March 14 was shaping up to be another day of protests and partying at Fort Peace, Occupy Miami's grungy Overtown safe house. More than a dozen members had shaken off their hangovers and emerged to demonstrate against a bank. But before they could gather their handmade signs and head downtown, the place was suddenly overrun with cops.
Two armored vehicles and a dozen police cars squealed up to the front gate. Cops in SWAT gear gripping assault rifles poured out. One wore a bulletproof vest over civilian clothes. He pointed a pistol in the protesters' faces and shouted, "Everybody on the ground!"
Police swarmed the three-story building, ordering occupiers and tenants alike into the courtyard. They zip-cuffed several protesters, including a tall, tattooed 27-year-old named Jared Chase. Then they demanded to know if they had any weapons. There were none.
Two weeks ago, cops again detained Chase on the eve of a major NATO summit in Chicago. This time, however, they're not letting him go. They claim that Chase and an Occupy Fort Lauderdale member named Brian Church made Molotov cocktails for firebombing police stations, banks, and political targets. And they argue that a third man, a dreadlocked Occupy Miami member named Brent Betterly, helped prepare the homemade explosives.
Prosecutors have labeled the young men domestic terrorists. If convicted, they each face up to 85 years in jail. Yet Miamians who know the trio — dubbed the NATO 3 — say they are peaceful activists set up by authorities.
The truth is, though, they were wannabe revolutionaries with big mouths. The Overtown building where they lived for three months is a chaotic, alcohol-infused crash pad for idealistic dropouts and the homeless. No one there likes the cops, but Occupiers spend lazy days boasting about protests and arrest records, not plotting acts of terror.
"We all have our fairy-tale ideas of how revolution is going to go, but people talking shit doesn't mean that they are actually going to go do anything malicious," says Chris Escobar, an Occupy Miami member and Chase and Betterly's friend. "The evidence against them speaks for itself. It's bullshit."
The arrest of the NATO 3 has made headlines nationwide. But lost among the hype is the role Miami played in the protesters' path to Chicago.
Like the Occupy movement as a whole, Fort Peace was born of good intentions but little planning. Last October, Occupy Miami began a 14-week stay at downtown's Stephen P. Clark Government Center. On January 31, when Miami-Dade police finally shut down the tent city, Overtown landlord Rodrigo Duque volunteered his 52-unit housing complex. He tore the doors off empty apartments and dubbed the building "Peace City," baffling rent-paying tenants.
But the 30 or so Occupy Miamians who immediately moved in named the place "Fort Peace." Said one protester: "It would take thousands of cops to get us out of here."
Jared Chase would have been one of Fort Peace's earliest arrivals had he not been locked up. The night of the eviction from Government Center, Chase and other protesters had driven around the camp in a red pickup truck while egging on the crowd. When cops spotted the vehicle nearby, they found Chase and three others sitting in back with a baseball bat, bolt cutters, and a sledgehammer. Police arrested them for loitering but quickly dropped the charges.
It wasn't Chase's first night in jail. The tall, quiet, aspiring rapper first got into trouble as a teenager in his hometown of Keene, New Hampshire. In June 2003, the then-18-year-old was charged with felony reckless conduct after slamming his car into a pedestrian. The accident smashed his windshield, according to the Keene Sentinel. Nine days later, he showed up at a supermarket with a knife and threatened a woman who had witnessed the crash. He didn't follow through.
Chase spent six months in jail for the incident. During the next two years, he violated probation three times for cocaine use, consorting with criminals, and missing curfew, according to the Keene Sentinel. He later moved to Boston, where he worked as a cook at a P.F. Chang's. Then, on October 13, he posted on Facebook that he was headed to an Occupy Boston event.
Soon he migrated to Rhode Island and then down to Washington, D.C. At a demonstration outside the White House on December 19, Chase met Brent Betterly, a 24-year-old from Oakland Park with bright-blond dreadlocks and goatee. The two locked arms with other demonstrators and protested the indefinite military detention of Americans suspected of terrorist activities. "Got arrested at the white house demonstration last nite lol," Chase wrote on his Facebook page. "Any man who would trade even a litle [sic] liberty, for security, deserve neither," he added, paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson.
A few weeks later, Chase and Betterly drove to Miami to join the hundred or so activists camped out at Government Center. After Duque founded Fort Peace, the two occupiers stayed at the crumbling apartment complex for days on end, drinking beer, smoking, and listening to loud music late into the night before crashing on bare mattresses or the graffitied floor.
