Missoulians Maureen Essen and Ted Morrison, both 24, hadn’t planned on getting arrested at demonstrations against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) in Miami on Nov. 21. Yet that’s just what happened to both, under conditions that are prompting the two local activists to file police misconduct reports in preparation for an upcoming civil suit against the city of Miami.
“We want to make sure the issue gets covered, not just the battle in the streets between protesters and cops, because that’s not why we were there,” Essen says. “I went to form ties with organizations that are working in a more rural situation, because Montana would primarily be affected by the agricultural aspects of the FTAA, and then secondly by the trades and services section,” she says.
Specifically, Morrison says the trades and services section of the FTAA could eventually depress local wages and encourage the privatization of jobs for teachers, farmers and police, among others, while threatening the environmental integrity of the state’s water supplies.
“All these public things could be privatized to the highest bidder,” Morrison says. “Think of all the problems caused by energy deregulation and multiply it by a thousand. That’s the FTAA.” For these reasons and others, Essen, the UM campus organizer for MontPIRG, and Morrison, an administrative assistant in UM’s Rural Institute, flew from Missoula to Miami on Nov. 16. What follows is their account of wrongful arrest and police brutality in Miami:
On Thursday, Nov. 20, the first day of the FTAA meeting at Miami’s InterContinental Hotel, AFL-CIO labor leaders marched with other demonstrators. After the labor folks headed off to a separate rally, police indiscriminately pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed demonstrators. Protesters picked up the tear gas canisters and threw them back at the police. People were shot with rubber bullets. Megan Kosterman, a fellow Missoulian traveling with Essen and Morrison, witnessed an elderly man sitting in a lawn chair pepper-sprayed in the face. When the smoke cleared, approximately 150 people had been arrested. Essen and Morrison were not among them, and the next day they joined a prisoner solidarity rally in the parking lot of the Miami jail where demonstrators were confined.
A police liaison told the rally that Miami police had decided the gathering would be declared an unlawful assembly at 5 p.m. At 4:37 p.m., the liaison stated that the police would allow the demonstrators three minutes to disperse. Some decided to practice civil disobedience and sat down, but Essen and Morrison began walking away immediately, not wanting to be arrested. A block away, a line of police in full riot gear approached the disbanding crowd; Essen and Morrison continued walking away. Riot police drew guns and began taking aim. Demonstrators put their hands in the air, chanting “Lower your weapons, we’re dispersing” as they backed away on the sidewalk. In less than a minute, the Missoulians were surrounded by officers, pushed to the ground, pepper-sprayed and handcuffed with boots in their backs. Their possessions—from rolls of film to the shoes on their feet—were taken from them (and have not been returned as of press time).
At the processing facility, Essen and Morrison were hosed down and taken to a decontamination tent where their clothes were cut off with scissors. Essen requested a female guard to do the cutting as opposed to the four male guards present. As she stood naked, an officer replied, “Calm down, sweetie. We’re all EMTs here.” Both she and Morrison were then dressed in standard-issue gowns before being carted off to Miami-Dade’s Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center. Essen requested an officer buckle her seat belt for her since she was still cuffed and could not do it herself, but the officer refused.
“Aren’t you concerned with my safety?” Essen asked.
“No,” the officer replied.
Upon arriving at the jail, Essen objected to having her picture taken, knowing that it was illegal for Miami police to do so before they read her her rights or told her what she was charged with. After they forced her to enter the mug shot booth anyway, Essen was told that she was charged with disobeying an officer. Morrison was charged with unlawful assembly and resisting arrest. Essen was allowed a phone call after sitting in her cell for 26 hours. Bonded out by friends, the pair was released after 32 hours in custody. A week later, Essen still wears a hand-brace, and both she and Morrison complain of nerve damage from being handcuffed tightly for 12 hours.
Police response to FTAA demonstrators was coordinated by Miami Police Chief John Timoney, who was in charge of security at the 2000 Republican Presidential Convention in Philadelphia, where several demonstrators were arrested and detained, though most charges were later dropped. In total, 273 demonstrators were arrested in Miami.
Essen and Morrison expect their charges will be dropped. Regardless, the Missoulians are prepared to join forces with groups such as the Florida ACLU and the Miami Activist Defense (MAD) to sue the city of Miami. Essen and Morrison are currently in the process of filling out official complaints, which Miami-Dade County Detective Randy Rossman says will automatically lead to the deposition of officers by the department’s internal affairs division.
“I’m not saying our actions were perfect, but in at least two instances, I know the claims being made are false because I was [there],” Rossman said.
According to Kris Hermes, a spokesman for MAD, Essen and Morrison’s situation is not unique.
“Various organizations are looking at extensive civil suits against Miami for civil rights violations including First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment violations,” Hermes says.
In response to what some have called a fascist police response to a constitutionally guaranteed assembly, several union leaders have called for Timoney’s job. United Steelworkers Union President Leo W. Gerard called Miami during the FTAA talks “a massive police state,” and, in light of the fact that Congress approved $8.5 million in federal funds for Miami FTAA security in a rider to the $87 billion Iraq spending bill, Gerard asks a pertinent question in a union letter to Congress: “How can we hope to build democracy in Iraq while using massive force to dismantle it here at home?”
Despite their arrest, Essen and Morrison are pleased that the FTAA talks ended in compromise. While neither claims credit for FTAA’s watered-down, both believe that their presence outside may have added weight to the opposition of foreign trade delegates inside the hotel’s closed-door talks.