MIAMI -- They have no leaders. So they often spend hours in meetings, trying to reach consensus among each and every one of them.
They like punk music and the color black. They hate Starbucks, logos and any symbols of "corporate greed."
They're young idealists and older intellectuals; they're loosely organized yet highly mobilized.
They're anarchists -- best known for the mayhem and destruction left in their wake at Seattle's World Trade Organization meeting four years ago.
Police see them as bored, rich, white kids who only want to cause trouble. They blame them for burning buildings, smashing windows and overturning cars at anti-globalization protests worldwide.
The FBI has profiled them. Officers who have encountered them share information about them.
Now South Florida law enforcement agencies are preparing for them.
Though violent protesters are expected to make up only a small percentage of the more than 20,000 demonstrators at the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting next week, police say the "anarchists" are the ones they're worried about.
For the past seven months, Miami police have spent countless hours familiarizing their officers with the more creative tactics they say anarchists use: wrist rockets? that can fling ball bearings into crowds, Molotov cocktails, squirt guns filled with acid or urine.
"If they come here to violate the law and jeopardize other people's safety, then we're going to put a stop to that," said Deputy Miami Police Chief Frank Fernández, who has been overseeing the police preparations for the meeting.
Anarchists say they are just misunderstood.
The movement's proponents insist that anarchy is not about violence -- many of them don't consider property destruction violent -- but about striving for direct democracy where everyone's voice is truly heard.
"The idea that the police have been giving a lot of people is that anarchy equals complete chaos, disorder and violence," said Andrew Willis, a college student in Washington, D.C., who is helping organize groups of anarchists to protest in Miami. "I would say it's more of a basic ideological critique of power in society."
Willis sees civil disobedience as fair game.
Blocking intersections, dropping huge banners from buildings and causing general disruptions to prevent international trade ministers from getting to trade meetings have been borne out of necessity, said Willis, whose parents live in Weston. But very few are violent, he said.
Some residents and business people, however, already are on edge about the potential for mayhem.
According to a memo distributed by an international security firm to corporate clients, some of the more aggressive protesters during past anti-globalization demonstrations have armed themselves with body armor and padding, then fired paint bombs at police and used catapults to fling "nasty things" into crowds.
"In Seattle, anarchists vandalized and destroyed property in the heart of downtown," warned Tom Cash, a retired DEA agent who wrote the memo as senior managing director for Kroll, Inc. "They used crowbars to break glass windows and plate glass storefronts, burned cars and garbage dumpsters and started fires in strip malls."
David Graeber, an anarchist who teaches anthropology at Yale University, said the warnings about these dreaded activists have gone too far. Few anarchists have ever broken anything, much less resorted to physical violence, he said.
Graeber says law enforcement officials often engage in "bizarre police psychological warfare" to scare the public in order to justify their own heavy-handed tactics and large police mobilizations.
"The more they hype this stuff up, the more destruction and violence they predict, the more they can take credit for the protesters' own good behavior," said Graeber said. "It will look like they had a great victory."
Even peaceful activists say "overblown security concerns" are casting a shadow on the real issues at stake: worker rights, environmental protection and corporate dominance.
If there is violence, it can just as easily come from police, said Sushma Sheth, policy director at the Miami Workers Center, who is participating in a peaceful march against the FTAA.
She said activists have trained their own "marshals," to keep demonstrators safe from attacks from anarchists -- or police.
Despite the bad press anarchists received during recent protests, even some peaceful activists credit the attention-grabbing tactics of these extreme activists at trade talks in Seattle for thrusting the anti-globalization movement into the spotlight.
Anarchist thought can be traced to at least the 19th century. Anarchy, based on the Greek word for "no rulers," is often associated with chaos and the violent overthrow of government. [An anarchist assassinated President William McKinley in 1901.]
Anarchists today -- made up mostly of college students, twenty-somethings and intellectuals -- say they are more likely to work within the confines of civil society, focusing instead on advocating for a return to true egalitarianism.
Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguistics professor who has helped spread anarchist thought through his writings, argues that the philosophy appeals to people who have become disillusioned with modern democracy.
Many anarchists spend a surprising amount of time in meetings. They form consensus among participants before a protest, making decisions as a whole through "spokescouncils."
Small groups of friends, known as affinity groups, appoint delegates or "spokes" to relay messages between the other groups, in effect doing away with any leaders.
Some, tired of waiting for change, espouse a more aggressive stance, engaging in "black bloc" tactics.
These include forming human blockades by linking their arms with "sleeping dragons," contraptions made out of everything from PVC pipes and concrete, to make it difficult for police to do mass arrests. Another tactic, "padded blocs," allow protesters to sustain blows from police by wrapping their bodies with foam.
Perhaps the most aggressive of these tactics is known as "unarresting," where black blocs snatch those arrested away from police. Some taunt police to try to get them to use force. A few have engaged in combat with police.
"I think there is an understanding that peaceful, agreed-upon protest as usual is not going to achieve much of anything," said John Zerzan, an anarchist writer from Eugene, Ore., who gained notoriety for his correspondence with convicted Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. "The whole black bloc militancy and impatience is based on that."
Staff Writer Madeline Baró Diaz contributed to this report.
Diana Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 305-810-5005.
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