After the Brawl

Scant empirical documentation remains of the February 27 brawl between police and students at Coral Gables High School. The blood that spilled on the ground from the forehead of Ofcr. Peter Cuervo has since dried and washed away. Cuervo's injury, which required eight stitches, has nearly healed, as have the cuts, scratches, and bruises sustained by other participants.

Perhaps the most telling piece of surviving evidence is a videotape of the scene shot by a student. Brief and shaky, it doesn't tell the full story of what happened. But what it does reveal in its gritty, impromptu immediacy is a chilling scene of white police officers doing battle with black girls and boys on the grounds of their own school.

The tape shows a blurry scrum of bodies, a police officer hooking a large student under the leg, the pair toppling violently to the ground. Shouts and screams of teenagers. Jostled, the camera dips low, and a parked car's hood fills the frame. Then back to a tangle of bodies. The camera captures an officer wrestling handcuffs onto a student who is on the ground, pressed up against the bumper of a car. An officer, blood dripping down his face, standing over a handcuffed student lying facedown on the asphalt.

The video camera shut off before the clash ended. In all, six black students A four boys and two girls A were handcuffed, arrested, and taken away in police cars. An equal number of Coral Gables police officers left the school with injuries.

There is no consensus regarding the cause of the melee that Monday morning. Some trace its origins to the school's auditorium, where a Black History Month assembly attended by about 1000 students had just ended. When the program, originally scheduled for an hour, overlapped into the next class period, supervising faculty members cut it short. According to eyewitnesses, an altercation ensued, during which one of the show's choreographers flung a stool at a student. The choreographer and his companion, neither of whom attend Gables High, left the building and stalked off the campus. Following the men outside, an assistant principal saw one of them reach suspiciously into a bag. Concerned, he used his walkie-talkie to radio for assistance.

The call was relayed to the Coral Gables Police Department, which dispatched seven police officers -- all of them white -- to the scene. "We made a call for a police resource officer who knows us, but he was in training," recalls Mandy Offerle, principal of Gables High. "Then we asked for a unit. What they heard was, 'Assistant principal at Gables High needs backup.'"

At that moment hundreds of students were streaming out of the auditorium into the faculty parking lot off Le Jeune Road near Altara Street, many heading to nearby convenience stores and fast-food outlets for lunch. "I don't know what the cops perceived. What they saw was a lot of kids," says Offerle, who by that time had dashed to the parking lot from her office. Several of the cops approached the growing group of students, many of whom were black, and began ordering them to go back to the school grounds.

"A number of police officers were attempting to break up and disseminate a large crowd of students," reads the incident report filed by one officer. "As I entered the crowd I was attempting to have the students leave the area."

"I saw the black kids gathering, and I told them to leave because I knew the perception many people have of large groups of black kids," recalls Debbie Anderson, an English teacher who had helped coordinate the black-history program.

"The assistant principal told us not to go to Burger King," remembers Charles Collier, a Gables High senior. "He told us to stay inside the gate. Next thing we knew, we seen one police walk over, and next we seen he was talking to Chauka [Hunt, one of the students who was arrested]."

"Somehow the cops got close enough to the kids," says Offerle. "Someone [among the officers] misread the fact that it was a controlled situation."

The officer's report: "I had approached [Hunt] and asked him to leave the area. He refused to leave and in fact stepped towards me. Also his volume (voice) got louder and as he and I exchanged words the crowd continued to get excited and encroach towards us."

Offerle: "And then, whether a kid pushed a police officer or a police officer pushed a kid, fists moved."

Collier: "He pushed Chauka and then started hitting him."
The police report: "I attempted to remove [Hunt] from the area at which time we engaged in a fight. We went from a standing position to the ground."

"The police were coming in, looking tough and telling kids to disperse," says Debbie Anderson. "When kids didn't disperse, they began to swing their batons. Everything I saw was like slow motion for me. I actually began crying."

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Kirk Semple