Watching the Detectives

Ostensibly neutral legal observers say they were selectively hassled during FTAA

Skirmishes between protesters and cops may have ended with the Free Trade Area of the Americas talks, but Miami will continue to be a battleground, as police and civil libertarians square off over the right to free speech and the accountability of law enforcement.

Miami police Chief John Timoney, in response to the latest round of accusations that police violated civil rights during the FTAA talks, says the department did a good job of maintaining law and order when faced with a hostile crowd. He accuses union members involved in the protests of aiding members of "direct-action" groups, who in turn hurled an assortment of objects at police. Union members, though, along with representatives of various activist and civil liberties groups, say that many law-abiding protesters out to voice their dissatisfaction with the FTAA were swept up by police. Allegations have been made by the union members and individual protesters, along with the ACLU and National Lawyers Guild, of large-scale police misconduct.

An issue likely to be revisited in civil lawsuits is the supposed targeting of legal observers, who were on hand to keep written accounts of interactions between police and demonstrators.

One of the legal observers at the summit was St. Thomas University law student Ernesto Longa, who says he was arrested while trying to obey a police dispersal order at a courthouse rally.

Protesters gathered in front of the Miami-Dade County Courthouse on Flagler Street at around 4:00 p.m. on Friday, November 21, demonstrating against arrests made on November 20.

"There were a lot of police in riot gear, but it was pretty peaceful initially. People were just milling about, mostly," Longa says. Around 5:00 p.m. police issued a dispersal order, giving the crowd three minutes to break up. "I wasn't protesting, I wasn't dressed like a protester. I had on a neon-green legal observer hat, a pair of slacks, and a nice guayabera."

Longa says the crowd tried to leave, with police following close behind: "The police were pushing on the people, and some of them turned around and put their hands up, saying, 'We're dispersing, stop following us.' People even started chanting 'We are dis-per-sing.'" Then, he says, police rushed the crowd, shoving people with their shields. When he tried to run, he was arrested.

"I was trying to leave the area, like they asked," Longa says.

His arrest report -- filed by the Miami-Dade officers who arrested him -- tells a different story. According to that document, Longa ignored continued dispersal orders and tried to run after he was told he was under arrest.

Eight legal observers were arrested during the FTAA demonstrations, according to the National Lawyers Guild, a group that organizes squads of legal observers and teams of attorneys to patrol demonstrations and public protests. According to the NLG's Legal Observer Training Manual, "The primary role of the Legal Observer is to be the eyes and ears of the legal team -- to observe and record incidents and the activities of law enforcement in relation to the demonstrators." The manual instructs legal observers to maintain neutrality and to avoid provoking police or wearing clothing with political slogans.

Marc Steier, an NLG attorney who organized the FTAA legal observers, says he was arrested that Thursday morning while standing on the sidewalk having a cell phone conversation about a vanload of protesters detained by police. Steier, subsequently charged with obstructing justice, says police broke his cell phone in half and never returned two audiotapes he'd made of FTAA incidents, including his own arrest.

Police at the demonstrations were cognizant of the legal observers and their function, according to Miami police spokesman Delrish Moss. "Officers were made aware of the fact that there would be legal observers wearing the green hats, and that they would be observing -- just observing -- the activities." A green hat, however, wasn't a green light to ignore a dispersal order, as police allege Longa did. "It really doesn't matter whether or not he was a legal observer in this particular case," says spokesman Robert Williams, a Miami-Dade detective. "Once you're given a dispersal order and you do not disperse, you're in violation of the law."

Longa's case comes down to a differing account of the facts. Miles Swanson's case is more a philosophical challenge.

Swanson -- an NLG recruit from Washington, D.C. -- was standing in the crowd that filled Biscayne Boulevard across from Bayfront Park as the AFL-CIO held a rally inside the amphitheater around 2:00 p.m. November 20, when he saw a group of five undercover police: four men in protester garb, complete with the requisite anarchcessories of bandannas and ski masks, and a woman in a tie-dye shirt. "They were pretty obvious. One of them had a new Che shirt."

Swanson says he had heard that undercover police were summarily arresting peaceful protesters. "I started shadowing them and making people aware that they were undercover cops. I was pointing them out because we'd heard reports of snatch-and-grabs. They saw me, and one of the guys got up in my face and asked me if I had a fucking problem with him."

Moss says the undercovers were there looking for a protester who had assaulted a police officer ("This guy sort of did a flying kick in the officer's face -- he looked like he'd been hit by a board in the face," Moss says). The undercovers believed the suspect might have been escorted away from police by legal observers, though they never caught him or confirmed that legal observers were involved in his escape, according to Moss; they were searching for him when Swanson started pointing them out to the crowd.

Swanson's action violated published NLG guidelines, although there seems to be some disagreement within the group over the incident. Executive director Heidi Boghosian says circumstances merited pointing out undercover police, while Steier says, "That's not in the training manual." The police, however, claim it put their lives in danger. "Approximately 30 protesters with their faces covered began to surround these officers" as Swanson pointed them out, according to the arrest report. Moss says the crowd charged the (armed) officers, who had to beat a hasty retreat. Swanson says the undercovers were obvious, and he was simply exercising his right to free speech.

That a confrontation occurred is not in dispute. Swanson says he was threatened, while Moss says the officers explained that he was endangering their lives and asked him not to take pictures or video of them.

Swanson was on Biscayne Boulevard later in the afternoon when protesters started throwing garbage and rocks at police. A few protesters started burning trash fires in the middle of the street. The cops began to clear the street, pushing back and pursuing protesters.

"We tried to get out of downtown, but there were police everywhere we went. It was very surreal," Swanson says.

Swanson was on Seventeenth Street and NE First Avenue when he ran into the undercover officers again. "An unmarked van with New York plates pulled up, and I knew it was cops as soon as it pulled up. Three officers in ski masks jumped out. They started hitting me, threw me to the ground, and hit me more." Swanson says the van carried some of the same five officers he'd noted earlier. "They said if I managed to get out of jail and they saw me again, they'd kill me. One of them said, 'Welcome to Miami. This is what you get for fucking with us.'"

Swanson was charged with five counts of obstructing justice, one for each officer he'd pointed out. The charges were later dropped to one count. How is pointing out the obvious a crime? "He knew that it would have caused a threat to these officers," says Moss. "There's a difference between saying 'Those guys are undercover' and directing people towards them."

That difference will likely be examined in a civil court hearing. Swanson entered a plea of no contest so he could get back to class at the University of the District of Columbia law school, but he hints at a pending lawsuit. "I'm definitely working with some groups looking into what happened."

For his part, Steier says Timoney and company can look forward to "probably one of the biggest pieces of civil-rights violation legislation in U.S. history."

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