Sunday, July 14, 2013

Hundreds Hold Vigil for Trayvon, Protest Against Verdict in Downtown Miami

Hundreds Hold Vigil for Trayvon, Protest Against Verdict in Downtown Miami 
Story & photographs by José Pérez

After a quiet, rainy night in which little if any public reaction to the non-guilty verdict handed down in the George Zimmerman case in Sanford, Florida was evident anywhere in Miami-Dade County, an evening vigil was held in downtown Miami in memory of Trayvon Martin, the Miami Gardens teenager who was killed during a nighttime encounter with Zimmerman in February 2012.    Organized in part by Dream Defenders and the Miami Workers Center, the event, which was part rally, part revival, was held at the Torch of Friendship on Biscayne Boulevard.  

Flanked by statues of Ponce de Leon and Bolivar, the vigil was held at the small park dedicated to the memory of assassinated U.S. President John Kennedy and was attended by a diverse group of people spanning differences in age, ethnicity, gender, et cetera.   It began under grey clouds filled with rain with a moment of silence for Martin, his family, and “other victims” of violence.  Thereafter, speakers lashed out at the verdict and what many in the crowd of almost 200 people felt was a troubling sign for the social fabric of the United States.

“The danger is not riots,” said Gonzalo Vizcardo of Dream Defenders, “it’s more George Zimmermans.”

Vizcardo said that the vigil was organized just hours before the verdict was announced late the previous night.     The group, which was organized in different cities in response to the death of Martin last year, was also active, according to Vizcardo, in bringing pressure to bear on Sanford Police and the Seminole County state attorney to pursue charges against Zimmerman.

Whitney Maxey [confirm] of the Miami Workers’ Center said that “this case was just an example of how communities of color are constantly trampled.”  

Tiara Miles, moved to Miami from Chicago earlier this year.   Miles was living in Louisville when news of Martin’s death first surfaced last year and attended rallies there.  Although she is enjoying her new life in Miami, she admitted that the verdict made it an “embarrassment” to live in Florida.

“What does that say about that state of Florida?”

Speaking to the growing group of concerned residents and curious tourists and random passerby, Marc Luzietti of One Struggle yelled, “There is a new Jim Crow today!”

Christian Demeritt of Miami also spoke the crowd. “I don’t want this to die down,” she said, “because it’s going to happen again.”

“It’s up to us! We are the people.”

State Senator Dwight Bullard (D) saw the vigil as an important opportunity for “coalition-building” with the hope that it could affect “real, positive change.”

Miles agreed.   “[The verdict] was “disheartening. It divided a lot of people.” The verdict, in fact, was a bigger concern for her than any worries about violence in response to it. “I didn’t even think about [civil disturbance].”
Michelle Madison, a local entrepreneur, was also moved by “the significance of the verdict [and] what it means for kids and justice.”

Bullard said that he was “happy to see that our community has gotten to a point that we can move past being angry.”   

Light rain began to fall just as crowd prepared to march to a couple of blocks up Biscayne Boulevard to the Freedom Tower just across the street from the American Airlines Arena, chanting “Peace for Trayvon!”   The chants grew louder as they neared their historic destination.   “What do we want? Justice!”  

When they arrived at the Freedom Tower, the group climbed defiantly on its steps as the rain fell stronger and the volume of the chants increased.   “I am Tray-von!”

Speakers called for a special legislative session to repeal the Stand Your Ground law that has been at the center of this case since last year. Demeritt, who said that the vigil was the first protest event she had attended since college, sang, with many singing with her. 

For organizers and supporters alike, the vigil was meant to be the catalyst for a paradigm change.  “We want to see a change,” said Maxey.   She and Bullard both spoke of what she called “bigger forces at play.”

 “There’s a need for people who understand,” said Miles who said she felt “fortunate” to be present at a moment of important significance. “We need to educate people on these social issues.”

