Miami Beach City Hall barricaded ahead of pro-Palestinian protest aimed at congresswoman


Barricades surrounded Miami Beach City Hall and dozens of police officers descended on the area Tuesday morning in anticipation of a pro-Palestinian rally calling on U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, to withdraw her support for Israel’s war in Gaza.

Protesters had advertised the event as taking place at Wilson’s Miami Beach satellite office, located in City Hall. But police sought to ensure that the rally didn’t take place inside or directly outside the building. An officer said the group could stand in a designated “First Amendment zone” in nearby Pride Park but ultimately allowed the protesters to instead set up on the swale next to the sidewalk across from City Hall on 17th Street.

Pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrate across the street from Miami Beach City Hall on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. The protesters called for U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson to withdraw her support for Israel’s war in Gaza. (Aaron Leibowitz/Miami Herald/TNS)

Police appeared to outnumber protesters, with more than two dozen uniformed Miami Beach officers and several Miami-Dade officers in the area.

About two dozen people peacefully held signs and chanted about their opposition to the war and Wilson’s strong support for Israel in recent months, including a vote in November to approve $14 billion in aid to the country.

“Frederica, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide,” protesters chanted. Some held signs that read “Fund care, not killing,” calling on Wilson to redirect aid to Israel toward the needs of her district, which includes parts of Miami Beach, Miami, North Miami and Miami Gardens, among other cities.

The rally was organized by a coalition of pro-Palestinian groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace, Al-Awda and Dream Defenders. Protesters said they planned to deliver letters to Wilson’s office in Miami Gardens, following up on a letter they delivered there in February.

“We are here today in solidarity with our sisters and our brothers who are being massacred in Palestine, asking Rep. Wilson on what side she will stand,” said Phillip Agnew, co-founder of Dream Defenders and Black Men Build. “You cannot claim to stand as a progressive in the United States of America while signing off on genocide a world away.”

Reached by phone, Wilson’s communications director declined to comment on the protest.

In a February statement about her support for the aid package, Wilson said it is “imperative that we remain steadfast in supporting one of our strongest allies, especially during such a critical period, because when Israel is strong, America is strong.”

Pro-Palestinian protests have been a source of friction in Miami Beach since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel that killed about 1,200 people and Israel’s war in Gaza that has killed more than 34,000 people. Mayor Steven Meiner, who is Jewish and a vocal supporter of Israel, has railed against protesters, including their use of the controversial chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

In December, Meiner raised concerns about a pro-Palestinian protest outside the Miami Beach Convention Center during Art Basel, at which a group of artists unfurled a banner that read “Let Palestine Live.”

In March, pro-Palestinian protesters outside the Aspen Ideas climate conference at the Convention Center were directed to a barricaded “free speech zone” in Pride Park. Days later, the Miami Beach City Commission directed police to enforce unspecified time, place and manner restrictions on protests, approving a resolution that said “the city recognizes the importance of fostering strong and peaceful international relations by supporting nations that share [its] values, including the State of Israel.”

At that meeting, Meiner showed video clips of pro-Palestinian demonstrators protesting a February speech by lawyer Alan Dershowitz at Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach. In one clip from outside the synagogue, elderly people were seen crossing the street and walking through a group of protesters chanting and holding signs on a sidewalk.

“As mayor, I will not tolerate our residents being harassed and accosted and threatened for simply trying to pray,” Meiner said, comparing the images to “Nazi Germany.” There were no reports of protesters causing physical harm to synagogue members, though Police Chief Wayne Jones said a protester was “battered by a congregant.”

Commissioner David Suarez said at the March meeting that he believed there was an insufficient police presence outside the synagogue event, suggesting Jones’ handling of the incident was “grounds for firing” and that, if it were a “KKK rally, it would have been different.”

The resolution that passed in March directed police to inform the city’s elected officials of all protests planned in Miami Beach within one hour of learning that one is scheduled.

The city’s protest restrictions in response to pro-Palestinian demonstrations have raised concern among some free speech advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. The group’s interim executive director, Howard Simon, told the Miami Herald last month he was concerned the city’s measures were intended “to prevent pro-Palestinian protest.”

That was the backdrop for Tuesday’s protest, where police were out in force and enforcing strict rules around the City Hall perimeter. Some drivers were told parking in the City Hall garage was limited to city employees. City Hall remained open to members of the public “doing City Hall business,” a police sergeant told protesters, but officers stood under a tent at an opening in the barricades as part of a heightened “vetting process,” police spokesperson Christopher Bess said.

“We implement our operational plan to mitigate the demonstration and hope it’s a group of individuals that are peacefully assembling,” Bess said before the event. “We respect and protect our constitutional provisions, and we don’t want to infringe upon anyone’s constitutional right.”

Police also ensured protesters weren’t blocking the sidewalk, seeking to enforce a city ordinance passed in March that says people can’t obstruct a public right of way after being ordered to leave by police. The ordinance says police should provide protesters with an “adequate and available alternative forum” nearby before making arrests.


© 2024 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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