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 Herald proclaims "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.
In the footage isolated protesters stand before a line of riot cops. Among them are a young man in a green shirt and a woman in a red suit jacket and pleated skirt holding a sign. Police shoot pellets at both. "Excuse me, a lady in a suit who's been walking peaceably in front of you for half an hour you shoot in the back?" she scolds them. Timoney in his bike gear can be seen observing from the sidelines. Then police start marching forward, without giving orders to disperse. Kesser, filming as he retreats, walks along the sidewalk toward Miami Dade College amid other photographers and a smattering of protesters, who are also in retreat.
The cops bang their shields with their batons as they advance. You see Bryan Brown, a Miami native and a handyman, on his bicycle ride in front of the police line. Suddenly half a dozen cops reach out and slam him to the ground, wrenching his bike from under him. Then, again without warning or apparent provocation, officers begin firing pellets, rubber bullets, and pepper spray.
Photographers, onlookers, and protesters run for cover. Police keep firing and moving forward. Suddenly Kesser's camera jerks violently and the lens is spattered with blood. That's the moment a police projectile hit him in the head, splitting open his scalp and lodging over his right temple. (He underwent emergency surgery not long afterward.) "To tell you the truth, before this happened, I thought police handled it very well," Kesser says from the living room of his Grove home, his head swaddled in bandages. "But there was no provocation for this."
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In the wake of this Third Street violence, police went out hunting. They arrested people all over town, as far away as North Miami Avenue and NE 20th Street. You didn't even have to look like a protester to run afoul of the cops. They arrested a 71-year-old retiree, several AFL-CIO organizers, a New Times reporter, and scores of college kids.
Some have said these people deserved what they got because they knew how tumultuous it was going to be downtown and they put themselves in harm's way. I know other people who were curious and wanted to visit the protests but were afraid they'd be arrested. The trouble with both sentiments is that they automatically cede our right to attend a highly anticipated, widely publicized demonstration. This is what organizers have been saying all along -- that the police were out to intimidate people to keep them from attending, and thus squelching their free speech.
Timoney's overstatement of the facts in his letter mirrors the cops' overreaction on the street, and in that factual vacuum the cops have proved the protesters' point.