Why Did MDPD Bring an AR-15-Style Rifle to Campaign-Finance Protest at County Hall?

A few years ago, Tomas Kennedy, an immigration and civil rights activist, spent some time working as an aide at Miami-Dade County Hall. During that time, Kennedy says, he never saw a security officer brandishing a semiautomatic gun for any reason.

So Kennedy says his jaw dropped when he showed up with roughly 100 peaceful protesters yesterday and saw a Miami-Dade Police officer walking around with an AR-15-style rifle with his finger near the trigger.

"I spent a lot of time in the Government Center, and I don’t ever recall seeing them just walking around holding a rifle on the handle, ready to go," he tells New Times. "Never. I mean, Jesus Christ, we were peaceful protesters."

But the Miami-Dade Police Department says the conspicuously armed cop has been patrolling County Hall for weeks and wasn't there specifically because of the protest.

"The last several months, the MDPD has taken heightened security measures at the 111 building," spokesperson Jennifer Capote says via email. "Some of these measures are to have a visible police presence, to include officers bearing long rifles. The protest and the officer bearing the long rifle have no correlation, and the officer was merely assigned a security detail at the building unrelated to the protest."

But the protesters say the effect was needlessly intimidating. The complaints are just the latest public-relations misstep in a long string of strange decisions the county has made regarding a controversially stalled campaign-finance-reform measure making waves this week.

Around noon yesterday, the activists showed up to hand-deliver letters demanding that the county commission figure out a way to authorize an ordinance that would, if enacted, chop campaign-donation limits from $1,000 per person to just $250. Activists have slammed the county and Mayor Carlos Gimenez over the handling of the petitions.

After 127,000 people signed petitions demanding the county approve the measure — enough to force the county to adopt the ordinance or put it up for a public vote in November — the county has repeatedly delayed an official count to make that happen. One vote was canceled when a commissioner pulled out, and Gimenez has claimed not to have the power to do it alone. 

County law, however, says the Board of Elections must begin counting petitions it receives within 30 days. The delay has sparked a lawsuit.
Then, yesterday, the county told activist Juan Cuba that it would cost $21,600 to release any of the county's (public) emails about the petitions. Commissioners then began walking that price back the minute it was reported in both the Miami Herald and New Times.

Gihan Perera, an activist who helps run Accountable Miami-Dade — the group circulating the petitions — joined the crowd of protesters who entered County Hall yesterday.

"We told Commissioner Jean Monestime and his staff that we were coming," Perera said via phone. "Went there to basically just lobby."

Perera says the group split into factions to deliver a letter to each Miami-Dade commissioner.

Instead, Perera says, "the cops showed up in full-force. They said we had to have a permit to stand around, and if not, we had to go to the 'Free Speech Zone' outside." When the group tried to ride the escalators to the second floor of the building, which includes the publicly accessible county commission chambers, police blocked their way.

A clip Perera's group shared on Facebook shows police blocking the protesters, many of them middle-aged or older, from accessing the second floor:
That, Perera and Kennedy say, is when the group noticed a lone cop walking around with a rifle, likely an AR-17, in his hand.

"I didn't see it myself, but some people told me he had unclipped the safety button," Perera says. "There was just one rifle, but everyone else was armed. It was a very intimidating scene — we were just there to tell the commission we had petitioned our government directly, and wanted to send a demand letter to our elected officials."

MDPD's choice to police a peaceful protest with a rifle comes just as cops, nationally, have come under fire for using military-style weapons to disperse peaceful demonstrators. In July, the City of Miami Police Department was criticized for rush-ordering extra body armor after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, where 49 people were killed.

Kaan Ocbe, an activist who fought to help disarm Florida International University cops, warned that as police stock up on long rifles and armor, those items will show up more frequently at peaceful protests.

"In the wake of some kind of mass event, they respond by ratcheting up their procedures," Ocbe tells New Times. "I know that in a decade or less, those AR-15s they use may show up at a parade they're trying to patrol."
Kennedy says he'd never seen police react that way in the building before.

"The building manager came out and said it was a fire hazard and that we can’t have a crowd of people here," he says. "I worked on the legislature as an aide. I know how packed it gets. Don’t tell me that it’s a fire hazard."

Eventually, after about 30 minutes, staffers in Monestime's office persuaded security to let the protesters go up to the second floor, the activists say.

"It's just crazy," Kennedy says. "It’s a freaking public building. I'm sure the guards keep rifles like out in their cars or something, but I've never seen one there. We were working-class people, not anarchists trying to throw Molotov cocktails."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.