Northwest of downtown Miami, in the depressed neighborhood of Overtown, cars, vans and buses line the blocks around 2300 N. Miami Ave. Their license plates represent more states than is usual even for South Florida. There are people everywhere, mostly young and wearing the uniforms of various fringe cultures. Punks, hippies, hippie-fied (crusty) punks, hardcore kids in cargo shorts and dark, hooded sweatshirts under the potent sun. A few wear black fatigues, and black bandanas over their faces. No one is alone; they're always in groups.
Police cars cruise by every five minutes or so, and officers stationed on the roof of a nearby Salvation Army watch through binoculars. Cameramen and local-news talking heads lean against the line of logoed vans across the street, watching people enter, leave and hang out in front of the edifice on the northeast corner of N. Miami and 23rd Street.
It's a storefront with a large, covered and fenced-in yard. Running along 23rd, the chain-link features one of those dark liners to prevent folks from looking in, but it doesn't really matter — most of it is covered in colorful, hand-tailored banners expressing various opinions regarding the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
None has anything nice to say about it.
This is the Convergence Center, a focal point and information outlet for the alphabet soup of political and social activist organizations in town to protest this week's FTAA ministerial meeting.
Conceptualized during the Clinton administration, the Free Trade Area of the Americas intends to expand on NAFTA's tariff-less (and, some say, deeply flawed) trade model, to include every civilized nation in the Western Hemisphere but Cuba. Activists are chiefly concerned with its all-but-complete lack of citizen input; its dearth of language regarding workers' rights; its allowance of power to corporate entities, and its potentially disastrous consequences for the environment.
Ordinary citizens, on the other hand, are chiefly worried about the activists. Though the FTAA has been a work in progress since 1994, the average American only heard about it last week, when the media spotlight swept over Miami's preparations to host the ministerial. The coverage devoted itself almost exclusively to beefed-up security, the massive show of force planned by the state's law enforcement agencies, and fear. In the wake of the 1999 World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle — you know, the ones where the cops and the anti-globalists both fucked up — the country's perception of the protester has shifted from lazy, ignorant, tie-dyed tree-hugger to violent, ignorant, black-clad anarchist. The media helped. 9-11 didn't hurt the process, either.
One of the key words here is "ignorant." Many God-and-country Americans find it both more comforting, and more titillating, to characterize those with contrary views as dumbly chaotic, with no agenda beyond pointless disruption. I'm not going to discount that notion completely. Large-scale protests have become magnets for a minority with nothing more than trouble on their minds. And there are those few extreme collectives who believe violence and vandalism are viable means to their ends.
But two other words come to me as I stand inside 2300 N. Miami Ave., checking out the rules (No Alcohol, No Drugs, Be Aware of Your Tone of Voice and Surroundings, etc.) and security sign-up sheets posted everywhere, and watching volunteers serve food to some of the overwhelmingly diverse crowd inside. The words are "organized" and "informed." They came to me earlier in the week, when I attended a workshop in St. Pete on group-awareness techniques for protest situations, and they will reoccur again and again at demonstrations I witness over the next day and a half.
It's not like the Army or anything — I walk right by the bearded young man standing guard and am inside the Convergence Center for 10 or 15 minutes, before a very tall girl sternly informs me that the press isn't allowed inside and assigns an escort to make sure I don't talk to anybody on my way out. (To be fair, I look a hell of a lot more like the people in here than I do Ron Williams Reporting Live For Action News At Five.) But there's information everywhere, on the walls, on a table buried under pamphlets, on the papers and press releases being handed out by every fifth activist I see. It would seem that the average protester is anything but uninformed.
"I can't really say what the average protester knows, but they're so much more well-informed than [the average citizen]," says Laurel Ripple, a Miami native who helped secure the Convergence Center location. Anti-globalists and corporations have one thing in common these days: when you tell 'em you're press, they both shut up and point you to their Media Representative. "When they become aware of the issues involved, there's no way they can stop themselves from learning more. That's why we're all here, trying to outreach to folks, educate them."