On Wednesday, protesters took to the streets of downtown Miami in the 13th consecutive day of unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis police last month.
The peaceful demonstration grew tense after protesters spray-painted the Christopher Columbus and Juan Ponce de León statues in Bayfront Park. Soon after, around 30 police officers arrived to make arrests, according to Officer Michael Vega, a spokesperson for the Miami Police Department (MPD).
Vega says the MPD was monitoring the protest from its Real-Time Crime Center, where officers can view live surveillance footage from different parts of the county. Police responded to Bayfront Park to track down three people police identified as vandalizing the statues.
But some protesters say the officers disrupted what was an otherwise peaceful demonstration, using an unnecessary amount of force and creating friction that caused the gathering to become unruly.
According to those who spoke to New Times, the police approached a group of about 100 people who had their backs turned as they were listening to a speech.
"They came up speeding, screeched to a stop, jumped out of their cars, and started chasing after people," says Jessica, a 24-year-old protester who spoke on condition that only her first name be published. "There was pure terror."
In the minutes that followed, seven protesters were arrested as some people ran and others attempted to obstruct the paths of police cars carrying those who'd been taken into custody. One man used his skateboard to smash the window of a squad car.
Jessica says she saw police openly mocking protesters, shoving people, and throwing them to the ground.
"It was an uncalled-for amount of aggression," she says.
Travis Dobler, a 27-year-old University of Florida alumnus, says officers punched protesters as they secured a perimeter.
"They ripped a man's hair out trying to get his face mask off, then tackled him again when he got to the sidewalk," Dobler says.
A video of one arrest shows four officers holding a man down with their knees as he is handcuffed.
Downtown Miami protest today "was peaceful until @MiamiPD arrived with clubs, helmets and shields," jump out of unmarked car and "bum-rush the kids on skateboards" #BecauseMiami https://t.co/OZvowWtiP1 @MiamiMayor @kenrussellmiami @Jcolina67 pic.twitter.com/csK3pT6oAt— Billy Corben (@BillyCorben) June 11, 2020
Under Florida law, any protest becomes an "unlawful assembly" after property is vandalized, but police must announce a dispersal order before making arrests.
Yet four people at the protest tell New Times they never heard police ask them to disperse and felt ambushed, given that they were standing peacefully when the officers rushed in.
According to the MPD, no initial dispersal order was issued because the officers were only interested in arresting the three people who'd vandalized the statues. Vega says a subsequent dispersal order was given when "the protest transitioned from peaceful to hostile."
Robert M. Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, says he doesn't think the police acted unlawfully.
"Once they saw the first statue vandalized, they knew there was criminal mischief," Jarvis notes. "But the real question here is: Should the police have gone in with such a show of force?"
Jarvis says police have a lot of leeway once a situation escalates beyond just peaceful marching, because they're not expected to make fine-tuned judgments in the heat of the moment. He says that under the law, they had every right to make arrests, but given the tensions between civilians and police at the moment, they could have chosen to de-escalate the situation.
"This is what a military force does: They go in with overwhelming force, and if you encounter any resistance, you put it down," he says. "The better approach would be to stand by and pick up the three suspects later in the day."
Vega disagrees. The police spokesman says officers made the right call by immediately arresting those suspected of vandalism.
"I think it was the right decision to do it then and there because they were amongst the peaceful protesters and they could have caused further violence," he tells New Times. "We took [the opportunity], and our chief stands behind it."
The recent protests have been led by a loose coalition of grassroots activists from various groups and have been relatively peaceful. Dobler says he believes police were going after leaders they recognized from previous days.
"Organizers and mediators from the group were clearly targeted, followed by those who blocked the road or got violent," he says.
Among those arrested was 18-year-old Alaa Ali Massri of Miami Beach. She has been mediating encounters between protesters and police all week. A video Travis shared shows her surrounded by at least five officers before attempting to run and being tackled by police.
The seven protesters who were arrested face various charges, including resisting an officer, disorderly conduct, aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, unlawful assembly to commit a breach of peace, incite to riot, and criminal mischief. Three were charged in relation to the vandalism.
Because their bond hearings yesterday were closed to the public, about a dozen activists and lawyers waited outside the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building downtown to listen to the hearings on their cellphones. One man chanted: "Black lives matter! Columbus statues don't!"
Several statues and monuments around the world have been defaced or destroyed by protesters in recent days. In response to a symbol painted on the Columbus statue in Miami, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted: "Nothing says justice like a hammer and sickle!"
As of this morning, only one of the protesters arrested on Wednesday remained in jail. Jarvis says protesters should leave a demonstration when vandalism starts if they want to avoid arrest.
"You can't be standing around with people who are destroying property, even if you aren't participating," he says.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the police department involved in the arrests. The Miami Police Department, not the Miami-Dade Police Department, responded to Wednesday's protest.
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