Paramilitaries, Embedded Journalists and Illegal Protests. Think This is Iraq?
It's Your Country
By Jeremy Scahill
MIAMI--We were loading our video equipment into the trunk of our car when a
fleet of bicycle cops sped up and formed a semi-circle around us. The lead cop
was none other than Miami Police Chief John Timoney. The former Police
Commissioner of Philadelphia Timoney has a reputation for brutality and hatred
of protesters of any kind. He calls them "punks," "knuckleheads" and a whole
slew of expletives. He coordinated the brutal police response to the
mass-protests at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000.
After a brief stint in the private sector, Timoney took the post of Miami
police chief as part of Mayor Manny Diaz's efforts to "clean up the
for the restraint they had shown in the face of violent anarchists intent on
destroying the city. In reality, the tens of thousands who gathered in Miami to
protest the ministerial meetings of the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit
were seeking to peacefully demonstrate against what they consider to be a
deadly expansion of NAFTA and US-led policies of free trade. There were
environmental groups, labor unions, indigenous activists from across the
hemisphere, church groups, grassroots organizations, students and many others
in the streets. What they encountered as they assembled outside the gates to
the building housing the FTAA talks was nothing short of a police riot. It only
took a few hours last Thursday before downtown Miami looked like a city under
On the news, Chief Timoney spoke in sober tones about the tear gas that
demonstrators fired at his officers. No, that is not a typo. Timoney said the
protesters were the ones launching the tear gas. He also said the demonstrators
had hurled "missiles" at the police. "I got a lot of tear gas," Timoney said.
"We all got gassed. They were loaded to the hilt. A lot of missiles, bottles,
rocks, tear gas from the radicals."
Seeing Timoney up close and personal evokes this image of Mayor Daley at the '68
Democratic Convention ordering his men to shoot protesters on sight. He is that
kind of guy.
Back at our car, Timoney hopped off his bike as a police cameraman recorded his
every move. It all had the feel of being on an episode of COPS. He demanded the
license and registration for the car. Our colleague Norm Stockwell of community
radio station WORT in Madison, Wisconsin gave him his license. We informed him
we were journalists. One of his men grabbed Norm's press pass, looking it over
as though it was a fake. They looked at all of us with nasty snares before
getting back on their bikes and preparing to continue on to further protect
Miami. Timoney gave us this look that said, you got away this time but I'll be
back. You could tell he was pissed off that we weren't anarchists (as far as he
As Timoney was talking with his men, one of the guys on the bikes approached us
with a notepad. "Can I have your names?" he asked.
I thought he was a police officer preparing a report. He had on a Miami police
polo shirt, just like Timoney's. He had a Miami police bike helmet, just like
Timoney's. He had a bike, just like Timoney's. In fact there was only one small
detail that separated him from Timoney-a small badge around his neck
identifying him as a reporter with the Miami Herald. He was embedded with Chief
That reporter was one of dozens who were embedded with the Miami forces (it's
hard to call them police), deployed to protect the FTAA ministerial meetings
from thousands of unarmed protesters. In another incident, we saw a Miami
Herald photographer who had somehow gotten pushed onto the "protesters side" of
a standoff with the police. He was behind a line of young kids who had locked
arms to try and prevent the police from advancing and attacking the crowds
outside of the Inter-Continental Hotel. He was shouting at the kids to move so
he could get back to the safe side. The protesters ignored him and continued
with their blockade.
The photographer grew angrier and angrier before he began hitting one of the
young kids on the line. He punched him in the back of the head before other
journalists grabbed him and calmed him down. His colleagues seemed shocked at
the conduct. He was a big, big guy and was wearing a bulletproof vest and a
police issued riot helmet, but I really think he was scared of the skinny,
dreadlocked bandana clad protesters. He had this look of panic on his face,
like he had been in a scuffle with the Viet Cong.
Watching the embedded journalists on Miami TV was quite entertaining. They spoke
of venturing into Protesterland as though they were entering a secret al Qaeda
headquarters in the mountains of Afghanistan. Interviews with protest leaders
were sort of like the secret bin Laden tapes. There was something risqué, even
sexy about having the courage to venture over to the convergence space (the
epicenter of protest organizing at the FTAA) and the Independent Media Center.
