MIAMI -- The city of Miami is bracing this week for 20,000 demonstrators determined to disrupt negotiations on trade among 34 countries. The level of protest has not been seen here since federal agents seized Elian Gonzalez from relatives and returned the boy to his father in Cuba three years ago.
The protesters object to plans for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would create a market encompassing the Western Hemisphere except Cuba. Local leaders are determined to maintain control because they are promoting Miami's candidacy for headquarters of the proposed organization.
Police, at heightened levels of alert, will be in the streets, assisted by a new ordinance that outlaws the use by protesters of hard signs, liquid-filled balloons, handcuffs, and various other objects. Civil rights groups have threatened a lawsuit.
Outside Miami, the looming confrontation has received scant attention until now. But on the Internet, it has become a national rallying point for the protest movement, a political phenomenon that emerged in violent demonstrations at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, that fanned out to Genoa, Quebec City, and elsewhere, but that was snuffed out after Sept. 11, 2001.
"One of the things we faced after 9/11 was the delegitimization of protest, particularly any kind of civil disobedience or confrontational protest," said Russ Davis of the Boston branch of Jobs With Justice, which will have several members at the protests. "It seemed crazy to think about that. But since the massive rallies against the war, people saw the value of protest again."
While trade talks two months ago in Cancun, Mexico, also faced heavy protests, this will be the first such large-scale mobilization on US soil since demonstrations against the Iraq war became the primary focus of the left. Organizers say the week of marches, rallies, teach-ins, concerts, and acts of coordinated disruption will not simply be a reversion to '90s-style protests.
Rather, in the past year, the protest movement has morphed under a new, hybrid banner -- perhaps more familiar in Europe, but new to the United States. The demonstrators are against the "American empire" and what they see as a seamless fabric of economic and military power that a small group of corporate elite is imposing on the world.
"Economic anxiety is getting combined with the peace movement strain of activism," said an organizer, Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. "The analysis is one of empire -- of economic empire and military empire coming together."
Those themes will be echoed in solidarity events nationally. In Boston, the Eastern Massachusetts Global Justice Coalition is holding a march Friday for those who cannot make it to the Miami protests. They will gather at the MBTA stop at Boylston at 3:30 p.m. and march to Copley Square for a 5 p.m. rally, one of many such events around the United States and other countries participating in the talks.
But the main event is in Miami, whose chief of police, John Timoney, is a veteran of the protest movement, having run the Philadelphia police force during the 2000 Republican convention. There he was accused of preemptively arresting protest leaders under dubious pretenses. Five protesters were arrested in an early demonstration yesterday, including an observer dispatched by protesters to watch officers' conduct.
This time, civic leaders are adopting a strategy of a heavy but less intimidating police presence, with officers on bicycles who have been trained to avoid escalations, according to local media reports.
Still, few people are taking chances. Downtown businesses, post offices, and courthouses reportedly will close. Cruise companies are moving their ships out of the port of Miami-Dade. And a makeshift jail is being prepared in anticipation of mass arrests.
Amid the spectacle, protesters say they plan to raise awareness of their message: that by imposing uniform commercial laws designed to block regulations that impede the free flow of goods, the Free Trade Assocition would undermine local control of public decisions over regulation and trample environmental protections and union wages.
And they speak of these issues as leading to militarism. For example, an organizer, Lesley Kaufman of United for Peace and Justice, said that although free-trade pacts outlaw most favoritism for native companies in government spending, they contain "national security" exceptions to protect arms industries. "So they encourage governments to use military spending to achieve nonmilitary goals, such as to foster local industry," Kaufman said.
Free-trade advocates counter that a uniform business environment will lead to lower prices for consumers and economic growth, ultimately benefiting everyone. And the changing face of the movement has not yet impressed other critics.
Niles Gardiner, international regulatory affairs fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, dismissed the demonstrators as little more than "a ragtag, disparate group" united by "anti-Americanism above all." He added that the events in Miami will probably be overshadowed by President Bush's visit to London, where rallies are expected to draw many more protesters.
"Many question what [the protesters] are trying to achieve," he said. "They seem to be very confused and very ineffective."
But John Noakes, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied protest movements, said it would be simplistic to dismiss the coalition's concerns in that manner: "There is an ideological link for many people between US military action or `imperialism' and the whole question of global justice. They see the world as organized in a particular way, and all these things make a lot of sense being connected."
But even some of the protests' supporters wonder whether the joining of antiwar and antiglobalization movements will become a reality or is simply a vision at this point. Unlike in Europe, said Davis, trade unions in the United States have traditionally been more conservative on issues of US military policy.
Nevertheless, just as Miami leaders are hoping the week will go smoothly to foster the growth of their city, protest movement leaders are hoping for the opposite. A big turnout in Miami and in other Free Trade Area of the Americas solidarity marches would signal that their cause has recaptured the momentum it seemed to lose when the World Trade Center was destroyed.
"I really hope that the war in Iraq is an entry point for a lot of people who normally aren't activisits but who are just fed up and get plugged into all this," said Walid Zaiter, staff director at Boston's United for Justice and Peace. "I hope it's a gateway -- `Oh wow, this war in Iraq, how did this happen?' -- and maybe they . . . realize there is a bigger system behind this that brought us to this."