AI accuses Miami police

TRADE PROTEST: Last week's demonstration resulted in the jailing of 200 people, leading a coalition of interest groups to claim police used needless violence


Fri, Nov 28, 2003 - Page 7

Amnesty International (AI) on Wednesday called for an investigation into police tactics used during last week's Free Trade Area of the Americas meetings here, joining a swelling chorus of complaints that the police used unwarranted violence to stifle mostly peaceful demonstrators.

Also on Wednesday, a coalition of labor, environmental and anti-globalization groups detailed an array of violent police actions against protesters, reporters and others trying to navigate downtown streets on Thursday and Friday last week.

At a press conference, members of the coalition said the police had fired on unarmed protesters with rubber bullets that left large welts, forced them to the ground and handcuffed them at gunpoint and used pepper spray on them. They said the police also stopped hundreds of people on the streets, searched them without cause and seized their possessions.

Dozens of protesters were jailed for hours or even a few days, and the coalition members said many had been denied water, food and, in some cases, medical treatment.

"This was a paramilitary assault," said Naomi Archer, a leader of South Floridians for Fair Trade and Global Justice, adding that the police seemed intent on violating the civil rights "of anyone who has an opinion that runs counter to those in power."

In its statement, AI called for an independent investigation into reports that some of the more than 200 people jailed during the protests were mistreated.

The police department's press office did not answer the phone on Wednesday afternoon, and an officer who answered a call to the chief's office said the department would make no comment.

The talks drew 8,000 to 10,000 protesters to downtown Miami, the police said. Though the Miami police department, which has about 1,000 officers, led the security effort, about 40 law enforcement agencies and 2,500 officers participated. The federal government provided US$8.5 million to help Miami with security expenses.

Lynn Norman-Teck, a spokeswoman for Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, said that by all indications, the police had done a good job of "balancing between the rights of lawful protesters and the need for safety for all our citizens."

"If there are complaints, the mayor assures the county will look into them," she added.

Since the trade meetings ended, a number of groups who came to protest free trade have expressed outrage at how the police treated them. Although a few dozen protesters threw bottles, rocks and smoke bombs at the police and set trash fires, the majority were not looking for trouble, these groups say.

The United Steelworkers of America has called for a congressional investigation into the police department's tactics, saying officers systematically intimidated its members who participated in a peaceful rally and march sponsored by the AFL-CIO on Thursday last week.

The trade talks came amid fierce competition among Miami and several other cities to be named the headquarters for a planned free trade zone stretching from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Miami has lobbied aggressively for the designation and planned the large police presence to prevent the kind of violence that erupted during trade talks in Seattle in 1999.

Critics have accused the city of using whatever means necessary to ensure that its downtown remained calm and attractive for the trade ministers.

John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, released a statement on Wednesday saying that the police had violated "virtually every agreement" made with the union in advance of its protests, and adding that the union might sue.

The Florida Alliance for Retired Americans complained earlier in the week that the police had turned away 13 of 25 buses of retirees it sent to the labor rally and abused a number of retirees who did get there.

In a letter to the AFL-CIO on Tuesday, John Timoney, the Miami police chief, said he was conducting a review of police actions, but he also defended them.