April 24, 2000

Protests mark Elián aftermath, but supporters caught off guard

By David Cázares. Sun-Sentinel . Web-posted: 12:24 a.m. Apr. 23, 2000

MIAMI -- If only they had been there sooner.

Little Havana demonstrators said they were haunted by that thought. Given a few more minutes, could they have formed the human chain that would have been a moral and physical barrier to federal agents intent on taking Elián from their midst?

They will never know.

Caught off-guard by the swiftness of the raidingfederal agents about 5:15 a.m., the demonstrators never had a chance. Swept away like twigs and stunned by pepper spray, the small group of overnight protectors was powerless until the operation was over.

In the hours that followed, Miami was struck by the kind of civil unrest that its civic leaders had long sought to avoid: throngs of people in the streets, vandalism, violence and more than 260 arrests.

Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Democracy Movement exile group, called for a massive organized demonstration on Tuesday.

Other Cuban exile leaders are calling for a different display of emotion today. Mothers Against Repression, a group of women who have led daily prayer vigils in front of Lázaro González's home, urged Cuban-Americans to dress in black for church services this morning.

Before night could fade into the dawn of Catholics' Holy Saturday, there was hopelessness. When the federal agents arrived, all that the 50 or so people gathered outside the home could do was charge forward, throwing plastic bottles and rocks.

"They're taking Elián!" the crowd roared as an agent walked up to the front door of Lázaro González's home, knocking them out of the way.

Even Sanchez, whose grassroots movement has kept guard daily, could do nothing. Hit on the side of the head with a gun butt, Sanchez fell to the ground, unconscious.

Likewise, the efforts of Armando Gutiérrez, a spokesman for Elián's Miami relatives, fell short. "Come on, come on!" Gutiérrez yelled. But nobody came.

Then, in three minutes, it was over. The federal agents were gone and Miami was left to deal with the anger, pain and frustration that remain.

Reporters targeted

Almost immediately, there were targets. Reporters and photographers who for months had chronicled the boy's saga were the first.

"Some of the crowd was taking on the media," said Terry Spencer, an Associated Press reporter at the scene. "One guy was punching one of our photographers with a stick, saying, 'You knew! You knew!'"

Miami police, notified by federal authorities only an hour or so before the pre-dawn raid, also were outcasts -- particularly because one of their own participated. Assistant Chief John Brooks accompanied the federal team to the house so city officers would not mistakenly confront them.

That put Lt. Bill Schwartz, a spokesman for Miami police, in a difficult spot a few hours later. After being thrown out of the González home, Schwartz was chased down the street about 10:40 a.m. by protesters who yelled, "Coward! Coward!" Some threw stones and empty soda cans.

Schwartz was struck by pieces of ice and doused with water, then roughed up by the mob that encircled him. Shaken up and sore in the ribs, he was rescued by Cuban exile leaders, then extricated by other police officers, as nine squad cars responded to his distress, said police spokesman Delrish Moss.

"We're not sure why that happened," Moss said.

The protesters were sure. As far as they were concerned, anyone who had anything to do with tearing Elián from the arms of his Miami family had betrayed them.

"They didn't back us up, they knew it all along. They played dirty," said Lupe Gutiérrez, 33, who marched along with the crowd, holding her elderly mother's hand. "They all knew there was a cop inside the van."

Outside the González home, a steady stream of protesters arrived, some weeping, some praying out loud. Many stopped across the street before a life-size figure of St. Lazarus draped in a gold-sequined purple velvet cape. They put dollars at the saint's feet and dropped to their knees to pray for Elián's return.

A few yards away several young men huddled and tried to burn an American flag before Luis Garcia walked up and took it from them.

"Nobody's going to burn a flag," said Garcia, 38. "The anger is not expressed at America but at the Clinton government."

About the same time, thousands of protesters were hitting the streets of Little Havana to vent their anger by blocking main thoroughfares and intersections, blaring horns and burning tires.