Several reporters told of brushes they had with "the protesters." One reporter
was quite shaken after a group of "anarchists" slashed her news van's tires and
wrote the word "propaganda" across the side door. She feared for the life of
her cameraman, she somberly told the anchor back in the studio. The anchor
warned her to be careful out there.
So dangerous was the scene that the overwhelming majority of the images of the
protests on TV were from helicopter shots, where very little could be seen
except that there was a confrontation between police and "the protesters." This
gave cover for Timoney and other officials to make their outrageous and false
statements over and over.
Timoney spun his tales of "hard-core anarchists" rampaging through the streets
of Miami; "outsiders coming to terrorize and vandalize our city." He painted a
picture of friendly restrained police enduring constant attacks from rocks,
paint, gas canisters, smoke bombs and fruit. "We are very proud of the police
officers and their restraint. Lots of objects were thrown at the police
officers," Timoney said. "If we didn't act when we did, it would have been much
It was much worse.
After last week, no one should call what Timoney runs in Miami a police force.
It's a paramilitary group. Thousands of soldiers, dressed in khaki uniforms
with full black body armor and gas masks, marching in unison through the
streets, banging batons against their shields, chanting, "back... back...
back." There were armored personnel carriers and helicopters.
The forces fired indiscriminately into crowds of unarmed protesters. Scores of
people were hit with skin-piercing rubber bullets; thousands were gassed with
an array of chemicals. On several occasions, police fired loud concussion
grenades into the crowds. Police shocked people with electric tazers.
Demonstrators were shot in the back as they retreated. One young guy's apparent
crime was holding his fingers in a peace sign in front of the troops. They shot
him multiple times, including once in the stomach at point blank range.
My colleagues and I spent several days in the streets, going from conflict to
conflict. We saw no attempts by any protesters to attack a business or
corporation. With the exception of some graffiti and an occasional garbage can
set on fire, there was very little in the way of action not aimed directly at
the site of the FTAA meetings. Even the Black Bloc kids, who generally have a
rep for wanting to smash everything up, were incredibly restrained and
There was no need for any demonstrator to hurl anything at the forces to spark
police violence. It was clear from the jump that Timoney's men came prepared to
crack heads. And they did that over and over. After receiving $8.5 million in
federal funds from the $87 billion Iraq spending bill, Miami needed to have a
major combat operation. It didn't matter if it was warranted.
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz called the police actions last week a model for homeland
security. FTAA officials called it extraordinary. Several cities sent law
enforcement observers to the protests to study what some are now referring to
as the "Miami Model."
This model also included the embedding of undercover police with the protesters.
At one point during a standoff with police, it appeared as though a group of
protesters had gotten into a brawl amongst themselves. But as others moved in
to break up the melee, two of the guys pulled out electric tazers and shocked
protesters, before being liberated back behind police lines. These guys,
clearly undercover agents, were dressed like any other protester. One had a
sticker on his backpack that read: "FTAA No Way."
The IMC has since published pictures of people dressed like Black Bloc kids-ski
masks and all-walking with uniformed police behind police lines.
The only pause in the heavy police violence in Miami came on Thursday afternoon
when the major labor unions held their mass-rally and march. Led by AFL-CIO
President John Sweeney, the march had a legal permit and was carefully
coordinated with the police. Many of the union guys applauded the police as
they marched past columns of the body-armored officers on break from gassing
and shooting unarmed demonstrators.
But as soon as the unions and their permits began to disperse, the police seized
the moment to escalate the violence against the other protesters. Fresh from
their break during the union rally, Timoney's forces ordered the protesters to
clear the area in front of the Inter-Continental. Some of the demonstrators
shouted back that they had a right to peaceably protest the FTAA.
Boom. The concussion grenades started flying.
Hiss. The tear gas was sprayed.
Rat-a-tat-tat. The rubber bullets were fired.
Bam, bam. The batons were swinging.
