December 2, 2003

C.U. Students Protest FTAA

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Last week, seventeen Cornell students migrated to Miami via automobile to join thousands of others in protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas meetings being held there. If ratified, the FTAA proposes to create a free trade zone encompassing all the countries of the Americas except Cuba. Officials working on the FTAA hope to have a deal set by 2005.

The main protest was scheduled for Nov. 20, and that morning the Cornellians joined an unauthorized procession toward the building where negotiations were taking place. “People were speaking over megaphones to the crowd at some points, at some points people were just dancing banging on drums, chanting various things,” said Peter Montalbano ’04, who estimated between two and three thousand rally participants. “There were a fair number of middle aged people, so it was a pretty eclectic mix — the only thing that was lacking were any sort of major parties, like the Greens or Oxfam,” Montalbano said.

Along with the dancing and camaraderie scheduled for the morning session, anarchists, known as the “black block”, planned to attempt to take down the chain link fence that separated the protesters from the negotiations. Activist and writer Naomi Klein has espoused at great length on the psychological and metaphorical connotations of fences, on how they are used by governments to restrict citizens’ access to resources, information, and political dissent.

With numbers dwindled to approximately one thousand, marchers approached the fence and were confronted by riot police.

“People were starting to get a little more congested and they, I guess, had decided that they didn’t want to let the cops tell them where go anymore and push them around, so they sort of did the arm linking, human wall thing– -obviously some words were exchanged between protesters and cops,” Montalbano said. “There were no threats made towards the cops, there was no aggressive body language being taken towards them, except for standing there with their arms linked.”

There was, however, violence reported by participants. “I did witness a riot cop hit a woman in the head about clear as day with his club. When that happened, everybody screamed, ‘No, what are you doing? Stop.’ The protesters were screaming, ‘Calm down’ to the cops,” Montalbano said.

According to witnesses, while riot police were preoccupied with protesters, several “black block” members made an attempt at tearing down the fence barrier.

Several Cornell students were among those in the front line opposite the riot police. “All of the riot cops behind the fence started to open fire onto the crowd with, I would presume, rubber bullets and paint balls filled with pepper spray,” Montalbano said. “Everyone scattered — somebody grabbed the tear gas and threw it back at the police, over the fence, at which point another round went off into us again.”

Another student, Tina Lax ’05 took to a tree to get a better view of the action, but was spotted fairly quickly. “The riot police saw me in the tree and like fifteen of them surrounded me,” Lax said.

With the crowd dispersed, the student participants took the opportunity to grab some coffee and rest on a grassy amphitheater before the official noon proceedings were set to begin. “We kind of thought that the worst had ended,” Montalbano said.

Shortly before noon, vans filled with steelworkers arrived — union men and women with T-shirts reading, “FTAA sucks,” “Buck Fush” buttons and union flags. Also present were the United Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, the AFL-CIO, Oxfam, the Green Party, United Students Against Sweatshops, the International Socialist Organization and the Socialist Workers Party. Reported estimates vary, but somewhere between eight and seventeen thousand protesters attended the afternoon proceedings.

“When the steelworkers got there, the whole mood changed, everybody was happy. They poured out of their busses by the hundreds. They were probably the largest single presence there,” Montalbano estimated. The protesters reassembled after the official organizers of the march arrived and began to creep closer to the line of riot police. This is when another clash between protesters and police occurred, according to witnesses.

“… The cops all start[ed] chanting in unison with their billy clubs, ‘Back! Back! Back! Back!’ And they [took] a step forward every time and they slam[med] their clubs forward with both hands every time,” Montalbano said.

This act of violence was unprovoked, according to Mantalbano.

“Nobody did anything, the closest person was about five feet from the cops, we weren’t even in their face anymore,” he said.

Danfung Dennis ’05 was hit multiple times by riot police. “I was shot six times, once on the side of my neck and the rest on the back of my body as I ran away. I crumpled to the ground in pain, my groans stifled by the gas mask I was wearing,” he said via e-mail.

Asa Wilks ’04 was hit with pepper spray as the Cornell students returned to the amphitheater where labor affiliated groups were stationed, according to Montalbano. Wilks was distracted momentarily by a woman wearing an AFL-CIO jacket whom Montalbano suspects may have been in cahoots with law enforcement, and was subsequently pepper sprayed in the face by an officer. With severely swollen and burning eyes, Wilks ran as the officer continued to pepper spray him in the back of the head for several seconds before returning to formation, according to Montalbano.

Montalbano is convinced that the police force, which included the National Guard, state troopers, Miami-Dade county sheriffs, SWAT team police and snipers perched on top of skyscrapers, wanted to fight that November day.

“In my mind, the police incited a riot. They bottlenecked everybody, they were shooting at them for no reason if they came anywhere close to them, thousands of people were all of a sudden compacted into one city block. That’s just the formula to start people breaking shit. And that’s what happened — I think the response of law enforcement was disgusting, it was uncontrolled, it was thuggish,” Montalbano said.

The Miami FTAA meetings concluded a day early.

Archived article by Clark Merrefield