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Barbara Villela: A Sad Day for Miami

A Sad Day for Miami

by Barbara Villela
Written November 20, 2003.

Last night was a jolt into a reality that I never thought could exist in this country. What I describe below is the experience of a middle-class woman, a wife and mother who is simply a citizen of the U.S. concerned about the state of her nation. I do not have a shaved-head, tattoos or multiple piercings, and have not been running around with a sling-shot (as has been rumored about the FTAA protesters). I have never destroyed someone else’s personal or private property (nor do I ever intend to) but I do take my first amendment rights very seriously and that is why I am writing this.

Over 800 million people in the Western Hemisphere will be affected by the FTAA negotiations that are going on here in Miami and as I witnessed last night, there is a huge campaign of intimidation and coercion to keep people from expressing the powerful tool of many voices—demonstrating in the streets as a form of protest.

As I approached the gathering last night in Bay Front Park (in downtown Miami) with the goal in mind of photographing these historic events, I felt the excitement and keen responsibility that I was exercising an important and basic right described in our constitution. A right that our government espouses is important for other nations to provide and protect and often refers to as one of our basic “Freedoms” when trying to persuade our citizenry to support interventions in other nations (most recently in the invasion of Iraq).

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I was excited about going, but I also had a lot of fear and misgivings that I have never experienced before when going to this type of event. I am new to Miami having moved here just seven months ago from the San Francisco Bay Area, a place where there is no social stigma to the word “protester” and demonstrations are plentiful and quite normal. My husband was out of town on business and I chose to go with a friend of mine who like me, is concerned about what is at stake in these talks, namely the jobs that mean economic viability for most Americans. Earlier in the week my daughter had come home from school with the news that the Mayor of Miami had decided to cancel her school’s early dismissal because “the children may be hurt by the protesters.” Each day there were reports in the newspapers about the Miami police engaging in special training for the protests and the great show of force that would be made during the events. I took-in these details and expected a very different scene from San Francisco, but nothing could have prepared me for what we encountered.

We decided to take the Metro into the downtown from our suburb in the South and were astounded to see that as we approached our destination there was not a soul traveling with us. Not one person. It was very odd to be going to such an event (where the expected attendance was projected between 10 to 25 thousand) and not see a single individual and my friend and I nervously joked about this as I photographed her in the empty Metro car. The two closest stations to the event were closed “for security purposes” and as we walked the desolate blocks to the amphitheater, our anxiety grew. We still had not seen any sign of protesters and passed a group of men idling outside of a bar, the only establishment open. We arrived at Bay Front Blvd. where a contingent of police in helmets and riot gear lined the street in each direction. It was quite an ominous sight. The police were dressed all in black and were eerily highlighted by the streetlamps, each with legs spread apart in a militant stance. Again, not a soul was in sight except for the police who did not acknowledge us in any way, until three protesters appeared in front of us heading up the ramp to the amphitheater. Walking-up the ramp to the entrance we began to see more people. A couple of people, seeing my camera told me I would not be able to bring it in. One guy actually said, “If you value your camera you should leave now.” I was puzzled by this but chose to see for myself what the security policy was, and found that the policy seemed to be pretty arbitrary, that some people were turned away with their cameras but we were let in.

Inside the amphitheater the atmosphere was tense. The police presence was less in numbers but they were still very much present. There was none of the light-hearted festival-like atmosphere of San Francisco, where people sometimes show-up in costume and with large theatrical puppets. People here were looking around nervously at each other and at the police. I kept on trying to brush away the ridiculous feeling I had that we were all doing something wrong just by being there, and thought I recognized some of this same sentiment in other people’s body language and eye contact. Then there was the question that hung-over the entire event like a giant question-mark, “Where was everybody?” As we mingled and talked to different people this was the question that was murmured over and over again. My friend and I, evaluating the entire scene estimated no more then two to three thousand people were there. We talked to individuals from different church groups and humanitarian organizations. Many of them were wondering where other groups were who may have taken alternative march routes to the event. “I wonder if they have been arrested?” people asked. Even when the music started-up the somber tone did not lift and except for an eruption of a spontaneous rally from a group of twenty or so Haitian unionists, the tone remained through the night.

Another exception (that was also one of the largest presences at the event) was that of the U.S. Steelworkers. These large brawny men seemed to be everywhere in their red caps and blue tee shirts. They were also recognizable by their easy manner and their North-Eastern accents. They seemed unfazed by the strange ambience of the event and their conversations had the conviviality and spirit one might find in a warm pub in Pittsburgh or Syracuse. At a certain point I had a realization about how adversely affected these men will be if the FTAA goes through in its current form. I hoped that the group I was looking at in front of me was not another endangered species, and that their livelihood and way of life would still be intact two years from now.

One of the speeches that really hit home with me was given by an Argentinean woman who spoke about the effects of trade liberalization policy on her country. She talked about how two years ago Argentina was held-up as the darling example of these policies, and now one out of every three Argentineans does not have enough to eat.

After a couple of hours the event seemed to be winding down and my friend and I decided to go home (as two women alone, we fretted about traversing back in the desolate Metro stations). We both made a parting assessment of the gathering and remarked about how we had attended many rock concerts with larger crowds. It was amazing that something so important as to effect more then 800 million lives would not draw a larger crowd.

Reflecting on this during our ride back we both wondered at how many more people would have come without the build-up of reports about the special police enforcement and training, not to mention the on-going negative campaigning and stigmatizing of the protests by Miami’s city officials including the Mayor. I went home somewhat disappointed but determined to go out again today.

Today I planned to meet-up with an acquaintance of mine who is a photojournalist with one of the city’s larger papers. I changed my mind however, when I received an email from him early this morning. He told me not to come without a helmet and a gas mask. For a couple of moments I pondered “would a bicycle helmet work?” and where I would get a gas mask at six o’clock in the morning. And then I realized I would not be going as I thought of my daughter sleeping peacefully in her room, and the effect of my being arrested (or worse) would have on her. No, The Mayor of Miami, the Chief of Police, and other irresponsible, powerful individuals had ruined it for me and thousands of other individuals who simply wanted to bring attention to something that will ultimately affect all of our lives. From the reports I have been getting all day, my journalist friend was not exaggerating. The descriptions of the police with tear gas, armored vehicles and even machine guns proliferate the media coverage. It is truly a sad day in our beautiful country.

- Barbara Villela is a free-lance photographer (and closet writer), who now resides in Miami, Florida. She can be contacted at Published on Friday, November 21, 2003 by

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