*To read the version of this article as printed in the South Florida Times, please click on this urlink.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

South Dade Rallies for Trayvon Martin

South Dade Rallies for Trayvon Martin 
Story and photographs by José Pérez

A small but vocal group of people concerned about the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial congregated at an empty lot at the intersection of US 1 and SW 200 Street in Cutler Ridge last Saturday, not realizing that the verdict was several hours from being announced.  Zimmerman was on trial in Sanford, Florida, accused of murdering Miami Gardens teenager, Trayvon Martin who was visiting his father in February 2012.

Wearing white “I am Trayvon Martin” t-shirts, the group of about 20 people stood on both sides of police barricades erected by Miami-Dade P

olice officers who maintained a discreet yet noticeable presence, holding signs and chanting the same slogan.  

Patricia Smith, a grandmother who lives just a few blocks from the site of the rally, was one of the the volunteers.  “This is my first time doing something like this.”   She was motivated to come out on a warm afternoon, she said, by “a mother’s love.”

Ron Fulton, uncle of Trayvon Martin, made the approximately 45 mile drive from Miami Gardens to join the rally.   “These people didn’t have to be out here,” Fulton said. “That’s what brings me out here.”

The event was scheduled a few weeks ago, before anyone had any idea that the trial would go to the jury that same weekend, said Johnny Macon, one of the organizers. “We are promoting nonviolence,” said Macon, regardless of the outcome of the trial.  “We want everyone to be peaceful.”

 “I hope [that] there won’t be violence,” said Enid Demps of Goulds as walked along US 1 holding a handmade sign that read “JUSTICE FOR TRAYVON.”

At a Miami-Dade Police Department briefing conducted about an hour and a half before the event started, uniformed and plainclothes police officers under a tent as they outlined plans for the event.  Although plans for the imminent verdict were made by MDPD months earlier, no adjustments or additional mobilizations to the regular staffing for the area were announced.   Although a police helicopter buzzed overhead just as the demonstration was beginning and some police officers were seen walking from a mobile command post each holding handfuls of plastic twist ties typically used to cuff people in lieu of traditional handcuffs, the mood in the air was far from hostile.  In fact, some officers even joined in a group prayer led by Alphonso Jackson, Sr, Pastor at Richmond Heights’ Second Baptist Church. 

Fulton was asked by the media about the possibility of violence in response to a not guilty verdict for Zimmerman.   He dismissed such a premise.  “At the onset of this, there was no violence so why would there be any now?”

Macon said that the mindset for all of those participating was what he hoped would echo throughout Miami-Dade County: “be angry but sin not.”

As long-time Miami activist Renita Holmes led a slowly growing number of rally participants in chants in favor of “No justice, no peace!” car horns honked in support of the placards and exhortations for solidarity. 

Macon said that there would be “no need for a demonstration with a guilty verdict” for Zimmerman.  He added if there was no verdict announced today, any future demonstrations would be held at nearby Goulds Park, just a mile or two away, in keeping with existing plans set up by Miami-Dade County.

For those present, the death of Martin and the attention paid to the trial “absolutely” could bring about positive changes in the community, said Fulton.   “We’re trying to stand our ground,” said Macon. “We want everyone to be fair.”

Thursday, July 11, 2013

DOJ Report Paints A Sadistic Picture Of MPD

DOJ Report Paints A Sadistic Picture Of MPD 
Story by José Pérez

After a sweeping investigation looking into the law enforcement patterns and practices of the City of Miami Police Department that lasted a year and a half, the United States Department of Justice released its letter of findings to the public earlier this week.    The results are damning.

In the report, US Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez wrote, “We find that MPD engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force with respect to firearms discharges in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Section 14141.”  The DOJ found that MPD officers shot at individuals intentionally as many as 33 different times between 2008 and 2011.

That figure came from documentation in MPD records but the DOJ report also indicated that records were often inadequate, largely because they were not often completed and filed in timely fashions.   Subsequently, the DOJ observed, neither close supervision nor ensuring accountability of specific police officers involved in police-involved shootings was done by MPD.

