Protest, police, tear gas then and now

Opinion

Two weeks ago in Miami I got a face full of tear gas or pepper spray in the demonstrations against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The last time I was gassed by police was in October 1967 at “Stop the Draft Week” in Oakland, Calif.

I don’t remember the gas being that strong in ’67, but, hey, I was a lot younger then. This time the gas almost knocked me down. A woman near me kept me from falling until my head cleared. My eyes, throat and nasal passages stung like the dickens. An hour later, after washing my eyes out with water several times, they still burned.

I couldn’t figure out what had happened at first. We were a block and a half away from the police lines, in a group of trade unionists, AFL-CIO “peacekeepers” in bright orange vests, and some seniors from the Alliance of Retired Americans. Later, we heard on TV that an “overzealous” squad from the Miami sheriff’s department had sprayed the entrance to the amphitheater because they wanted to stop union members from joining the young protesters facing the police lines. A preemptive strike.

Let me be clear. There were no “good” demonstrators versus “bad” demonstrators. The Miami city administration and police tried to split the demonstrators that way all week. But union leaders and members refused to accept such a split. At the Steelworkers’ Rapid Response conference early in the week it was made clear that the slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” applied in full force to all FTAA protesters. The labor folks, the AFL-CIO, did not accept “red” baiting or “radical” baiting of the young protesters.

Then the stories began to come in. Gassing and worse all over the place. Seniors thrown to the ground. Unionists shot with rubber bullets. Arbitrary arrests, clubbing, gassing, slapping and shoving even blocks away from the police lines. All without provocation and without any real violence from the protesters’ side. The AFL-CIO and protest organizers had worked for weeks, in good faith, to reach agreement with the police – all shattered by the police in clouds of tear gas and swinging batons.

So, protesters got gassed and beaten in the ’60s and protesters still get the same today. So what else is new?

True, the police are more high tech in their Darth Vader space suits. The gas canisters are bigger and spray with greater force and volume. And rubber bullets are relatively new in domestic repression. (The Kent State antiwar protesters were shot with real bullets.)

But there is a deep similarity. In the ’60s, the violent overreaction of the police at civil rights and antiwar demonstrations was symptomatic of coming deep changes in American society. Masses of people in motion terrified the powers that be. Folks my age remember the dogs and the water cannons in Montgomery, Ala., the bullets at Kent State and Jackson State, and the beatings and tear gas in D.C. and Oakland. We also remember that in a matter of months following these instances of state-sponsored violence the back of Jim Crow segregation was broken, the Civil Rights Act was passed and the Vietnam War was ended.

Once again, I think the overreaction from the halls of power in this country indicate fear of change. The irrational and over the top response to peaceful protest against both the anti-globalization movement and the peace movement point toward deeper transformations under way.

But there is also something different in today’s overreaction. George Bush represents a much greater ultra-right threat to democracy than we faced in the ’60s. It’s not just the escalation of the violence and the greater willingness to use it preemptively against anyone and everyone who happens to be in the way. It’s also the whole climate of fear the Bush administration is creating.

The campaign of fear and intimidation is probably greater than at any time since the McCarthy era of the 1950s. And now the laws (Patriot Act) are much more draconian. Part of the intimidation comes also from just watching the brutal use of shock and awe force in Iraq and Afghanistan. An administration that is prepared to lie and to recklessly use military power, costing lives and limbs of one or more soldiers a day, is also prepared to go to extremes at home.

Nevertheless, the feeling of solidarity and movement felt strong in Miami. “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round, turn me round. I’m gonna keep on marching …” – that powerful old civil rights anthem kept running through my head.

Seeing labor on the march, seeing new labor/community alliances and coalitions grow and develop, you can’t help feeling that something new is brewing.

Bottom line: Most people left Miami feeling like the FTAA could be defeated and George Bush could be sent back to Texas.

Scott Marshall is a vice chair of the Communist Party USA and chair of its Labor Department. He can be reached at scott@rednet.org.