Pick Your Reality

Either FTAA protesters viciously assaulted police, or police viciously assaulted protesters

The first-round bell has rung in the contest to define what happened at the FTAA protests two weeks ago. In one corner is officialdom, where Miami Mayor Manny Diaz praises police for showing restraint; the editorial page of the boosterish Miami Heraldproclaims "the police, well prepared and out in massive force, kept the order"; and Miami Police Chief John Timoney snorts derisively at his critics.

In the other corner are the AFL-CIO, Teamsters, and United Steelworkers of America, along with hundreds of individuals who say they were illegally arrested, searched, beaten, and had their personal possessions destroyed, discarded, or simply taken by police and never seen again. This corner maintains that myriad constitutional rights were literally trampled under a black-booted foot. They're vowing an array of lawsuits and are calling for a congressional investigation into police misconduct.

After a week of blistering press conferences by the unions and unaffiliated protesters, Timoney launched his return salvo. In a five-page letter to South Florida AFL-CIO boss Fred Frost, Timoney rebutted allegations his department overreacted to the largely peaceful protests. This is the first major controversy he's faced as chief, and the first test of his credibility. He's failing.

Essentially Timoney said it was regrettable that force was used, but it was necessary because troublemakers hid amid union members to attack police. The union, Timoney charged, must take responsibility for allowing those violent protesters to infiltrate their ranks. Specifically he wrote: "The Miami Police Department and its law enforcement partners, in training for the FTAA, placed primary emphasis on avoiding the use of force. This goal was impossible to achieve due to the violent actions of unaffiliated protesters using labor events and membership as cover."

Timoney's version of events simply doesn't square with the facts.

Let's examine his assertion that police were attacked by stealthy protesters hiding within union ranks. There were five permitted and scheduled union events: a workers' forum at the Gusman Theater of the Performing Arts on Flagler Street at 3:00 p.m. Wednesday, November 19, followed by a concert that night at Bayfront Park Amphitheater. At 10:00 a.m. on Thursday there was a seniors' rally at the amphitheater. That became a general union rally at noon. It culminated with the big union march downtown at 2:30 p.m.

I did not attend Wednesday's events, but numerous people who did attend say the gatherings were entirely peaceful -- plus there were no news reports of protesters clashing with police. Thursday's union rallies at the amphitheater were also peaceful. Television news footage taken from helicopters showed no disturbances inside the venue. I walked with union members on their march through downtown, and it too was calm. In his letter Timoney himself concedes that "the AFL-CIO parade was escorted without incident by Miami Police Department bicycle officers in short sleeves and short pants." (My emphasis.)

Maybe I'm missing something, but I see no evidence that violent protesters used these union events as cover to attack police. Besides, how could the unions be expected to control who did and did not join them during a huge public rally?

Yes, there was trouble downtown. On Thursday morning police clashed with small groups of activists near the Starbucks on SE First Street at Third Avenue. Protesters hurled objects that included rocks and paint, according to police reports. But the episode was quickly quelled. A bit later, at approximately 10:00 a.m., a group of protesters threw a grappling hook over the security fence that stretched across Biscayne Boulevard at Flagler Street. As they tried to pull down the fence, someone from the crowd tossed over the top what appeared to be a smoke bomb. Those provocations prompted police to respond by firing a concussion grenade, rubber bullets, and at least one tear-gas canister. Neither incident, however, took place anywhere near a union-affiliated event.

After those confrontations, the day was relatively uneventful. By late afternoon bored onlookers were dispersing. At 4:30 p.m., after union members completed their march and reconvened at the amphitheater, something happened that led police to cut loose like marauding soldiers. Here's Timoney's version: "As these criminals exited the amphitheater, they attacked police lined up one block to the south between protesters and the Inter-Continental Hotel [where the FTAA meetings were being held]. As had occurred in the morning attack, officers were pummeled with projectiles including rocks, bottles, slingshot-fired marbles and steel bolts, paint, unidentified white powder, unidentified liquids feared to be human excrement, powerful fireworks, and ignited road flares. Protesters set fires and erected roadblocks. A firm rapid response was necessary to prevent severe injuries and significant property damage."

I wasn't there, but several people who were, including members of the press and other neutral observers, provide a completely different version of events. Biscayne Boulevard had largely cleared out by 4:30 except for a few stragglers who observed some protesters sitting in the street. A few set small trash fires. Some threw items and taunted police, but no one I talked to saw a wholesale attack and persistent barrage of items that "pummeled" police, as Timoney describes.

Carl Kesser, a long-time Coconut Grove resident, professional photographer, and filmmaker, was there working. He and his staff had three digital video cameras set up to cover the protests. By 4:00 p.m. things had quieted sufficiently that he sent most of his crew home. Kesser, however, kept his own camera handy. He was not there to witness what happened outside the amphitheater, specifically whether "criminals" attacked police. But he did show me footage he shot of events that took place immediately afterward, as police pushed people off Biscayne Boulevard and west along NE Third Street.

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