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Student organizers of Coral Gables protest focus on reforms

Following Saturday’s rally against racist policing, the student organizers are setting their sights on changing the conversation—and the system.
Police officers kneel during a protest in Coral Gables on Saturday, May 30, 2020. Photo courtesy Roy Ramos/WPLG

Police chiefs from across Miami-Dade County kneel in prayer at the conclusion of the protest in Coral Gables. Photo: Roy Ramos - Reporter, WPLG

Before the photo of nearly two dozen police chiefs kneeling on the steps of Coral Gables City Hall went viral, social media posts condemned and derided the University of Miami sociology students who organized a protest against police brutality that ended in a dialogue initiated by the perceived enemy. 

As one critic wrote in urging others not to attend the rally erroneously called fake and anti-black, “It’s like inviting klan member(s) to a civil rights march.” But hundreds of people of every color and age turned out to march on Miracle Mile Saturday, and later many crossed the street to city hall where they kneeled with police.

For Oshea Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology who studies racial disparities in the criminal justice and health care systems, that single moment—captured in photos broadcast and printed around the world—helped erase the doubts he had about joining two fellow sociology graduate students in organizing “a call to collective action” in the affluent, white enclave five days after George Floyd lay dying on a Minneapolis street, with a police officer kneeling on his neck. 

“That was the moment for me. My eyes welled up. I was like, ‘Wow!’ They showed their humanity,’’ said Johnson, whose uncle was shot in the back by a Washington, D.C., police officer before he was born. “As a black man, I am not immune to police injustice. If a cop pulled me over, my heart would be racing. But, as a sociologist, I felt like I should do something about it, and I think it was worth it. Our goal was to have an inclusive, nonviolent, solution-driven protest and we did that.”

Video: Maya Bell/University of Miami

Part of lead organizer Ahzin Bahraini’s solution was for people mistreated by police to air their grievances, a conversation that began on the steps of city hall after the march and will continue at 3 p.m. Friday on a virtual forum everyone is invited to attend. (The link will be posted on the Instagram account, @protestsmiami.) But, the initial idea for dialogue began, not with Johnson and Bahraini, but with Coral Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak. Upon learning of the planned protest in his city amid violent protests elsewhere and the coronavirus pandemic that has upended life everywhere, he invited the heads of all 34 law enforcement agencies in Miami-Dade County and told the students they’d be on hand for a dialogue on Saturday. 

“As I often say, nothing happens without dialogue,” Hudak said, “and if anyone wants to condemn a dialogue between senior law enforcement and grass roots leaders then they don’t want change.” 

It was also Hudak who, in a tense moment on the steps of city hall, called for prayer. When it was suggested the chiefs kneel—the silent protest against police brutality and systemic racism that cost quarterback Colin Kaepernick his NFL career—Hudak and 21 fellow chiefs didn’t hesitate. Nor did they say their bended knees were misconstrued. 

“In a nutshell, we were empathizing with the protesters because when you see the raw video (of George Floyd), how as police chiefs can you not condemn it?” said Hudak, a University of Miami alumnus. “Talk about flattening the curve of the pandemic. We just flattened the curve on how we are going to get everyone at the table. Coral Gables is now in the narrative on the national level on how to do it right.”

Bahraini, who is studying racial inequalities and colorism—how people are treated differently in all sectors of life based on the shade of their skin—doesn't regard that moment, or the protest, as successful because “kneeling is not real change. It doesn’t mean that black lives are sacred. It doesn’t mean that black lives really matter.” 

But the Atlanta native of Middle Eastern decent said the chiefs sent a symbolic message to other police and fellow protesters that “there are some police that are willing to meet us halfway, maybe in our own backyard.’’ 

Though she was widely ridiculed for it, Bahraini said she chose Coral Gables as the site for a protest demanding justice for George Floyd precisely because it is a place of privilege where residents are largely immune to injustice and institutionalized racism. 

“It was actually a subtle call to white people to protest, to show them they have a big role in this issue. They have to take responsibility for it,” she said. “It’s not just a black thing. It’s a community thing. If one person dies because of their skin color, it is truly a community issue that needs to be addressed by everyone everywhere.” 

Bahraini also understands the skeptics who she said may view their group as ‘‘young Ph.D.s who are going to overtake and shape the narrative’’ because of their privilege. To the contrary, she said, they intend to use that privilege to amplify the voices of people who have long been ignored and to push for real reforms. These include periodic antibias training and psychological fitness tests for police officers, as well as accountability for police unions that impede the removal of bad cops.

That’s why the group Bahraini introduced on Instagram last week with a flyer announcing the Gables protest is called ProtestsMiami—plural. There will be, she said, more public rallies and many more dialogues with police until real change is a reality. 

“The end game was never the protest,” Bahraini said. “The end goal is real fundamental change to the foundation of policing. The protest was just a start, to collect people, to raise awareness, to get a platform.” 

It certainly got the attention of University of Miami Police Chief David Rivero, who the day Floyd died posted a LinkedIn message reiterating what he shares with every class he has taught on police corruption: “Nothing will change until the bad cops are afraid of the good cops.”

Rivero, who as a Miami Police detective arrested nearly a dozen fellow officers for planting guns on unarmed suspects they had shot, guarantees that Derek Chauvin, the officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, has a long record of bad behavior—something that at least 17 complaints Chauvin reportedly amassed over 19 years suggests. A vocal advocate of nationwide police reform, Rivero blames police disciplinary panels, which are weighted in the officer’s favor, for failing to get rid of bad cops. 

And although he was not among the chiefs who knelt on the steps of city hall this past Saturday—Rivero had to return to campus before that moment—he applauds the students for daring to engage with police and promises to help their cause in any way he can. 

“They took a lot of heat for it, but the easy route is to just come out and condemn the police,” Rivero said. “The hard route is working with police to make change happen. And they took that harder route, which is the only way change can happen. It has to start with police and with police chiefs and it has to be major reform—if for nothing else getting rid of the bad apples.”