The police methodically marched in a long column directly at the several hundred
protesters who believed they had a right to protest, even without John Sweeney
at their side. They fired indiscriminately at the crowds. One woman had part of
her ear blown off. Another was shot in the forehead. I got shot twice, once in
the back, another time in the leg. My colleague, John Hamilton from the Workers
Independent News Service was shot in the neck by a pepper-spray pellet-a small
ball that explodes into a white powder. After a few moments, John began
complaining that his neck was burning from the powder. We doused him in water,
but the burning continued. When I tried to ask the police what the powder was,
they told me to "mind myself."
I've been in enough police riots to know that when the number of demonstrators
dwindles and the sun sets, that's when the real violence begins. Eventually,
the police forced the dissipating group of protesters into one of the poorest
sections of Miami, surrounding them on 4 sides. We stood there in the streets
with the eerie feeling of a high-noon showdown. Except there were hundreds of
them with guns and dozens of us with cameras and banners. They fired gas and
rubber bullets at us as they moved in. All of us realized we had nothing to do
but run. We scattered down side streets and alleys, ducking as we fled.
Eventually, we made it out.
After nearly an hour, we managed to find a taxi. We got in and the driver
started choking from our pepper-sprayed clothes. She wanted us to get out of
the taxi. We apologized for our smell and offered her more money just to get us
to the hotel. She agreed.
The Real Crime: Failure to Embed
The next day, we went to a midday rally outside the Dade County Jail where more
than 150 people were being held prisoner. It was a peaceful assembly of about
300 people. They sang "We all live in a failed democracy," to the tune of "We
all live in a yellow submarine." They chanted, "Free the Prisoners, Not Free
Trade," and "Take off your riot gear, there ain't no riot here."
Representatives of the protesters met with police officials at the scene. The
activists said they would agree to remain in a parking lot across the street
from the jail if the police would call off the swelling presence of the riot
police. They reached an agreement...or so the police said.
As the demonstration continued, the numbers of fully armed troops grew and grew.
And they moved in from all four sides. They announced that people had 3 minutes
to disperse from the "unlawful assembly." Even though the police violated their
agreement, the protesters complied. A group of 5 activists led by Puppetista
David Solnit informed the police they would not leave. The police said fine and
began arresting them.
But that was not enough. The police then attacked the dispersing crowd, chasing
about 30 people into a corner. They shoved them to the ground and beat them.
They gassed them at close range. My colleague from Democracy Now!, Ana
Nogueira, and I got separated in the mayhem. I was lucky to end up on the
"safe" side of the street. Ana was in the melee. As she did her job-videotaping
the action-Ana was wearing her press credentials in plain sight. As the police
began handcuffing people, Ana told them she was a journalist. One of the
officers said, "She's not with us, she's not with us," meaning that although
Ana was clearly a journalist, she was not the friendly type. She was not
embedded with the police and therefore had to be arrested.
In police custody, the authorities made Ana remove her clothes because they were
soaked with pepper spray. The police forced her to strip naked in front of male
officers. Despite calls from Democracy Now!, the ACLU, lawyers and others
protesting Ana's arrest and detention, she was held in a cockroach-filled jail
cell until 3:30 am. She was only released after I posted a $500 bond. Other
independent journalists remained locked up for much longer and face serious
charges, some of them felonies. In the end, Ana was charged with "failure to
The real crime seems to be "failure to embed."
In the times in which we live, this is what democracy looks like. Thousands of
soldiers, calling themselves police, deployed in US cities to protect the power
brokers from the masses. /Posse Comitatus/ is just a Latin phrase. Vigilantes
like John Timoney roam from city to city, organizing militias to hunt the
dangerous radicals who threaten the good order. And damned be the journalist
who dares to say it-or film it-like it is.
Jeremy Scahill is a producer and correspondent for the nationally syndicated
radio and TV program Democracy Now! He can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. For more reports on the FTAA protests, go to:
-- Jeremy Scahill Producer/Correspondent Democracy Now! Phone: +1-212-431-9090
Fax:+1-212-431-8858 www.democracynow.org Sign up for the Democracy Now! Daily
News Digest: http://www.democracynow.org/maillist.pl