In a landmark for free speech, City of Miami and county leaders have reached an agreement with at least 20 protesters who sued police and other authorities following the brutal 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas riots in downtown Miami.
Under the accord, the city will pay $160,000 and the county will shell out about $300,000, City Commissioner Tomás Regalado said Wednesday. It is by far the biggest settlement reached in response to the event attended by more than 10,000 people. And it validates much of what protesters called a gross overreaction.
The agreement will likely be ratified by city commissioners and county officials next week. "The parties have reached a tentative settlement following mediation," confirmed Victoria Mallette, director of the Miami-Dade Office of Communication. "Final approval needs to be made by the county; we're still a week out from that."
When trade ministers from throughout the hemisphere gathered at the InterContinental Hotel for the FTAA summit, hundreds of demonstrators outside were injured, and about 230 were arrested. The city spent $23 million to control the situation.
Miami Police Chief John Timoney was in charge of the city's security plan for the event and was roundly criticized by residents, activists, and the ACLU for being heavy-handed with crowd-control tactics. Officers from agencies across Florida donned riot gear to contend with the crowd and physically pushed protesters out of downtown. Cops used percussion grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas.
Timoney said he had hoped to prevent the widespread chaos that had occurred at previous trade talks around the world. He later deemed the handling of FTAA's security a success.
According to one federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of four protesters, Timoney "set the tone for the policy by personally participating in police operations designed to clear the downtown area of demonstrators." In one inapt comment, he even referred to demonstrators as "pussies."
The suit also said Timoney "set the example for the officers under his command by illegally detaining and searching the backpack of a person who was walking on the street; running up to another individual who was being taken into police custody, putting his finger in the person's face and yelling, "You're bad. Fuck you!" He also referred to demonstrators as "punks" and "knuckleheads."
He wasn't the only cop to react inappropriately. A Broward Sheriff's Office major apologized for laughing and making mean comments during the riots, after watching officers repeatedly shoot a 45-year-old woman with nonlethal rubber bullets. His remarks were caught on videotape.
In 2006 the Miami Civilian Investigative Panel said that "except for a small number of people, the protesters and demonstrators were not violent or disruptive.... Most officers conducted themselves admirably, professionally, and with considerable restraint and discipline, even when they were subjected to acts of violence and other indignities. However, instances of police misconduct were observed."
The report also said that some demonstrators were profiled, unlawfully searched, detained, and/or arrested.
According to Regalado, on October 11 the commission will discuss the proposed settlement. He said he was briefed on it recently by Assistant City Attorney Warren Bittner. "These were the hard cases," said Regalado.
Although this will likely be the largest settlement between protesters and the city and county, at least one other person who was injured during the clashes received money from the city. In September 2006, independent filmmaker Carl Kesser received $180,000 from the city. Police had fired a beanbag at Kesser's face, causing nerve damage and partial paralysis. Kesser was at the rally not to protest, but to film a documentary.