Roy L. Austin Jr, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ said plainly, “Miami has to reform deadly force.”

Investigators reviewed approximately 17,000 documents which included forensic reports, transcripts, training manuals, investigative reports, policies and procedures. The Department of Justice (DOJ) also conducted lengthy interviews with Miami Police Department (MPD) personnel at various levels of administration and in different departments as well as members of the community. 

The investigation was launched in November 2011 in response to outcry over an outburst of police violence that resulted in the deaths of 7 Black men in Miami between Summer of 2010 and Winter of 2011. 

Overall, the DOJ report published four fundamental findings.   The first indicated that, out of the 33 documented officer-involved shootings found between 2008 and 2011, “MPD found 3 cases of unjustified force.”   It was also revealed that “MPD officers routinely employ poor tactics.”  The third finding looked at “improper actions by specialized units” including the chilling revelation that of 17 police shootings in 2010 and 2011, nine “involved an officer from a specialized unit.”

Bradford Brown of the Miami-Dade NAACP said that the specialized units, who typically use unmarked police cars and do not wear the highly visible dark navy blue uniform of MPD, were “overemphasized and under-supervised.”

Finally, the DOJ report said that MPD investigations of police-involved shootings are “inadequate.”   This was attributed “unreasonable delays” in delivering the outcome(s) of police shootings.  Additionally, the failure to properly analyze relevant information “to determine whether a shooting is justified” also adversely impacted investigations.

This is not first time that the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ has investigated MPD.  The most recent time prior to this investigation was about a decade ago when the federal authorities investigated MPD from 2002 to 2006.   Austin said, at the time of the previous investigation, many changes were made and progress appeared to be unfolding. 

Those positive steps appear to have been either short-lived or not rooted in reality.  “It is disturbing to me,” said Austin, that the issues his office saw back then still remain.

Still, Austin and Wilfredo Ferrer, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, whose office worked with the DOJ during the course of the investigation, both commended both current MPD Chief Manuel Orosa and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado for working productively with investigators by providing “full access.”     Ferrer also acknowledged community leaders and other elected officials such as United States Representative Federica Wilson (D-FL) who contacted Attorney General Eric Holder about the matter two years ago.

The report also found that just seven police officers were involved in over a third of the shootings during the period of time investigated.   Neither Austin nor Ferrer would state the names of any of the officers they alluded to, citing that such information was out of the scope of their investigation and mandate.    Their civil investigation, said Austin, was “distinct from criminal investigations.  We intentionally do not make a determination” about individual officers.  For that, he said, the cases must be handled under a separate determination, by a separate unit at the DOJ.

Ferrer explained the difference between this investigation and a criminal investigation.  “Criminal prosecution needs to find beyond a reasonable doubt [that there was] intent to violate the victim’s Constitutional rights.  A civil investigation has a different threshold,” said Ferrer, which is established via pattern and practice.

In short, Austin described their findings as “a narrow investigation [that] focused on the greatest problem.”

Next for MPD is a court-enforceable agreement which is expected to encompass procedures, trainings, and other aspects for reform.   The entire matter will be presented to a federal judge after all parties involved have met and agreed to a sustainable performance plan.  

Austin said that, as such, a judge has not yet been assigned and added that the court agreement would not be permanent.   He did, however, offer as examples similar investigations and court-enforced agreements in New Orleans and Seattle where both departments were required to first meet conditions outlined in their respective agreements then sustain those reforms for two years.
In the case of MPD, “the agreement will be focused on what we found,” said Austin.

Austin and Wilson both pointed out that not having a binding court-enforceable agreement was a primary factor that contributed to the ineffectiveness of the reforms pledged after the previous DOJ investigation of MPD.