Although some of the demonstrations were peaceful, pockets of hotspots flared along Flagler Street, the east-west route that is Little Havana's main thoroughfare. Marauding vandals took advantage of the situation and frustrated protesters skirmished with police.

The first protesters were arrested about 11 a.m. and led into waiting police buses at the corner of Northwest 27th Avenue and Flagler Street. Shouting Libertad, Libertad (Freedom! Freedom!), the detainees banged on the plywood covering the bus windows.

By 6 p.m., police had arrested 184 people on charges ranging from misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct, to felonies such as battery on a police officer and attempted murder.

Dumpsters overturned

Throughout the central city, trash bins and dumpsters were overturned and burned. Young men hurled stones and tore up furniture and even smashed a toilet seat to block traffic. A bus stop was stripped and torn.

Police said those arrested included photographers from the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times and three cameramen from the major TV networks -- all of them capturing the arrests of protesters.

Later, tear gas filled the air and smoke from burning tires, trash and newspaper boxes billowed from the roadway as residents, protesters and reporters ran for cover from police. The arrests quickly drew crowds and police moved in swiftly. The popping sound of tear-gas canisters filled the air, followed by pungent, eye-burning smoke.

About 3:20 p.m. a Miami fire engine drove slowly down Flagler Street, with firefighters waving the Cuban flag. Many protesters gathered around, shouting and jumping on the truck in support.

Just ahead of the fire engine people gathered around a police car, hitting it with their open palms. Police in riot gear moved toward the crowd and fired tear gas into the group of more than 100 demonstrators.

To cope with the crowds, dozens of Miami police in full riot gear formed lines and walls as they suspiciously eyed bystanders and journalists for several blocks between Northwest 24th and 42nd avenues. With police choppers overhead, police squad cars and unmarked vehicles moved ahead of the police lines to disperse demonstrators. After numerous cat-and-mouse clashes with protesters, police barricaded about 40 blocks of Flagler Street between 17th and 57th avenues. Miami Fire-Rescue engine trucks could be seen dousing smoldering fires from block to block.

Televised images of the disruptions were so troubling that Gov. Jeb Bush urged Miami residents, in English and Spanish, to keep their protests peaceful. "While this is a deeply emotional issue, respect for the rule of law must be maintained," Bush said. Even moderate members of the Cuban-American business community who think that the fight over Elián should be fought in the courts, not the streets, said they understood the outrage.

"This government betrayed us and we will not forget," said Pedro Freyre, an insurance executive who is president of Facts About Cuban Exiles.

Some said they planned to express their ire at the ballot box.

Leo Ramos, 40, whose mother brought him to the United States as an infant, said he couldn't wait until the November election to cast a vote against the likely Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore.

Ramos said his 6-year-old son woke him early Saturday morning very distraught after hearing what had happened. "I'm shocked and in disbelief," Ramos said. "For the first time I'm ashamed to be an American."

Late in the afternoon, tensions were running so high that Democracy Movement leader Sanchez, now wearing a bandage around his head, had to plead with protesters not to force a television crew from CNN, whom they were denouncing as "Castro's station," off the air.

About two-dozen riot police with masks and guns ready moved in with tear gas, but they pulled back when the crowed calmed.

Even as he made his pleas, Sanchez was still angry over how he was pushed aside in the early hours, still distraught that the U.S. government had ignored a community's feelings and warnings.

"We said not only do we fear the moment that you're taking the child, we fear for the aftermath," Sanchez said. "And nobody listened."

Despite the hard feelings, Sanchez repeatedly urged demonstrators to peacefully protest in a nonviolent way.

But while releasing some steam may calm a city, it may not soon heal the wounds.

"The fact that the military stormed in and took him by force reminds us of what it's like to live under a dictatorship," said Marcel Morejón, 26, a Cuban-American from Miami. "It didn't have to be that way, especially during this holy weekend."

David Cázares can be reached at or 305-810-5012.

Copyright 1999, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.



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