Published on Tuesday, November 25, 2003 by the Miami Herald
Chaotic, Forceful Police Muddy Peaceful Gathering
by Coky Michel
I am not an anarchist.
I am a retired French teacher with 33 years of experience in Miami-Dade County schools and have been a member of the Sierra Club for nearly a quarter of a century. I joined last week's demonstration against the Free Trade Area of the Americas because I sincerely believe that this treaty is extremely dangerous and puts at risk our local, state and federal laws.
But my attempt to participate in a peaceful protest turned into a nightmare, thanks to overreaction and heavy-handed treatment by the police in Miami.
After a peaceful walk involving a few thousand protesters, mostly members of labor unions and environmental organizations, everybody congregated inside or around the Bayfront Park auditorium, in part to listen to songs and speeches.
My husband and I were getting ready to leave the auditorium when we heard a commotion outside, smelled tear gas, and saw clashes between the young anarchists and the police. Anxious to head home and avoid walking to the Metrorail Government Station in the dark, my husband and I and two former students decided to wait until the situation cooled down.
But what should have been a pleasant, uneventful walk turned suddenly into chaos, with riot police shouting at us to ''move it, or else,'' telling us not to look back at them, and consistently giving us conflicting orders. Since most streets were blocked, we were forced to walk a few miles out of our way.
At one point, as we reached the railroad tracks, an officer shouted that we should make a left turn into the tracks and move on. As we followed his orders, dozens of policemen in full riot gear rushed towards us, surrounded us, and instructed us to put our hands behind our backs, so that the police could handcuff us.
When I asked the officers the reason for our arrest, they shouted at me to be quiet and not to move, their weapons pointed at all of us. My husband and I tried in vain to explain that we had been given orders to turn west at the railroad tracks, and that we just wanted to get to the Metrorail station, but nobody seemed to listen or care.
Eventually, the officer who had given us the original orders finally appeared, and some of us were allowed to go, but not before having to listen first to an extremely arrogant ''sheriff'' telling us how fortunate we were that we were not put in jail.
Upon leaving this frightful encounter, we were again surrounded by more policemen, who menacingly blocked our path again, instructing us to go back south, where we had originally come from. We had to explain once more that we could not go back, as the riot squads were not allowing anybody to do so. What was most disturbing about these threatening encounters was the lack of communication among different police squads.
It was a true relief to finally walk away from the thousands of cops in riot gear and cross Overtown in the dark. When we arrived at the Government Center station (Miami Arena was closed, and anyone approaching it was greeted with tear gas, as we soon found out), we were told that the station would be closed in a few minutes. (This was before 6 p.m.)
Rushing to the platform, we saw two trains go by without stopping. Confusion reigned -- riot police and security gave conflicting opinions of the situation -- until someone in charge assured us that one last train would stop.
I made it home safely, but I will never feel the same about the police, especially in Miami. Protesters were constantly intimidated and harassed as we walked to and from the demonstration, and the police officers themselves seemed puzzled and disorganized when handling the nonviolent crowd.
Not once in this ordeal did I feel that the officers were there to protect me. Chief Timoney and Mayor Diaz looked pleased and proud on television: Their thousands of officers, armed to the teeth, had won a heroic battle against a few young and possibly violent troublemakers. The majority of the protesters, however -- peaceful and law abiding citizens like me, who should have had the right to express our views without fear or intimidation -- went home with sore feet and a bad taste in our mouths.
Coky Michel is a former teacher at Coral Gables High School.
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