October 20, 2020
Miami Police get tougher on demonstrators. Zero tolerance for blocking downtown traffic
By Charles Rabin

Earlier this month as coronavirus infections began to spike in Miami, Police Chief Jorge Colina called it “hypocritical” to close businesses, bars and beaches while continuing to allow hundreds of racial-injustice protesters to disrupt traffic on city streets. 

“It’s not right,” said the chief during a July 2 press conference. “In order for the law to be fair, it must apply to everyone.”

Though Colina didn’t publicly declare police would employ tougher tactics that day, several members of the force who did not want to be named said the marching orders behind the scenes were clear: Take back the streets to allow the free flow of traffic. 

On Friday, Colina confirmed in an emailed statement that the department’s response has shifted — most significantly to include the arrests of anyone illegally blocking the streets while protesting. 

“Purposely impeding the safe flow of traffic places protesters, drivers and officers in great danger and cannot continue to be tolerated,” the chief said. “The Miami Police Department will continue to take the necessary enforcement action to protect everyone’s safety and allow for the legal and peaceful exercise of everyone’s Constitutional right to protest.” 

Civil rights groups and protesters argue that Miami Police have now sometimes become too aggressive and quick to make arrests, even though periodic protests downtown are much smaller. Miami Police on Friday said so far this month, 56 protesters had been arrested on various charges, the vast majority for blocking the roadways.

“It’s massive intimidation,” said Black Lives Matter protester Francois Alexandre, 34. “It seems like more cops are out there. Every time we’re out in the street now, we’re met with force.”

That’s in sharp contrast to the first months of the massive marches against police brutality, Miami police took a hands-off approach — either leading or standing aside as hundreds, even thousands of protesters blocked traffic as they made their way through some of Miami’s busiest thoroughfares. The department was mostly laudedfor its approach, which mostly limited the violent clashes that hit some major cities across the country. 

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez did not directly address a question about how police are dealing with protests or whether he had signed off on tougher treatment. But he did say that the more recent actions of protesters have become problematic.

“Protests that are not done in compliance with the law often infringe on the rights of others,” Suarez said. “It’s also difficult to message compliance with other laws such as [wearing] a mask in public for health and safety when other non-compliances with the law are ignored.”

Civil rights groups, protesters and some members of the force who asked not to be named say there has been significant change since that July 2 conference, when officers were also tasked with enforcing mandatory mask rules and protesters were told to obtain permits for any gatherings that might block roadways.

Last weekend alone, 35 people — most of them demonstrators — were taken into custody during a march near Miami Dade College in downtown Miami. All were charged with obstructing the roadway.

Cellphone video seems to support statements from several protesters who said people were arrested on the sidewalk even after obeying orders to clear the road. A few days earlier, one of the organizers of the Black Lives Matter protests was arrested and charged with strong-arm robbery, after, he told the Herald, he had grabbed a pro-Trump flag out of the hand of someone waving it outside a vehicle window, then tossed it to the ground. 

One Miami police officer who asked to remain anonymous, said arrests ramped up after the chief told staff there was “zero tolerance” for those violating the law by protesting in the street or not following coronavirus emergency order guidelines. 

“We have seen a completely different approach [from Miami police] in the past few weeks,” said Jeanne Baker, who chairs the Police Practices Committee for the ACLU of Greater Miami. Baker said so many people have approached her organization for help recently that it has begun referring protesters to the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a pro bono group that provides defense services.

The ACLU of Florida and Greater Miami even recently created a flier urging anyone who was arrested while peacefully protesting to contact the defense attorneys. The flier has a number to call and shows police pinning a protester on the ground. 

“Protesters were literally direct messaging me at midnight, scared and asking for help,” said Peter Beach, communications director for the ACLU of Florida’s Greater Miami Chapter. 

The recent spate of protests have been mostly limited to downtown Miami. As demonstrations have waned since the May 25 death of George Floyd under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, most demonstrations have begun at Miami’s Torch of Friendship near Bayside Marketplace and continued for a few blocks west. Both Miami Beach and Miami-Dade police departments said protests in their districts have dwindled and become rare. 

Joe Martinez, 28, who said he’s been marching four or five times a week since Floyd’s death sparked nationwide protests, said he’s seen an abrupt reversal from Miami Police this month. He said police on bikes who used to lead protests are now relaying information back to officers in patrol vehicles in an attempt to disrupt the protests.

“Now, even as protesters are asked to go onto the sidewalk they are getting arrested. They took a 59-year-old man and slammed him on the street. They seem to be targeting specific people and calling them out by name,” said Martinez. 

Colina released a video on Twitter earlier this week to try to counter protesters, like one woman who released a video claiming to show she was taken into custody for little or no reason.

On his Twitter feed, the chief showed her blocking traffic then being politely escorted to a patrol vehicle. At one point she apologizes to the officer for “wasting your resources” and says she was just trying to get a message across about the excessive force police in Louisville used to kill Breonna Taylor. The officer says he understands.

Colina said he agreed that, “Ultimately, it is a waste of our resources.”

“Those officers that are there can’t respond to 911 calls,” Colina said on his Twitter post. “It’s quite simple. If you want to be arrested, we will accommodate you. If you don’t and you truly want to protest peacefully, we’re thankful.”