George Floyd protesters were mistreated, mocked, made vulnerable to pandemic, records show

Activists confront city of Miami police on Interstate 95 during a George Floyd protest in downtown Miami on Saturday, May 30, 2020. Photo courtesy Al Diaz

Gibou Njie is a former two-sport athlete from Miramar who recently graduated from Regis College in Boston. This past May 31, the 21-year-old African American headed to downtown Miami to demonstrate over the killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd.

Around 6:15 p.m., things got hairy. Not far from AmericanAirlines Arena on Biscayne Boulevard, he saw some protesters flipping off police. “Don’t provoke them,” he remembers saying. “Their adrenaline is flowing.”

A few minutes later, a protester next to him was put in a headlock and slammed to the ground, he contends. Then, although Nije says he didn’t resist or say a word, two officers tackled him and wrapped plastic zip-ties — similar to those used to close trash bags — on his wrists. Though a curfew wouldn’t take effect for another two hours, his court record reads that he was charged with “emergency violation curfew.”

“My zip-ties were so tight, my wrists were turning blue and starting to bleed,” said Nije, who had no criminal arrests or convictions in Miami-Dade or Broward County. “I was wondering what it was that I did wrong and when I asked, all the officers did was laugh at me.”

Nije is one of 74 people arrested by city or county police for curfew violations during the first two days of Miami protests that followed the murder of Floyd. But the curfew that sent them all to jail was hastily called, poorly publicized and, records indicate, inconsistently enforced.

Though charges were eventually dropped for almost all of them, a review of the files and interviews with protesters raise questions about the crackdown. Some complained of rough treatment, mockery by officers, and hours spent packed close together in the back of a cockroach-filled police van with no air conditioning during the pandemic.

“A majority of these arrests were unconstitutional and the idea was to send a message,” said Miami attorney David Winker, who has worked on many civic issues in South Florida. “It discourages other people from engaging in perfectly legal constitutional conduct.”

Miami-Dade police detective Chris Thomas said officers handled their jobs responsibly in difficult circumstances. “When a dispersal order is announced, you are given a time frame. If you violate it, peacefully or not, you will be arrested,” Thomas said. “If those arrested had issues with the police, they can file a claim and have it investigated through our internal affairs department.”

A police officer kicked a smoke canister during a Justice for George Floyd protest in downtown Miami on Saturday, May 30, 2020. Photo courtesy of Matias Ocner

On May 30, people gathered at the Torch of Friendship and around 3 p.m. began marching down Northeast Third Street to the Miami police station. They then continued toward Overtown and onto Interstate 95. At some point, two cars were vandalized and police fired tear gas and pepper spray into the crowd, Channel 6 reported. Eventually, order was restored, but not for long.

Around 6 p.m., when the protest was set to end, protesters were confronted by officers lined up holding shields and blocking Port Boulevard. With signs reading “No Justice No Peace” and “Silence is Compliance,” the protesters voiced outrage over police brutality.

Later that night, several police cars were torched. Dozens of people ran through Bayside Marketplace, smashing windows, scattering garbage, and looting Lacoste and Foot Locker stores. At 8:41 p.m. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez tweeted that a countywide curfew would take effect at 10 p.m. Thirty-eight minutes later, at 9:19 p.m. Miami-Dade transit tweeted that “All Miami-Dade Transit services… have been suspended at this time.”

Film director and Twitter influencer Billy Corben responded sarcastically in a tweet: “You declared a curfew with less than 2 hours notice then shut down public transit so people can’t get home? #Becausemiami.”

And at 11:02, Miami police tweeted, “Effective tonight at 10 p.m. through 6 a.m., a citywide curfew is in effect.” That was an hour after the curfew was in place.

Renzo Godfried, a 23-year-old man from The Bronx, says he received an emergency alert on his phone at 10:35 p.m. that night. A health insurance agent, he was in town visiting his brother who lives in Edgewater. He says he was on his way to his brother’s home at 11:45 p.m. when police stopped him. Though he told officers he was not a part of the protest, they arrested him anyway and sent him — as they did dozens of others — to Turner Guilford Knight jail. He was charged with a curfew violation. He spent the night behind bars before being released the next day.

“It felt strange having to wear an orange jumpsuit,” said Godfried. “I had never been to prison! On top of that, officers never read to me my rights and I had no idea what my charges were.”

