First-year Andy Kiersz stood in downtown Miami on a Thursday afternoon, surrounded by thousands of protestors and, according to him, nearly as many police. At every intersection, a human wall of officers, clad in riot gear and armed with rubber bullets and tear gas, funneled peaceful protestors through the streets.
Kiersz drove to Miami to join 10 other University students in protesting a ministerial meeting discussing the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), an international trade agreement that many believe would increase the wealth of richer countries like the United States to the detriment of poorer nations in Central and South America.
Similar to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the FTAA seeks to eliminate trade and investment barriers throughout 34 Latin American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. The FTAA hopes to implement its policies by 2005, according to its website, with its final provisions still to be negotiated.
The student protestors said they traveled to Florida and entered the rally to non-violently express their opposition to the FTAA. After a city-sanctioned march that ended without incident, some protestors began to act violently toward police, throwing water bottles and debris at some officers while attempting to break through a security barrier of police.
In reaction, police started herding demonstratorsboth aggressive and peacefulout of the downtown area, according to Kiersz. “Some protestors stayed behinds to try and slow down the police, but most, including me, simply wanted to get away. There were a few moments when my friends and I had to run to prevent columns of police from cutting us off,” he said.
Semhar Amdemichael, another University student at the protest, said he felt intimidated and repressed by the police, some of whom rode tanks or horses. The police seemed to look down upon the protestors because of their agenda, he added.
These experiences underscore a heated debate that has engulfed Miami and the country for the past several weeks: was the police action justified, given the harmful and destructive nature of past protests like those at the 1999 World Trade Organization talks in Seattle, or was it overly rash and oppressive?
Miami Police Chief Jon Timoney published a public response in The Miami Herald Sunday, arguing that while his police took part in some degree of aggressive law enforcement, their actions resulted from the illegal and destructive activity on the part of many protestors.
Timoney said that prior to the incident on Thursday afternoon, a group of self-proclaimed anarchists tried to violently attack the police and pull down a security fence with grappling hooks. When these protestors were dispersed, many of them filtered into the ongoing march sponsored by the AFL-CIO, and may have started the later trouble, Timoney said.
“I very much regret any occasion when police have to resort to force to overcome a violent attack,” Timoney wrote in his op-ed piece. “This is particularly true when the organized attack is mounted from within a group of law-abiding citizens.”
At least 140 protestors were arrested during Thursday’s events, and at least 17 officers were injured, some requiring medical treatment. It is still unclear how many of those arrested, most of whom are accused of misdemeanors, will be formally charged.
Many students from around the country were present at the weekend’s protests, University students said, and the experience offered a rare chance to fraternize with actual workers and union members.
“I met lots of people from the Midwestmostly college students and a couple of grad students. Since we were rallying with the steelworkers, I met a lot of them as well,” Amdemichael said.
Talks ended one day early, mostly as a result of internal discord between the countries represented at the conference. Still, many protestors believe that their actions helped to raise awareness about the nature of the FTAA and brought the question of constitutional police enforcement into the public sphere.
“What the protest accomplished is to get these issues out into the public domain, to get people talking about them,” Kiersz said. “We’re trying to raise public awareness about what is going on in the world behind our backs.”
This trip comes at a time when the University has received popular attention for being ranked seventh in a poll of politically active college campuses.
Amdenichael said he felt that the ranking was deserved because of the wide and diverse range of opportunities for activism present on the University campus.
Most protestors agreed that, despite the interaction with police, their journey was a success.
“The trip was definitely worth it,” Kiersz said. “Being in a protest of this size and seeing what a police over-response looks like are memories that will stay with me forever.”