As the sky began to darken outside the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown Miami on Tuesday night, the crowd that had gathered to watch the much anticipated eviction of the Occupy Miami camp swelled, while the ranks of the protesters dwindled, some retreating to the perimeter of the park to observe.
The stage was set for a showdown when the permit allowing the “Victorian Sunshine Corporation” to camp out in Government Center expired on Saturday. According to a statement issued by Miami-Dade County, the permit was denied renewal on the basis of unsanitary and unsafe conditions at the protest site. Anyone who remained in the lawn area after sunset on Tuesday outside the building where the protest was centered would be “subject to arrest for trespassing.”
As the media and onlookers anxiously waited for the police to act, the situation immediately grew tense when approximately 80 police in full riot gear emerged from the darkness of the western side of the park and encircled the entire western side of Government Center.
For the next hour, the line of heavily armored police formed a human wall and slowly moved west towards N.W. 2nd Avenue, marching lock-step westward and not permitting anyone past their line. Gradually, they swept protesters, onlookers, and media farther away from the lawn area where the protest was centered.
I was at Government Center all evening — primarily just behind the front lines of protesters and among other reporters — to observe and report on the eviction with a watchful eye towards the response of the police. Occupy Miami has a reputation as one of the most peaceful Occupy movements in the country, and the conversation between the protesters that night bore this out. The consensus amongst most of the group was to stay in the park until the police forced them out, and to retreat without physical resistance. There were six protesters that decided to passively sit in the park, fully expecting to be arrested and dragged out of the park by the authorities.
This is when the evening began to turn surreal. Police in riot gear continued their march westward, forcing protesters and onlookers away from the park and encountering virtually no physical resistance. Even so, the phalanx of armored units maintained aggressive poses with nightsticks and batons and some officers clutching canisters of what appeared to be pepper spray. While there was some jeering and taunting from a dedicated core of protesters, at no point did I think violence of any kind would erupt. The crowd finally dispersed after about an hour when an officer on a megaphone threatened arrest for anyone remaining in the street. The remaining protesters — about 50 people at that point — ran and scattered through downtown, essentially ending the event.
Occupy Miami participant Muhammed Malik suggested that Miami-Dade politicians including Joe Martinez and Mayor Carlos Gimenez were behind the eviction order, citing a memo sent earlier in January.
“Our message is very clear,” Malik said. “We have a lot of corruption in Miami. We should be focused on arresting and holding those people accountable that waste so many millions of dollars in our city and don’t bear the brunt of the scrutiny. Instead, we have a bunch of citizens trying to address the economic inequality and corruption in our city being ousted by Robo-Cops.”
Malik maintains that Occupy Miami is still organized and energized. “We’re considering new locations to hold actions throughout the county to engage the community in a more robust way. Overtown, Little Haiti, Hialeah, many different communities. This is a new stage in the Occupy Miami movement.”
The police’s synchronized, precise formations and tactics combined with the lack of violence or resistance from the protesters gave me the impression that there were ancillary motives beyond simply dispersing the crowd, which seemingly could have been accomplished with much greater urgency if that was the intent.
Miami blogger Al Crespo, who was on the scene all evening, shared that opinion on his blog, the Crespogram Report: “Everyone has probably heard of the saying that a good crisis should never be wasted. For Miami-Date Metro cops, taking advantage of a couple dozen protesters for the equivalent of a live fire exercise for a department expected to send officers to Tampa to provide support for the Republican Convention in August was just too good to pass up.”
The Miami-Dade Police denied the accusation.
“We had people there who we knew were going to resist,” said Miami-Dade police spokesperson Alvadro Zabalata. “You have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best, which is the outcome we had. The [protesters] that were there chose not to take a path of violence. Some resisted but they resisted peacefully.”
“If the situation turns bad, we can’t call time out and run to our cars to get our shields,” Zabalata added.
The last time Miami police dealt with a large-scale protest was in 2003, during the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas meetings. That event was notorious for the overpowering police crackdown that lead to hundreds of injuries and pre-emptive arrests of protesters. The American Civil Liberties Union later won multiple suits against Miami P.D. for abusing protesters and free speech concerns.
There were six arrests on Tuesday night, including photographer and blogger Carlos Miller, who was charged with resisting arrest as he tried to return to his car after the crowd dispersed. Five others were arrested and charged with misdemeanors including loitering and prowling, obstruction, and inciting a riot.
Miller said that during the march, the police acted professionally as they were being taunted by a die-hard group of protesters. “But it did seem like they were training for something,” he said. “There was clearly no need to have hundreds of cops from two different police forces dressed in riot gear to evacuate a few peaceful protesters that haven’t been violent in their three months of occupying. It was a big show.”
Miller also notes that the six protesters that remained in the park expecting to be arrested simply walked away without incident once the crowd dispersed.
This post was produced in partnership with Open Media Miami.