Book 'em, Souto

Commissioner Javier Souto isn't angry at the homeless people in his district. He just wants them to go away.

Miguel asserts the police officer was annoyed to have been called out for such an insignificant problem. "He didn't even get out of the car," Miguel says. "He just said, 'Is that all? As long as you're not working as a mechanic you can do whatever you need to do in the parking lot.' And he drove off. But from that day on, the homeless in this park were persecuted."

(Souto doesn't recall such an incident, and he says he never calls police with complaints about homeless people. The Miami-Dade Police Department has not received any directive to crack down on homeless people, adds Det. Juan Castillo.)

Outreach teams from the county's Department of Human Services began visiting the library, trying to convince the homeless men to move to shelters; although most of the park's denizens accepted, O'Keefe declined the offer. Worse, O'Keefe claims in mid-February a police officer mid-February threatened him with arrest if he didn't "leave the library forever." This scared him so badly he rode his bike to Broward County, where he stayed for several days before returning to the library. Then O'Keefe began typing a series of e-mails to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "I add that the commissioner of the 10th District, Javier Souto, is the one giving orders against us," he wrote in one message. "I live in great worry, threatened by a police that is not in agreement with liberty, claiming I am not a citizen, not a human, different, and that I can be treated differently, that they can dispose of me as they desire, which is what tyrants do."

Why would a powerful politician dislike Francis O'Keefe so much?
Steve Satterwhite
Why would a powerful politician dislike Francis O'Keefe so much?

On March 4 the ACLU notified O'Keefe that his complaint had been referred to the Miami office for investigation. So far, according to ACLU attorney Andrew Kayton, no decision has been made as to whether to pursue the case.

About two months later, Souto approached the spot behind the library where O'Keefe's belongings were stashed, Elena Prieto claims. "He walked up to where Francis's things were, looked, and walked away," Prieto says. "Then one day Francis found that everything had been destroyed. It was some county workers. The social workers told me it was Souto's orders." (Souto denies the claim.)

This past July 29, the day Miami-Dade residents voted on whether to adopt a penny tax to fund public transportation, proponents of the measure paid O'Keefe $75 to stand outside Coral Park Senior High and distribute flyers. A little after 5:00 p.m., as O'Keefe recalls it, "a small red car came and I went to hand a leaflet." Instead he saw "a slightly obese man on the passenger side. He had a camera in his hand with a grin on his face. He got out of the car and stepped back, holding the camera up, and I asked him, 'Please don't photograph me.' But he didn't stop, so I put my arm up and shoved the camera away. Then I heard a voice from inside the car -- it turned out to be Souto -- shouting, 'Assault and battery! Assault and battery!' Over and over."

The slightly obese man was Souto's chief of staff, Bernardo Escobar. His story differs from O'Keefe's mainly in his description of the timing and degree of force used. "[O'Keefe] swung with a closed fist, striking the camera, which subsequently struck [Escobar] in the eye," notes a police report that lists Souto as a witness. "[Escobar] stated his eye bothered him but no injury was observed."

Escobar recalls that O'Keefe made his plea to stop snapping pictures and threw the punch at the same moment. Thus the chief of staff had no chance to retreat or defend himself. Police arrested O'Keefe and booked him into Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, where he remained for almost a month.

About two weeks after the arrest, Prieto discovered O'Keefe's whereabouts and began visiting him; she delivered encouraging notes from three of O'Keefe's friends at the library. "The days seem different without you at the library," wrote one employee. "We miss you a lot."

O'Keefe spoke with a public defender for the first time at an August 17 hearing before Circuit Court Judge Steve Leifman. With the attorney's help, O'Keefe pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge. Leifman ordered him to pay a $150 fine, attend anger-control classes, and avoid coming within 200 yards of Escobar. Although the chief of staff asked Leifman to order O'Keefe not to return to the west Miami-Dade library, the judge denied that request. The library after all is a public place.

A question remains: Why was Escobar photographing O'Keefe? The July 29 police report states that Souto and Escobar had come to Coral Park Senior High to vote. But neither lives in that precinct. Escobar says he and his boss (an opponent of the proposed tax, which was rejected) drove to every precinct in Souto's district and took several pictures. "[O'Keefe] was campaigning on an issue and standing on public property, and I took a picture of a public person," Escobar explains. "That's perfectly legal."

Meanwhile O'Keefe has begun the anger-control classes. He doesn't know whether he will be able to raise $150 for the fine. He laments: "I am in terrible trouble." He continues to hope the ACLU will take up his cause. O'Keefe probably has no recourse for the destruction of his belongings, according to Benjamin Waxman, one of the attorneys who handle cases for the ACLU.

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