Joseph Borzilleri, a 31-year-old from Tamarac, said at least some protesters didn’t know why they were in custody.

Borzilleri claims that when he was arrested for violating curfew about the same time as Godfried. “We asked where we were or what was going on, but no officer responded,” he said.

“While we were telling them that our zip-ties were too tight and that our hands were going numb, they just laughed.”

At 11:45 p.m., 36-year-old Ferdinand Galette, who is a technician/therapist at a trauma rehabilitation center in Cutler Bay, was also arrested and spent the night in jail. He says police confronted him because he was filming a car that had been set on fire with his phone.

The African-American man claims he was tackled to the ground and detained by three officers. He says that his zip-ties were so tight that his hands were swollen. When Galette was put on a corrections bus, he claims he was taunted by officers because of a Phillies jersey he was wearing. “In the back of the van they started making fun of us. I started to ask why I was being detained and they were telling me because I was ‘Philly.’ ”

The next day, May 31, protesters again met at the Torch of Friendship. When they walked toward the AmericanAirlines Arena, they were met by police in riot gear. The officers gave protesters 15 minutes to disperse and called their demonstration an “unlawful assembly.”

Gabriel Acosta, an Iraq War veteran, and 29-year-old South Florida native, arrived around 5 p.m. There was already a significant crowd holding signs and chanting. About an hour later, he approached three police officers who, he says, had pinned a protester to the ground with their knees.

“It was almost a visual of what you saw on TV with George Floyd,” Acosta says. “These guys had a man on the ground, on the concrete, three men on top of him.”

As he took out his phone to record, two police officers tackled him. They quickly bound his wrists. That was about 6:40 p.m.

“There was no reason to make arrests, people had signs, were speaking their minds and saying what they wanted to say,” he said.

A police report says Acosta “was observed kicking [an officer] in full police uniform [on] a Miami-Dade police motorcycle.”

He was hit with more charges than the others. Though he says he didn’t resist or kick anyone, he was accused of battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting without violence — as well as violating curfew.

He claims that by the time officers started making arrests, protesters had already dispersed.

Acosta says police “blindsided” him and threw him to the ground.

He was loaded onto a bus where, he says, almost no one was wearing a mask. Like several of the others, he says he was not read his Miranda rights.

“It was truly unfair. It took hours and hours for us to get processed. … The prison was really packed. I could not shower and was not given food to eat.”

Those arrested faced up to 60 days in jail. But on June 9, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle decided to drop the curfew charges. “At this present point, I see no value in prosecuting these individuals and plan to drop all of their cases in the absence of aggravating circumstances,” said Fernández Rundle in a June 9 news release.

There would be more arrests. This past Wednesday, police charged two additional people, Ethan Berdah and Orlana Albornoz, with crimes committed May 30. Albornoz allegedly threw a rock at an officer, and Berdah is accused of stealing a bulletproof vest.

Said Miami Mayor Francis Suarez: “We wanted to give the protesters the opportunity to express themselves peacefully. We understood there was a tremendous amount of anger — justifiably so — over the despicable act that occurred with George Floyd. And, by and large, that’s what they did.”

Attorney Winker said there is more at stake than just mistaken arrests. At the heart of the cases against the protesters was not only their claims of mistreatment, but also the right to speak their minds. Protest should not be outlawed by a quickly formulated and unevenly enforced curfew, he said.

“Religion, assembly, and speech at 7:59 p.m. is protected, and then a pronouncement is made by a government official and at 8:01 p.m. that same conduct is illegal,” said Winker. “That’s wrong.”

Nije, the college graduate who was arrested before curfew, says he was more than surprised by the police approach to curfew violation.

“We were there from 7 p.m. to 12 a.m., sitting in that bus handcuffed with no food, no water, no A/C, and roaches everywhere. It was a mess and there was no social distancing,” he said, adding that later at TGK, “I was fed up. … I asked them if they had any six-foot rules and they said, ‘Man, this is jail.’ I was in shock.”

Jordan Coll is from Miami and is currently majoring in journalism with a minor in philosophy. He enjoys reading and meeting new people from all walks of life. His deeply embedded passions are  music, photography, travel and keeping up with current events.

Helen Acevedo is an FIU student majoring in broadcast media with a minor in political science and international relations. She is passionate about giving people a platform to tell their truths.