Elian Nation

Scenes from a splintered city

Like many other Cuban Americans, Chocolate was present during last Saturday's street protests. He fit the profile of the serious provocateur: a young male with a history of violence and a proclivity for getting rowdy. And had the circumstances been different, had the impetus been something other than a communal cry of anguish and frustration, Chocolate and others like him who roamed the streets that day might indeed have incited a full-scale riot. As it turned out, he was home before midnight, like most everyone else.

Chocolate awakens Saturday morning to the tinny sound of television news. "They're taking Elian," his father says. "They came and they took the boy."

Suddenly the seventeen-year-old Cuban American's life, much of it spent brawling in Little Havana's gritty neighborhoods, has a focus; his restless energy has a purpose. Miami will pay, he thinks, and he'll have fun collecting. As the TV flickers, endlessly replaying the desperate scene of a frightened little boy being whisked from a Little Havana house by a federal agent, Chocolate dons a pair of red basketball shorts and a red basketball tank top carrying the name of Detroit Pistons guard Jerry Stackhouse. Then he drapes around his neck a beaded red, white, and blue necklace with the design of a Cuban flag. "I'm going to [the Gonzalez's] house," he tells his dad.

"Go! Go!" comes the reply.

A few minutes later Chocolate joins the swelling crowd on NW Second Street. Elderly men in guayaberas shout into bullhorns. Women in black hold signs and scream, " Cobarde!" (coward!). The throng of media, having patiently waited months for a conclusion to this transcaribbean custody battle, eagerly records the minutiae. Chocolate jumps into the air and joins a chant of "libertad."

Soon the crowd swarms around Miami Police Lt. Bill Schwartz, the department's media spokesman, who was being interviewed by Channel 7 (WSVN-TV) in the Gonzalez's front yard. Someone shouts that they are on private property and angrily commands Schwartz and the TV crew to move.

" Asesino!" several people scream. A water bottle is hurled at Schwartz's head but misses. Others push him. Chocolate joins the crowd while the lieutenant beats a hasty retreat.

" Que pinga la policía!" ("Fucking police!) the youth yells while grabbing his crotch and thrusting his hips. " Que pinga!"

As helmeted officers usher Schwartz into the back of one of several waiting Miami PD patrol cars, Chocolate pushes forward. People bang on the hoods and roofs. A rock arcs overhead and hits one of the vehicles. An old man in a white baseball cap picks up the rock and flings it at the door of another police car.

Chocolate moves with the crowd down NW 24th Avenue and on to Flagler. Earlier the police closed off much of the neighborhood to traffic; now people march freely down the middle of the street. Although swept up in the sense of outrage, Chocolate doesn't lose sight of the purpose: to express anger, to protest the taking of Elian. "I'm not out to get arrested," he says. "I'm trying to help people."

At Flagler and 27th Avenue, a six-lane intersection, two police cars sit in the middle of the empty street. As the crowd grows, the officers find themselves outnumbered and underequipped so they evacuate, joining a long procession of police cars heading east on Flagler. The crowd takes control of the corner. A man in a white Firebird holds the brake on his car and spins his tires until a thick cloud of acrid, black smoke fills the air. Chocolate roars his approval. Someone starts a small trash fire. A group of men pull over a Dumpster from a nearby Chevron gas station and the conflagration grows. Another blaze begins not far away.

Several minutes later dozens of police officers return in gas masks. They carry Plexiglas shields. "Oh, shit," Chocolate says, a smile of surprise crossing his face. He is at the center of the intersection, taunting the cops who stand in formation firing tear gas. Chocolate is hit by a cloud; his eyes tear and his nose burns. Bleary-eyed, he runs back to the Chevron. Inside the clerk is doing a brisk business in water and beer. On the street outside, firemen attack the smoldering trash heaps. Chocolate buys a gallon jug of water and offers it to fellow protesters. Several people, from elderly men to young women, pour water into their eyes. Chocolate is again smiling.

As the crowd leaves the gas station, the police press Chocolate and others down Flagler with their shields. "Move back! Move back!" they yell. One man carrying a video camera shouts, "Let's go!" and boom, three helmeted cops jump him and pin him to the ground. Boom, more cops attack a news photographer who isn't retreating quickly enough. Chocolate walks backward, keeping himself just out of the officers' reach.

Scowling now, Chocolate half skips and half jumps as the police approach. People are picking up rocks and throwing them at the officers. Chocolate rushes to some bushes by a small office building and scrounges in the dirt for a projectile. He trips and an older lady helps him up. Tear-gas canisters sail through the air. The crowd, having earlier learned its lesson, rapidly disperses. An elderly Hispanic woman next to Chocolate is hit with pepper spray, and the young man rushes to her side with his jug. "Gracias, mi hijo," she says tenderly. In her right hand she clutches her purse and a Cuban flag. Her left hand grips a rock.

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