issues to WTO arbitration, and a lot of air-kissing and promising to have lunch real soon. The U.S. strong-armed some individual countries into bilateral agreements; others were having none of it. As with the Iraq war, the U.S.’s flagging capacity to compel a grand coalition signals an increasing international aptitude for just saying no, and a sense the planet’s interests may not lie in another American Century. It doesn’t; this is why we fight.