Orosa, who took over MPD in December 2011 just weeks after the DOJ began its investigation, released a statement in which he pointed out “a significant decrease in police-involved shootings in 2012.”   He added that the “success in this area comes as a result of reforms established under my direction.”  Orosa said that the MPD submitted “a comprehensive report to DOJ” a year ago.  Regarding the agreement necessary before the matter can be referred to a federal judge, Orosa wrote that the MPD “looks forward to the opportunity to clarify several components of the letter, as well as to labor intensely to negotiate an agreement with the Department of Justice.” 

The DOJ report acknowledged that decrease and speculated that the department “may be capable of addressing the problem.”

“The police department could do better,” said Austin. “We are optimistic that it will continue.”

Representative Wilson and others were more interested in accountability than optimism. “It appears that the DOJ is happy with current chief,” she said.   Wilson is pushing for a legitimate emphasis on reforming MPD’s institutional culture.  “It shouldn’t matter who the police chief is.  What should matter are the permanent policies and practices.”

Jeanne Baker, Chair of the Police Practices Committee of the Greater Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, took aim at the Miami’s civilian oversight body.  “The Justice Department was able to arrive at conclusions that the city’s internal mechanisms – including the Civilian Investigative Panel – have proven inadequate to find: that the City of Miami Police Department has been violating the Constitutional rights of its citizens.”

Baker’s boss at the ACLU, Howard Simon, addressed the issue of individual accountability for the shootings and deaths. “Ultimately, someone needs to be held responsible for the deaths and the violation of constitutional rights. People’s rights have been violated and lives have been unjustly taken. Now that the groundwork has been laid by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, we expect a follow-up investigation into the conduct of Miami Police Department officers who were responsible.”

*To read the print version of this article, please click on this urlink.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

'Facing the Rising Sun' - Middle Passage Remembrance Ceremony Held on Virginia Key

Middle Passage Remembrance Ceremony Held on Virginia Key
Story & photograph by José Pérez

As the astronomical phenomenon of the “super full moon” faded in the dark warmth of the early summer sky, drums greeted the dawning sun in the east, rising over the waters of Biscayne Bay.   Standing firm against a strong wind blowing from the south, a circle of people gathered in remembrance of untold millions of people that did not survive the ocean crossing between Africa and the Americas during the era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, just yards from a sea turtle’s nest.

The gathering was not a random nor coincidental meeting on a Miami beach.  It was the continuation of what has become a special South Florida tradition:   the annual Middle Passage Remembrance Ceremony. This year’s edition was held last Sunday morning on historic Virginia Key. 

“It’s in honor of the millions of people that lost their lives because of the slave trade,” said Robert McKnight, a local artist who has been actively involved with the event for many years.   “It’s a chance to pay tribute, a way to pay homage to the ancestors that passed during that trip.”

Altine, another local artist and a woman of great energy who started the Remembrance Ceremony on the first day of Kwanzaa in 1993, said the event has grown greatly since its first year at Haulover Park Beach in Northeast Miami-Dade County. “Now we have Key West, and people all over the country” are hosting their own remembrance ceremonies.   For example, San Francisco, New Orleans, Charleston, Philadelphia, Pensacola, and Yorktown, Virginia all remember the countless humans whose remains abide in the murky depths of the ocean that brought the marauding caravels to the coasts of Africa for centuries.   There is even an underground memorial – a circle of statues - in the clear blue waters of the Caribbean nation of Grenada. “If we don’t remember them, who will?” asked Altine, who has had the remembrance on Virginia Key since 1994 with the support of organizations like the Kuumba Artists’ Collective and the Virginia Key Park Trust.

Ironically, a few months after Altine organized the first remembrance ceremony in Miami, UNESCO officially launched the International Slave Route Project at a conference in Benin.

The early morning ceremony is in honor of the “many people [that] died that were never properly buried,” said Dinizulu Gene Tinnie.  “It is a time to pause and reflect on this whole passage of history that did take place.”

Catherine Hummingbird Ramirez, an ancestral queen of the Carib nation, offered a spiritual cleansing for everyone in the circle with a lotion made out of plants, moving in a counter-clockwise direction.  She then offered a blessing for the ancestors in “each of the four directions.”  