Betterly, with his good looks and dreadlocks, was a hippie who attended rainbow gatherings. But he also had a criminal record before he joined the Fort Lauderdale Occupy movement. On September 27, he and two friends broke into an Oakland Park high school after a night of swigging tequila. They swam in the pool and played with fire extinguishers, sending one canister into a bus and another through the window of the cafeteria. On October 13, Betterly was charged with burglary. No decision has been rendered yet.
His younger brother Drew was arrested in 2010 and charged with murdering a man during a drug deal. Brent was supportive of his brother, attorney Andrew Coffey told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I know he had a tough upbringing," he said of Brent. "He's pretty much a good kid... a free-spirited kid."
Fellow occupiers at Fort Peace say Betterly was known for his creativity and commitment to fighting foreclosures. When cops would stop protesters, he would improvise rhyming chants for the occasion ("NDAA, go away!" was a favorite), says Arianna Uguccioni. And when police gave protesters a deadline to leave their Occupy Fort Lauderdale camp, Betterly urged them to peacefully resist.
Chase was the most enigmatic of the three, according to his friend Escobar. The chain-smoker was a computer whiz who once fixed Escobar's laptop with barely any tools. He also spent days wandering around downtown and talking to homeless people. And he rarely spoke of his past. One day Escobar heard Chase listening to a rap album and asked what it was. Chase quietly admitted it was his own record. "It was pretty damn good," Escobar remembers. "But it didn't even sound like him." Nor did the peaceful activist much resemble his online persona as a troubled, drug-addicted former gang member turned DJ.
"Learn[ed] to survive in the city," Chase wrote in a bio on the music-sharing website SoundClick. "And [I] did, first through drugz, then selling drugz, then gangs, [I] was a full fledged criminal. Most people called [me] a psycho. But [I'm] only as sick as this world made [me]." In one online conversation, Chase told a rapper: "I hope you got kids or a wife so I can cut there [sic] throat while they sleeping, and then rape them after there [sic] dead." He posted copies of his New Hampshire arrests online for others to see.
When Escobar first met Chase, he was dressed in a mock police uniform with a hockey mask over a pig costume and a riot shield labeled, "Go home and consume." On February 6, Chase wrote on his Facebook wall: "Miami has the most crooked cops in the country. We should execute them before they do something we'll regret."
But Escobar says Chase shouldn't be judged by his Internet posturing. "He wasn't a malicious person," he says, adding that Chase was trusted enough to work security for the tent city. "He never got violent with anyone."
Two later incidents would only strengthen Chase's distaste for the fuzz. The first was the humiliating March 13 Miami police raid. The second happened shortly after Chase and Betterly abruptly headed to Chicago for the NATO summit protests. Brian Church, a skinny Occupy Fort Lauderdale member with auburn hair, picked them up at Fort Peace.
The three hadn't even made it to the Windy City when they were pulled over by cops, however. Chicago police told them to stay away from protests and threatened to give them a "billy club to the fucking skull," according to video the trio secretly filmed and later posted online.
A week later, SWAT officers burst through the door of the apartment where Church, Chase, and Betterly were staying and arrested them. Authorities said they found Molotov cocktails made out of beer bottles filled with gasoline, as well as a sword, a hunting bow, throwing stars, knives, and a mortar tube. And prosecutors claim to have evidence that the three protesters planned attacks on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's house, Barack Obama's campaign headquarters, banks, and police stations. At one point, Church asked the others if they had ever seen "a cop on fire," according to court documents.
The three men have been charged with supporting and conspiring to commit terrorism as well as possession of explosives. They are being held in separate cells on $1.5 million bond each and face up to 85 years apiece.
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But the apartment didn't belong to the trio, and others were staying there, including two suspected undercover cops. Escobar believes his friends are big-talkers whose empty boasts were seized upon by law enforcement. Lawyers representing the NATO 3 insist the weapons were planted in the apartment and that the bottles weren't explosives but part of a beer-making kit. "They are destroying these kids' lives without knowing if anything was really going to happen," Escobar says.
While Chase, Betterly, and Church sit in a Chicago jail, Fort Peace is falling apart. There are hardly any activists left, just homeless people living off Duque's hospitality. The landlord, who calls himself Señor Paz, was arrested May 11 and accused of imprisoning and battering one of his tenants. His wife says the charges are ludicrous, but because no one is paying rent anymore, she doesn't have the $750 needed to bail him out. When she asked Occupy Miami members for donations, she was rebuffed. Now she plans to evict them.
With three members behind bars and its safe house in shambles, Occupy Miami is faltering. Protesters are gradually moving out, to the delight of local police ("We hate their fucking guts," one officer told New Times). Escobar says he plans to leave town completely.
"I thought this building had a lot of potential," he says from the second-story landing where he used to hang out with Chase and Betterly. "Now it's a failure."