During nearly three months of demonstrations in downtown Miami, protesters have advocated for police reform, increased funding for social services, and racial equity.
The gatherings have largely been peaceful, but in recent weeks, protesters have described a change in the Miami Police Department's response to their daily presence at the Torch of Friendship near Bayside Marketplace. Protesters say that change became more evident on July 19 when police forcefully arrested dozens of them en masse and charged them with obstruction of a public street, highway, road, or sidewalk.
Now, Black Lives Matter protesters are calling for an end to what they say has become "egregious" police action.
"In recent weeks, we have witnessed an escalation of arrests and excessive force by Miami police against peaceful demonstrators," François Alexandre, a founder of the advocacy group Justice4Miami, said during a protest and press conference yesterday at the Torch of Friendship. "The obvious purpose is to intimidate demonstrators and discourage the exercise of constitutionally protected free-speech rights. The police department itself admits they have escalated tactics against peaceful demonstrations since July 2."
Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina told the Miami Herald last week that the department has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for protesters who obstruct traffic. Some demonstrators say "zero tolerance" has translated into the disparate treatment of protesters and blanket arrests, even for someone who remained on the sidewalk or legally crossed a street.
"Tourists will jaywalk in the middle of the street all the time right next to us, but we'll be walking across the crosswalk when we have a cross sign, and they'll arrest us because we're blocking traffic," said Kristine Padgett, a protester taken into custody during the July 19 arrests.
Padgett, a protest medic who provides supplies and care for anyone injured during demonstrations, previously told New Times she was arrested and charged with obstructing traffic even though she didn't march in the street or otherwise block the road.
Community leaders said they were disturbed and concerned about the force used on demonstrators.
Dwight Bullard, a former Florida state senator and current political director of New Florida Majority, said police have used their power to act against protesters but not against people who have harmed or threatened demonstrators. One protester, Jonathan Gartrelle, was struck by a car during a demonstration last weekend, and other protesters reported seeing at least one member of a pro-Trump caravan point a gun at them.
"We have a state attorney that has not brought charges against a police officer, a corrections officer, or any law enforcement officer [for an on-duty killing] in 27 years," Bullard said. "So when law enforcement feels empowered to weaponize itself against peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, they feel no consequence."
Alexandre read aloud a letter addressed to Colina, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, and Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle demanding that police stop the "escalating use of excessive force" on protesters, that prosecutors drop all of the protesters' charges, and that police end their efforts to "discredit" the local Black Lives Matter movement.
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The letter alleged that police are "targeting known street protest leaders" and charging them with crimes "in what appears to be an attempt to cripple the protest movement."
"We are appalled that our chief of police has personally been leading a media offensive that excuses violent and unnecessary confrontations by officers under his command while spreading the unfounded claim that the Black Lives Matter protests are responsible for the rise in Florida of COVID-19," Alexandre said.
Several protesters who spoke said that while the demonstrations aren't as large as they were at the end of May and the beginning of June — when thousands of people took to the streets over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — a core group of people continues to gather at the Torch of Friendship, and the arrests won't deter them.
"For anyone who feels they'd like for change to occur, come meet us," said Gartrelle. "We've been here and will continue to be here."