Palmetto Expressway protesters were ‘breaking the law.’ Questions rise on enforcement. – Miami Herald

TALLAHASSEE

A day after protests erupted throughout Miami-Dade County, blocking major thoroughfares from Homestead to Little Havana and leaving thousands of rush-hour motorists stuck in traffic for hours, the governor’s office and the Florida Highway Patrol are calling some of the actions illegal.

Yet not a single person was cited and there were no arrests.

In one case, the Florida Highway Patrol allowed close to 1,000 protesters to block the busy Palmetto Expressway in both directions for about nine hours. City of Miami police also closed down a section of Southwest Eighth Street to accommodate demonstrators.

“The Florida Highway Patrol supports peaceful demonstrations; however, when protesters block limited access highways, they are not only breaking the law, but endangering the lives of the demonstrators and the public at large,” Florida Highway Patrol Director Gene Spaulding said in a statement Tuesday night. “Please be respectful of our communities.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ spokeswoman, Taryn Fenske, also acknowledged in an email Wednesday that protesters were “breaking the law” when blocking the highway.

The law enforcement actions — at least on the highways — and the governor’s response seemed to be in sharp contrast with several of the protests by the Black Lives Matter movement last summer when law enforcement forced demonstrators off highways and didn’t hesitate to use pepper spray.

The disparity between Tuesday’s protests in Miami and some of the protests from last summer — and law enforcement’s restraint in citing protesters despite a new law — were noted by Democrats and at least one defense attorney. Yet for the most part, critics welcomed the police holding back from enforcing the governor’s new law.

In April, for instance, DeSantis said there would be “swift penalties” for protesters who shut down traffic under a new law he signed in April that enhanced criminal penalties for crimes committed during protests that turn violent or disorderly.

“Just think about it, you’re driving home from work and all of a sudden you have people out there, shutting down a highway — we made sure that didn’t happen in Florida. They start doing that, and there needs to be swift penalties. That’s something that just cannot happen,” DeSantis said in April, when he signed House Bill 1 into law.

The law, prioritized by the governor in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protest, made it unlawful for any person to “willfully obstruct the free, convenient, and normal use of a public street, highway or road.” For example, it is unlawful to stand or remain on a street, highway or roadway and everyone who does it is subject to a $15 traffic citation.

Part of the reason why there were no arrests or citations was because any confrontation between Cuban-Americans and law enforcement in the United States is exactly what the Cuban regime wants to see happen, Joe Sanchez, an FHP spokesman, said on Spanish radio.

A lawyer sees ‘selective enforcement’

David Winker, a defense attorney who has represented several Black Lives Matter protesters, said he applauds the discretion exercised by law enforcement on Tuesday to not penalize protesters but pointed out the irony on how it was “exactly” what the governor said he didn’t want to happen when he signed the so-called anti-riot law.

“This is the problem when you make statements like that, you got to keep them straight,” Winker said in an interview.

Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for the governor, defended the governor on the subject, and posted on Twitter that “the left and aligned corporate media” were “FURIOUS” that the Governor of Florida didn’t personally drive 500 miles down the state to arrest people for protesting (not rioting) against the communist regime in Cuba.”

Some Democrats, however, were publicly saying otherwise.

“I’m happy to see that restraining is being used by our local law enforcement agency in not enforcing the no blocking traffic provision of the newly enacted HB 1,” state Rep. Christopher Benjamin, D-Miami Gardens, posted on Facebook on Wednesday. “The fight against oppression and injustice demands action. It’s good to see that our local law enforcement understand this and have acted accordingly.”

Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said the Cuban community has a right to protest and called for House Bill 1 to be repealed, saying the law not being enforced tells him it was “geared toward people who look like me.”

Senate Democrats on Tuesday sent a letter to Attorney General Ashley Moody asking for a formal legal opinion on the law, noting that a portion of the “draconian and anti-democratic” law has not been enforced as people protest in Miami.

“We believe it is critical for every Floridian to be treated equally, and since we’ve seen peaceful protests emerge across various municipalities and local governments — many spilling onto state roadways — it’s critical that elected officials and Floridians alike have clarity from your perspective as Florida’s chief legal officer as it relates to the new statute,” Senate Democrats wrote in the letter.

The law is facing legal challenges. A lawsuit filed in federal court in May by a coalition of groups that include the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, is ongoing. The plaintiffs have asked a federal judge to block portions of the law, which they argue are designed to “chill” Florida’s right to protected speech and peaceful assembly.

While the law remains in place, Winker said he hopes law enforcement carry that “same energy” seen on Tuesday when responding to other protesters who block highways in the future to voice their opinion on other issues.

“Honestly, as a lawyer, the next time my clients get arrested, I’m going to be throwing this in the court’s face. I mean, this would be the definition of selective enforcement.” Winker said. “The next time there is a police brutality incident and this happens and they arrest everyone … defense counsel is going to be in court arguing: why is this different?”

Comparison to racial justice protests of 2020

Tuesday’s protests on the Palmetto Expressway were starkly different from the Black Lives Matter protests, which frequently featured groups taking to Interstate 95.

For example, on June 12, 2020, protesters filed up a ramp onto Interstate 95 in downtown Miami They were met by a row of FHP troopers with shields and batons. The protesters, decrying police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd, berated troopers with insults but there were no physical scuffles.

But unlike the Palmetto crowd, they were not allowed to linger for hours. Instead, in less than an hour, FHP ordered the crowd dispersed off of I-95. The crowd marched back down a ramp into downtown, a tense confrontation that wound up being marred only by an FHP commander yelling at media members, threatening to arrest reporters for “inciting.”

The protests along the highways on Tuesday were overseen by the Florida Highway Patrol and Miami-Dade police officers assisted.

Protesters blocked the Palmetto Expressway in both directions at Coral Way for eight hours. At one point reinforcements were called out, and the group dispersed about 10 p.m.

Sanchez said he was called to calm things down last night, but the difficulty was there were no leaders to negotiate with in a group of about 1,000.

He admitted that FHP was caught slightly off guard by the size of the protest.

Another group also started blocking Florida’s Turnpike in South Dade at 312th Street, though that rally didn’t last long. And several hundred protesters blocked the Palmetto at 103rd Street at the edge of Hialeah for a couple of hours. Eventually, that group, too, was dispersed.

Miami-Dade police focused their resources on about 300 people who congregated around Tamiami Park, with so much space at the park, police opened it for parking and protesters had enough room in the fields to avoid blocking the roadway.

Hundreds of people also gathered near the Versailles Restaurant on Southwest Eighth Street and 37th Avenue past 10 p.m. on Tuesday. When protesters flooded the area, city of Miami police blocked it off from traffic.

Police were even seen taking cafecito shots with some of the protesters.

Miami Herald reporter David Ovalle contributed to this report.