Now Entering Fort Miami
From the moment they fired the first concussion grenade, it was clear that police controlled the streets during last week's FTAA protests. Phalanxes of armored cops bristled with weaponry. Armored vehicles prowled streets and blocked intersections. Downtown was turned into a confusing labyrinth of dead ends and detours. Authorities transformed the city into a police state for the duration of the trade talks.
And what did these fearsome sentries of Fort Miami do with their overwhelming power? They repeatedly shoved protesters around like rag dolls. Not just the kids with dreadlocks but also the sanctioned and staid union marchers -- steelworkers from Maine and electrical workers from Jacksonville who used their vacation time to come and voice opposition to a trade scheme they see as a threat. The cops overdid it time and time again -- with impunity. Ostensibly there to ensure safety and protect property, they ended up illegally stifling free speech.
Let's start with the "official" protest area on Biscayne Boulevard. Authorities installed a high-tech fence across the boulevard at Flagler Street to keep protesters from the Inter-Continental Hotel two blocks south, where the FTAA talks were being held. From the fence north to roughly NE Fifth Street was designated to accommodate protesters.
At roughly 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, amid a peaceful but spirited assembly, some troublemakers threw a grappling hook over the high-tech fence and tried to pull it down, prompting police to hurl a concussion grenade and fire pepper spray and marble-size rubber pellets into the crowd (I was hit in the chest by one). Police then pushed forward a few yards into the mass of protesters. I can understand their rationale: Move people far enough from the fence to thwart another sabotage attempt with a grappling hook.
But at least two more times police pushed protesters farther up Biscayne Boulevard, with no apparent rationale. And you better believe every yard they had to retreat was a violation of their constitutional rights. Angel Calzadilla, executive assistant to Miami Police Chief John Timoney, used a bullhorn to announce that the gathering was unlawful because no one had obtained a city permit to convene at that exact spot. Bat guano! Here's why: Police are empowered to clear the streets if an unpermitted assembly is blocking traffic or interfering with business. But police themselves closed the streets and urged business owners to shutter their shops. Furthermore, police fully expected protesters to gather on Biscayne up to the fence at Flagler. That's where the government wanted them to be, and that's where the Constitution protected them.
By the end of the day, protesters were so far from the Inter-Continental there was no way any trade delegates could hear their message. "They might as well have been in Los Angeles for all it mattered," complains John De Leon, an attorney with Sayre, Chavez & De Leon, which is cooperating with the ACLU (of which De Leon is past president) in preparing a lawsuit against local authorities. "The police simply made it very comfortable for the trade ministers."
Also consider the permitted march by trade unions that Thursday afternoon. Police altered the route at the last minute, ultimately shortening it, and denied thirteen union buses entry into the protest zone. And because police earlier had closed downtown entirely and had scared away the business community, the unions marched through a surreal, deserted landscape. The only observers were the media and the police. If no one is there to hear a protester chant, does he make a noise?
So much for trashing the First Amendment. Now on to our protection against unreasonable search and seizure -- the Fourth Amendment. You've heard Timoney and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas exclaim that police showed amazing restraint and prevented a wholesale riot downtown. Police did in fact suffer some abuse. I saw several Miami officers who'd been splattered with what looked like white paint, and there were isolated incidents of protesters throwing objects at them. After peaceful protesters had dispersed late Thursday afternoon, some rabble-rousers lit fires in the street.
But for every tale of police standing bravely against disrespectful abuse from angry young vegetarians, there are far more disturbing tales of police excess and brutality. Why are they more disturbing? Because we don't pay, train, and equip private citizens who are determined to act out. But we do pay and train cops, and we demand they respect the law.
Talk to my New Times colleague Celeste Fraser Delgado. Miami-Dade police arrested her Thursday night while she was walking along a sidewalk, then they tossed her personal belongings into the street and left them there. She spent the night in jail. (See her story, "Jailhouse Crock," on page 22.)
And what about Bryan Brown, a 38-year-old Miami resident who says he was riding his bike around Bayside on Thursday, peacefully indulging his curiosity? He was yanked off his bike, shocked with a Taser, and accused of disorderly conduct. "They said, 'Leave the area,' and I was trying to leave when they jumped out and grabbed me," he recounts. An asthmatic Army veteran, he spent the night in jail as well. Now his $1000 mountain bike is lost. His arrest form didn't indicate which police department arrested him, and as of press time the bike seems to have vanished. This sounds a lot like theft to me. You say I'm overreacting? Find his bike, then we'll talk.
"I look at these Fourth Amendment violations as a way of trampling these people's First Amendment rights," says Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, president of Miami's ACLU. "These illegal stops and seizures are all designed to silence the protesters' message."
While we wait to see how many of these arrests are thrown out of court, we should also think about how many flagrantly bad arrests we're willing to tolerate in our community: One? Ten? Twenty?
Isidor Shniadoski was contemplating just that Friday morning as he watched Miami bicycle cops stop and frisk a young man wearing a green "legal observer" cap. During the protests, Shniadoski had kept open his business, Cut Rate Trimming and Fabrics on North Miami Avenue and NE Second Street. "They've been doing that all week," he said while motioning to the young man who'd just been searched. "I'm glad police are here to protect the businesses, but as a citizen it concerns me they've gone to this extreme. They are literally stopping people just walking down the street. I mean, at what point do we give up our civil liberties?"
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.