Tactical changes, peace-keeping protesters credited with easing march tensions in Miami

A overnight change in crowd-control strategy helped bring a relatively quiet end to Miami’s sporadically violent weekend of protests over the latest in a nationwide string of deaths of black men at the hands of police — with some marchers Sunday even helping avert what might have been a second consecutive night of downtown looting, fires and violence.

“We certainly improved and made adjustments,” said Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who said he met with organizers of the protests both days and passed along his cellphone number. “And the citizens helped tremendously Sunday at the CVS.”

At that CVS, one group of protesters locked arms and chanted the name of George Floyd — killed May 25 by a Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, as three other cops watched — to block another small group trying to break into the pharmacy. The only damage to the store was a partially shattered window. Small businesses did not escape totally unscathed, however, one bike shop on Northeast Second Avenue was broken into it.

Questions also emerged about some confrontations involving Miami-Dade County police officers, brought in to re-enforce city cops — including the arrest of a TV journalist, which Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Monday called a “mistake,” and a rough arrest of one marcher caught on video outside the entrance to PortMiami. And protests, though smaller, were continuing through Miami on Monday evening.

Still, by any measure, Sunday proved a calmer events than the previous evening, which had left five shops at the Bayside marketplace looted, 17 patrol vehicles damaged and five set on fire.. Five officers also were injured after being pelted by bottles and rock, some suffering broken bones, and police had to resort to tear gas and even firing rubber bullets to break-up an escalating situation outside the Miami Police Department. That day, city police had gone in with marching orders to avoid confrontations and distance themselves from marchers.

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“Our plan and philosophy was to allow people to peacefully demonstrate,” said Miami Deputy Police Chief Ron Papier. “We will block traffic for them. What we won’t tolerate is damage to property or the public’s safety,”.

On Saturday, Miami police had arrested 13 people. On Sunday, that fell to just three. In all of Miami-Dade County, 57 protesters were arrested Saturday, a number that dropped to 35 on Sunday.

Miami police and city leaders credited the more peaceful second day protest to march organizers who did a good job of policing their own and to tactical adjustments by law enforcement agencies made overnight. This time, police blocked entrances to highways, PortMiami, Bayside and Miami Police headquarters. Patrol cars — targets the previous evening — also were taken off the street.

Meanwhile, march organizers could be seen throughout the day trying to keep the crowd together as the mass moved through downtown, racing to situations that threatened to spark some type of confrontation.

“Some of the things they did tactically different. We didn’t allow people to congregate at the police department so it wouldn’t become a rallying point and there were no cars on the street,” Suarez said. “While Sunday night was flawless, I think Saturday night was good, it just wasn’t perfect.”

Some protesters did not share Suarez’s “flawless” assessment of the overall response.

Zaina Alsous, one of the lead marchers and Dream Defender spokesperson, said the presence of so many heavily armed officers only provokes demonstrators already angered by what they see as police abuse.

“What’s troubling and confusing is how much county resources are being allocated for militarized policing. Meanwhile, we’ve been here begging the county to shelter homeless people during this pandemic. Miami has a priority problem,” she said. “This level of police presence and brutality to keep people safe, is actually a huge waste. People are going to respond to the energy being directed at them. If they are showing up in military gear, that will be how people respond. If they are left to be together, and by large it was all very positive, it will end up being a peaceful protest.”

On Monday, Miami-Dade also admitted police should not have arrested WSVN producer Joel Franco Sunday night as he covered the protest for the station and on his popular Twitter feed. Franco spent the night in a county jail.

Franco, 24, said on Twitter he had his media credentials during the arrest on a charge for violating the county’s curfew rules, which exempts employees of media companies as “essential” workers.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who oversees the police department, said the Franco arrest “was a mistake” when asked about it during a press conference Monday. Police director Freddy Ramirez said he wasn’t aware of Franco’s arrest until Monday afternoon but that the charge would be dropped.

“We’re conducting an investigation into that matter,” Ramirez said. “We have a great relationship with the press. And we’re going to look into it to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It was a chaotic situation.”

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The county’s top prosecutor, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, issued a statement confirming charges were being dropped, saying working reporters “have a First Amendment right to keep us all informed...”

A group of Miami-Dade police, stationed to block the PortMiami entrance, also were caught on video roughly tackling one protester standing on the sidewalk, who was later charged with unlawful assembly, records show. Miami-Dade Police Sgt. Erin Alfonso said Ariel Alfaro was arrested after police warned a small group of protestors trying to get to PortMiami they had 15 minutes to disperse or risk arrest.

But Alfaro, 23, reached Monday afternoon, said he arrived after the warning and wasn’t aware people were ordered to leave, though he admitted to taunting police. He said he actually headed over to where county police were staged to ask them a question when an officer shouted, “isn’t this fun?’

Alfaro said when he uttered an expletive in the direction of the cop, the officer asked him to repeat what he said. That’s when, Alfaro said, he asked the cop, “what are you gonna do, shoot me like you did everybody else?” Incensed, the officer jumped out of the van, tackled him to the ground and arrested him. Miami-Dade Police, which made 92 arrests at various protests over the weekend, said Monday that supervisors are looking into the matter.

Patricia Abril, press secretary for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who oversees the police department, said Monday night that he asked the agency to investigate the matter and that “any misconduct on the part of any Miami-Dade Police officer will be addressed.”

Still, by historical comparison to some of Miami’s worst unrest, the weekend left the city relatively unscathed. After the 1980 acquittal of four white officers who had brutally beaten a handcuffed black insurance agent named Arthur McDuffie, the resulting riots left 18 dead, 400 people arrested and more than $100 million in property damage.

But with violent clashes erupting across the county, the mood was still tense much of the weekend, particularly in a Saturday night confrontation near Miami police headquarter.

Papier said police didn’t expect “certain elements” to begin targeting police vehicles and officers — with a few dozen protesters setting patrol cars ablaze as darkness fell and pelting officers with rocks and firecrackers. Papier said police held off as long as possible before firing gas into the group to disperse it.

“At some point that protest began to turn violent. They threw stuff, bottles of water, rocks, concrete, I don’t knew where they got it,” said Papier. “When they started jumping on patrol cars we knew the crowd was turning violent.”

Some protesters were well prepared, he said, often covering tear gas canisters with orange cones to block the smoke and tossing rocks and bricks and bottles at police. Miami police called units from Coral Gables, Miami Beach and Miami-Dade for assistance. At one point as Miami police were running low on tear gas, Gables police offered them some save the time it would have taken to grab more from the property room inside the building.

Around 10 p.m. Saturday, the clash defused. But it wasn’t the tear gas that forced them away, said a law enforcement source and at least one person who watched the confrontation unfold. It was the thick black billowing smoke they created by setting the patrol cars ablaze.

As the group was backing off, some in the crowd heard them say they were heading over to Bayside. A few minutes later, helicopter television camera crews showed looters breaking into stores there. The looters fled when when a police helicopter shown a flood light on them. Papier said Miami police were able to head over to Bayside with Miami-Dade police after Miami Beach cops agreed to cover the police department building after the violence there ended.

By Sunday, there were few confrontations.

“It was really great to see in Miami,” said Suarez. “We’re happy there were no protesters hurt and no police officers hurt.”

That may not be entirely accurate — at least with county police. The department is preparing a standard report used when there is use of force or a reported injury. At least two protesters arrested by Miami-Dade officers told the Herald they were injured during the arrests.

Miami Herald staff writer Doug Hanks contributed to this report.

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