“The ancestors are here,” said Hummingbird. “They’re listening.”

Hummingbird then lit white Garifuna sage – “a powerful medicine” – and reversed her direction, moving clockwise around the circle allowing the incense smoke to blow upon all.    As she did so, she led those gathered in a greeting to Pachamaná, Mother Earth, and together they called on the Great Spirit to “bless the ancestors that were coming on those boats.”

The participation of Hummingbird is an important symbol.  “She’s the connection between the ancestors that were here before everyone else came,” said McKnight.  Indeed, many present spoke of the relationship between Seminoles and the Africans they helped escape to freedom along the almost unknown southern route of the Undeground Railroad which ran just a few miles from where everyone was gathered last week.   “They’ve always been a part” of the remembrance, added Altine, who started the tradition with a Miccosukee tribal leader.  “They’re keepers of the land.”

Tinnie and others passed around ears of corn to everyone in the circle.  “Corn is a sacred plant, it does not grow wild,” said Tinnie.  These would be given as offerings in memory of the deceased.

“Facing the Rising Sun”

With corn in their hands, those present sang along with performance artist Omilani who offered “a song for the people of the [African] diaspora” in the Afro-Puerto Rican rhythm of bomba.  With lyrics in English and Spanish, Omilani sang of “a whole lotta freedom in my heart and soul…tengo liberacion en mi corazon” (I have freedom in my heart).   Pelicans glided overhead on the warm tradewinds as the song remembered the victims of the Middle Passage:   “I left a trail of blood all across the ocean.”

More songs were sung, each having lyrics that evoked the spirit of remembrance. 

Finally, the familiar strains of “Wade in the Water” began and, with that, came the signal to bring forth the offerings that would be carefully placed upon a palm frond raft made that morning on the beach with the blade of a machete by Tinnie, McKnight, and Marlon Moore.   The offerings included apples, oranges, malanga, whole pineapples, okra, plantains, slices of watermelon, rice, ñame, and the corn distributed to everyone.

“We encourage offerings to remember what these ancestors would have enjoyed,” said Tinnie.

Longtime participants of the Middle Passage Remembrance had spoken all morning of special occurrences that happen every time they come together to pay respects to the ancestors.  “Every year there’s a sign,” said McKnight.  He and Hummingbird spoke of a rain cloud a few years earlier that passed overhead shaped like the hull of a long-ago ship but “shed no tears.”

“The spiritual leaders tell you that’s confirmation,” affirmed Altine.

As the offerings were carried out into the sea by volunteers, others on the shore saw dolphins nearby breaching the surface of the water to get a closer look. 

For many present, the occasion to remember the nameless Africans buried beneath the waves also served to kindle spiritual feelings and remembrances of loved ones recently passed.  Kiesha, a professional from New England who recently moved to Miami, said she felt “overwhelmed” during the ceremony.  “This was a chance to feel something deep inside of me and get in touch with my ancestors.”

McKnight said that with the recent passing of some of his relatives during the previous 12 months, this year’s remembrance ceremony had added meaning.   “It brings it closer to home.” 

“The remembrance is a new beginning to call on my ancestors to help me get through another year.”

Kiesha also took time to remember her mother who passed thirteen years earlier, on the very same day.

For organizers, the event is a celebration of humanity.   “It welcomes everybody,” said Tinnie.   McKnight agreed, who said that the ceremony “is a way of paying homage to all of the ancestors.”

The remembrance is also a validation of resilience.  “You can’t kill our spirit,” said Hummingbird.

There was one more sign observed by participants.  Throughout the ceremony, a small squadron of frigate birds were literally floating over the circle of people on the warm winds blowing to the north.  Frigate birds are normally seen only by ships and, when the ceremony ended, they flew away.

*To read the printed version of this article, please click on this urlink. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Coverage of Westview Homeowners versus Developers Story Expands