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Dissent: Something to Be Thankful For

Here’s one big thing I’m thankful for today: The AFL-CIO and the Alliance for Retired Americans just filed a civil liberties lawsuit against a slew of law enforcement agencies in Miami for attacking peaceful participants in a 2003 trade rally.

We waited to file this suit against the Bush administration-inspired Big Brother tactics because investigations were ongoing…and ongoing….and…

Finally, late last year, two independent investigative panels found the police guilty of gross civil rights violations and misconduct. So, the next logical step would be for criminal investigations to be launched to determine accountability for the brutal response. Right?

But nothing happened. So we’re taking action.

The attacks took place during the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) protests in Miami, where tens of thousands of people—union members and trade and environmental activists—gathered to voice their opposition to the FTAA, which was modeled after the failed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

(One happy side note: The FTAA, which was supposed to cover most of the western hemisphere—all 34 countries of Latin America, the Caribbean and North America, with the exception of Cuba—never was approved. Deep disagreements among the participating countries led to the suspension of negotiations in 2004, and few observers think the FTAA is likely to be revived anytime soon.)

The suit asks for ”punitive damages” and a declaration that police violated protesters’ First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment guarantees and names Miami, Miami-Dade, Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hialeah and the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

During the 2003 rally, officers from 40 different Florida law enforcement agencies were armed with armored personnel carriers, military helicopters and state of the art “crowd suppression” equipment paid for with more than $8 million in taxpayer funds originally appropriated for the Iraq war. City honchos shut down the city—the rally and march were on a weekday—barring residents from going to their offices or getting anywhere near the area.

By the end of the day, thousands of law-abiding people had been gassed, beaten with batons and shot with rubber bullets. More than 300 people were injured and 250 were arrested. Almost none of those arrested ever were prosecuted for any crime. The Alliance for Retired Americans joined us in the suit because the 3 million-plus organization for union retirees had a strong contingent at the rally—and several of the seniors who participated were gassed or otherwise brutalized.

In the days after the attacks on peaceful rally participants, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney described the efforts by the AFL-CIO to ensure freedom of speech and association were respected—and the Miami Police Department’s violations of those Constitutional rights.

The AFL-CIO engaged in good faith negotiations over several months with the Miami police department to ensure a safe and secure event, and we kept our promises. But the Miami police violated virtually every agreement. They blocked access to the rally and march for buses and individuals; deployed tanks and scores of officers in riot gear in front of the rally entrance; denied march organizers access to water, signs, and toilets; and pointed guns at and verbally abused those seeking guidance from the police. Peaceful protestors were swept up in police cordons, shot at with rubber bullets and pepper spray, arrested, and even mistreated while in police custody.

At the time, Sweeney also called on former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, for a full investigation. The lack of response by the Bush regime was tragically predictable, and part of the administration’s callousness toward working people—and the U.S. Constitution.

Fred Frost, president of the South Florida AFL-CIO, put the lawsuit in its basic context:

This lawsuit is about the ability of citizen’s of this country to continue to speak truth to power. It is what the principles of our country was founded on. Dissent is what has shaped this great nation; it is a vital component of our democracy.

The suit says while rally participants attempted to “engage in lawful and peaceful assembly and protest,”

defendants prevented Plaintiffs and other peaceful supporters and audience members from hearing constitutionally-protected speech about the FTAA, and from associating for the purpose of publicly expressing their political views…

Defendants’ unlawful conduct not only directly caused personal injury, financial losses and suppression of Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, but also created a hostile climate that indirectly “chilled,” and continues to chill, the exercise of constitutional rights in South Florida.

James Taylor, a master carpenter and member of the Theatrical Stage Employees Locals 477 and 500 in Miami was on the job when he was attacked at the rally. He said that after being tear-gassed and hit by a rubber bullet while taking down the stage, he experienced difficulty seeing and breathing and it took nearly three weeks for his throat to sufficiently heal before he got his voice back.

Frost and Tony Fransetta, Florida Alliance for Retired Americans President, joined dozens of fired-up retirees, union members and supporters at a press conference last week at the Miami-Dade County police station to announce the suit. After the press conference, the activists served the police chief’s office with the papers for the lawsuit. Said Fransetta of the FTAA event:

On that day, you not only denied us our freedom. You have put a page in history that will haunt your right to those freedoms you had sworn to protect.

Two months ago, the Florida Alliance won a lawsuit against the city of Fort Lauderdale, preserving the use of certain signs during protests. In October, the Miami City Commission, without admitting wrongdoing, approved a share of a settlement of about half a million dollars to 21 protesters who alleged their constitutional rights had been violated.

From the earliest days of this republic, when George Washington called out 12,950 militia men to suppress the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, America’s working people have found it necessary to fight for the freedom to speak their mind without repression. And we have not experienced total authoritarian suppression only because we never give up the fight.

And that’s something to be thankful for.

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Tula Connell

Tula Connell