Posted on Sun, Dec. 14, 2003
BY AMY DRISCOLL, SUSANNAH A. NESMITH, LISA ARTHUR AND TIM HENDERSON
The first day of free-trade talks in Miami. Police and protesters are locked in a standoff on Biscayne Boulevard.
Tension has been building all day.
Two unpermitted marches held earlier ended in 32 arrests. Downtown is shut down. About 200 police stand three deep across the boulevard, sun glinting off their riot helmets. Facing them: an estimated 600 protesters.
Up front, four young men begin drumming. Ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM. The sound intensifies, echoing off shuttered buildings. Miami police, on a bullhorn, repeatedly announce that the demonstration can continue as long as it remains peaceful.
Minutes later, officers surge into the crowd, using rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas.
By the end of the next day, 231 people have been arrested in the protests against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Widespread civil rights violations are alleged, along with injuries to dozens of protesters and a handful of police.
How it began late on Nov. 20 is in dispute.
Police say protesters pelted them with rocks for 10 minutes before they responded. Protesters contend police marched on them for no reason. Available video footage paints conflicting pictures, as do interviews with peacekeepers from Miami's Community Relations Board and other observers.
The FTAA protests in Miami were far less turbulent than the demonstrations during the 1999 Seattle trade talks, but leaders here still face an image problem: video seen worldwide of a Miami where rows of riot-clad police march down palm-tree-lined streets.
As in Seattle, investigations have begun. Two citizens panels and two police agencies, from Miami and Miami-Dade County, are conducting reviews.
TWO DAYS IN NOVEMBER
Answers might not come for months. Despite public-records requests from The Herald, police have released little information.
But a review of available documents and interviews with police, reporters and protesters offer a rough picture of the events of Nov. 20 and 21:
Most people arrested were of college age and from out of state.
The arrests were made in three main locations: two downtown, one by the county jail.
Costs, originally estimated at $16.5 million, have not been totaled. Miami police say they have outspent
their $2.3 million budget by at least $200,000.
Police used tear gas, despite assurances to the contrary. While Miami police kept Chief John
Timoney's word that his officers would not use tear gas, Miami Beach police did.
Items confiscated from protesters included gas masks, a bottle of urine, a nightstick, cans of bear repellent, bolt and wire cutters, sling shots and marbles.
The ultimate question will be whether police used appropriate force, according to Richard Odenthal, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department captain who teaches police riot-control classes.
``You look at police and news videos, after-action reports, you interview people and you figure out why the force was expended and whether it was appropriate for the threat.
``You're dealing with human beings. How did they perceive the threat? How many rocks do you take? It's all judgment.''
Protesters say the police response was excessive. Miami police say their judgment was sound.
''I believe our techniques worked 100 percent,'' Deputy Chief Frank Fernandez said.
''It's not as if we took one rock and unleashed a volley of munitions at them,'' he said. ``We waited and waited and waited.''
Thursday a sunny, gusty day began early for police. Two unpermitted marches started at 7 a.m. Several hundred protesters massed at the Miami-Dade government center.
A similar-size group tried to join them from the north. After an hourlong impasse near the Miami police station, they turned back. No one was arrested.
Meanwhile, the government center group about 1,000 strong began marching to the fence surrounding the Hotel Inter-Continental, site of the FTAA meetings. Shortly after protesters reached Biscayne Boulevard, they began throwing rocks and firecrackers, police said. As officers slowly advanced, protesters retreated.
About 10:20 a.m., one protester ran at the eight-foot fence, threw a grappling hook and began to climb.
Police fired two concussion grenades, followed by rubber bullets and pepper spray.
Between 7 a.m. and noon, police arrested 32 protesters.
By afternoon, police radios were buzzing with rumors. Among them: A 55-gallon trash can was filled with feces to throw at police, and bottles of acid were being stockpiled, too.
The permitted AFL-CIO march in the early afternoon concluded. Then came the standoff and the clash.
Community Relations Board members Miguel de la O and Jack Blumenfeld said they saw protesters lob smoke bombs, rocks and sticks at police before the officers began moving.
A video from Miami Beach police shows at least three objects thrown at police by protesters just before 4 p.m.
Many protesters, though, insist they saw no provocation.
''The drummers were drumming, the cops were standing there and the next thing you know, they were pushing forward,'' said Lisa Fithian, a grass-roots organizer.
According to video footage and interviews, the officers took one step forward, then another, pressing into the crowd. Shouting ''Move back!'' with each step, they thrust their batons forward in a two-handed grip, pushing anyone in their path, hitting the few who resisted.
Police shot rubber bullets and pepper-spray balls at protesters, who shouted, stumbled, ran away.
After a few steps, the police line stopped. Protesters scrambled to reorganize, some setting up homemade barricades in the middle of the street. Some knelt on the road, crying from injuries.
Minutes passed. Police advanced again. Pop, pop: The firing continued. The protesters backed up, still throwing things.
The line advanced again.
For 90 minutes, police dominated, pushing protesters west and north, toward Overtown.
Protesters claim that police fired tear gas or pepper spray into a makeshift clinic on Miami Avenue near Northeast Fifth Street.
Gabe Pendas, a Florida State University physics major, was inside. He was unable to tell whether the irritant was deliberately shot into the clinic or filtered in.
''There was a crush to close the door,'' he said. ``People were yelling and trying to get inside before the cops got there.''
Miami police are investigating the clinic allegations.
Protesters continued north and west, and police followed, arresting at least 22 people near the railroad tracks at Northeast Sixth Street and First Avenue.
IN THE WRONG PLACE
Laura Winter, 37, a United Steelworkers secretary, still doesn't know why she was among them. Police directed her down the railroad tracks, she said.
''Maybe naively, I thought that if the police were directing us, it meant it was OK to go that way,'' she said.
Once on the tracks, she was arrested. The charge, failure to obey a law-enforcement officer, is still pending.
Miami police said county officers directed the group onto the tracks. Miami-Dade police declined to comment, citing an uncompleted internal review.
When the confrontation ended, 53 people were in custody.
One more large group of arrests came the following day. About 200 protesters had gathered near the county jail to show support for the marchers arrested the day before. By 4 p.m., more than 100 police officers were there. Miami-Dade police told protest leaders the group could stay until 5 p.m.
But, police say, just before 5 p.m. they heard reports that protesters had weapons and ordered protesters to leave.
Police arrested 83 people near the jail, saying they didn't move fast enough.
Injuries from Thursday and Friday included 16 people seeking treatment at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Police reported five officers treated at hospitals and at least 10 who did not seek treatment. The protester-run clinic reported 125 injured.
Carl Kesser, who was videotaping the protests for use in his stock-footage company, was injured when he was shot in the head with a beanbag as police cleared the street.
His camera captured the 44 seconds leading up to his injury, including his own blood spattering on the camera lens. It does not show who fired at him.
''I did not see anybody throw anything that's why I'm upset,'' Kesser said. ``I'm running. Everybody is retreating. And then I'm hit in the head.''