Jailhouse Crock

I was arrested by bad cops on bogus charges and spent a bizarre night behind bars

At around 5:00 p.m. last Thursday, November 20, approximately 50 riot police dressed in black were marching north along NE First Avenue. Like an army of androids, clear plastic shields and shiny helmets advanced toward me, a menacing wall spread across the pavement. I was the only civilian in sight.

"Turn around!" shouted an officer who'd stepped out of the line and pointed at me with his baton.

"I need to go downtown," I told him, holding up the Miami New Times press credentials clipped to my jacket.

"You can't go downtown!" he yelled. "It's an emergency!"

As in a State of Emergency? I asked myself. Has martial law been declared?Not last I checked, and I'd left my office just five minutes earlier. I had no idea what was happening downtown at that moment, but if it truly was an emergency, I had a job to do as a reporter. That's what I get paid for.

A group of young protesters from Gunnison, Colorado, had agreed to meet me at the center of town. I'd been heading south on First Avenue from Twelfth Street when I encountered the black tide that was now advancing to the steady rhythm of clubs striking shields, a tactic meant to intimidate and send crowds scurrying -- but the only crowd here was me.

I spun and reversed direction, walking north ahead of the fast-moving police line. The downtown appointment would have to wait. Instead I decided to go to the Convergence Center, the warehouse at North Miami Avenue and 23rd Street where FTAA protesters had been headquartered for the past several days. At the next intersection I turned the corner and waited for the police to march past me. Another cop ordered me off the street.

On my way to the Convergence Center I saw another field force of police in riot gear at Miami Avenue and Fourteenth Street. Hoping to avoid confrontation, I sat down on the corner and slowly took off my backpack, careful to keep it in full view of the police as I pulled out a notebook and pen. Just then I noticed four young men approaching the opposite corner and recognized 24-year-old Austin Stewart, leader of the Gunnison Peace Initiative, the people I was supposed to meet downtown and whom I'd been hosting at my North Miami home as part of an assignment to produce an intimate portrait of a group of FTAA protesters.

I jumped up, waved, and joined them. We stood on the corner as a convoy of more than twenty squad cars squealed by, headed farther west, sirens blaring. The street was deserted. The sun was setting. Together we began hiking up North Miami Avenue en route to the Convergence Center and, if necessary, all the way up to my house.

It was nearly dark when another group of young people, walking south, met us on the sidewalk. "Don't go to the Convergence Center," a girl advised us. "They're evacuating. They're taking people out on buses." Well, we had to go in that direction anyway, so we crossed to the east side of the avenue. At least we'd be on the opposite side of the street from the center. We weren't the only ones trekking north; other clusters of people were in front of us and behind us.

Suddenly a Miami-Dade Police Department squad car came hurtling south down Miami Avenue, doors wide open. The car swerved across the oncoming lane, climbed the curb, and screeched to a halt on the swale in front of us.

"Get down!" four officers shouted as they leaped from the car. "Get on the ground!"

We dropped to the ground.

Throughout the day I'd witnessed police provoke protesters. I'd seen young people cuffed and lined up along the street, but I thought they must have done something bad to be detained. Surely the police would see that we were doing nothing wrong and let us go. Surely they would recognize my role as a working member of the press.

"I'm a reporter with New Times," I said to the brown-shirted behemoth in a helmet who hovered over me. I pulled out my press pass, which included a color photograph of me.

"Put your hands behind your back," the cop ordered without looking at what I held in my hand. I wiggled out of my backpack, put my press pass inside, slid the pack along the ground above my head, then clasped my hands behind me.

"Do yourselves a favor and turn your head to the right," the officer commanded us. I obeyed. One of the Gunnison men, 23-year-old deli worker Nate Stewart (Austin's brother), told me later that he continued looking left. He saw the officers surround a shirtless man with black hair and a huge tattoo at the small of his back. The police raised their clubs. Nate turned his head to the right.

We were handcuffed with plastic cable ties pulled so tight that within fifteen minutes my wrists began to swell and my hands tingled.

Lying on my belly in the dark, I heard a woman call my name in Spanish: "Celeste, is that you?" I raised my head to see a friend's face poking out of a passing car. The police ordered her to move on, but she returned on foot. I explained what happened and asked her to call my mom and my editor.

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