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Miami's civic landscape roiling

The day before a huge demonstration over Elian Gonzalez, the mayor fires one official and the police chief resigns.

By DAVID ADAMS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2000


MIAMI -- Political backlash from the Elian Gonzalez affair continued for a consecutive day Friday as the police chief of Miami resigned just hours after the city manager was fired.

Police Chief William O'Brien, choosing to leave before he was fired, announced his retirement from the force after 25 years service.

"I refuse to be a chief of police for a city that has someone as destructive and divisive as Joe Carollo," he said, referring to Miami's controversial Cuban-American mayor.

On the eve of another big demonstration by Cuban Americans today,critics of the mayor warned his actions have thrown the city into chaos.

Indeed, five months of the Elian affair appear to finally have taken their toll on Miami's fragile government, exposing deep racial divisions within a city famous for promoting its diversity.

"We have turned all the frustration over Elian, which should have been directed at Fidel Castro and Washington, onto ourselves," said Miami city commissioner Johnny Winton. "We are literally killing each other. No one is out there healing."

The turmoil at City Hall appeared to spark anger among Anglo and African-American civic leaders. The issue suddenly is focusing less on Elian and more about the divisiveness his case has caused.

"The mayor of the city of Miami should not play with matches," said Congressman Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar. "This fellow is the kind of incendiary device that would set off a tinderbox."

Cuban-American leaders pledged that today's march through Little Havana would be peaceful. But they continued to heap blame on the federal government and the Miami Police Department for provoking last week's scenes of street violence.

Carollo and many in the Cuban exile community remain outraged by the police department's role in Saturday's predawn raid. O'Brien was alerted by the Justice Department hours in advance of the raid, but did not inform the mayor.

"I was bound by law, but even if there hadn't been a law, there's no way I would have let him (Carollo) know about it," O'Brien said Friday.

The police chief said he kept the mayor in the dark because he feared Carollo would have spread the word to Cuban exile leaders, potentially jeopordizing the raid and putting lives at risk.

Commanders of the raid that reunited Elian with his father said they went into the house brandishing automatic weapons because intelligence reports indicated a network of heavily armed Cuban-American extremists was ringing the property.

When agents alighted from a van specially outfitted with sliding doors, bulletproof glass and puncture-proof tires, they were forced to fight their way into the house in Miami's Little Havana community through a swarm of men who jumped over fences, grabbed at them and knocked one agent to the ground, the agents said.

Nonetheless, Carollo this week demanded that City Manager Donald Warshaw fire the police chief for his disloyalty. Warshaw refused, so he was fired.

Both Warshaw and O'Brien will remain in their posts at least into next week. Although O'Brien's resignation appears final, Warshaw could be reinstated if he receives the support of four of the five city commissioners.

But the raid is not the only source of discontent among Cuban Americans.

The exiles also say police used excessive force in handling Saturday's street protests, when more than 350 demonstrators were arrested. The city commission voted Thursday night for an independent inquiry into those allegations.

Although accusations of police brutality appear to have some validity, police officials say they are greatly exaggerated and fail to take into account the provocation by protesters.

O'Brien, a decorated Air Force fighter pilot and police veteran, has defended his officers while conceding that isolated abuse may have occurred.

He said he hoped his resignation would defuse some of the ill feelings.

"I know there's incredible anger and frustration in the exile community, and I want to tell you if you're looking for a focal point for that frustration, here it is. I gave the orders," said O'Brien, 56. "The healing's got to start . . . I refuse to be the lightning rod of divisiveness in this community."

Just how that healing might begin is anyone's guess.

"I can't see any way of bridging this," said Annette Eisenberg, a longtime civic activist and president of the Downtown Bay Club Forum, a private, issues-oriented group. "I've been though the riots, (the 1980) Mariel (boatlift), but I don't see how we are going to overcome this. The Anglo and the black community are so outraged by what Joe (Carollo) is doing."

Like others who supported Carollo during a difficult election campaign in 1997, Eisenberg said she now felt betrayed.

"Not just for myself, but because of what he's doing to this city," she said.

The firings are only the latest case of political upheaval in a city recovering from an election scandal involving the previous mayor. Carollo came to office after a state appeals court unseated Xavier Suarez following a vote scandal in the 1997 mayoral election.

Carollo's former allies say the Elian affair has touched the mayor deeply. He, too, came to Miami unaccompanied as a 6-year-old, and has strongly identified with Elian throughout the crisis.

But critics say Carollo has confused the custody case with his personal ambitions.

Eisenberg and others in the Anglo and African-American community are especially critical of the way Carollo and other Cuban-Americans, who make up about 40 percent of Miami's population, exercise their political influence. She accused hard-line Cuban exiles of creating a climate of hatred and intimidation that had exceeded all reasonable grounds.

"There is no city here. There is them (Cuban-Americans) and us (non-Cubans). But I don't understand them anymore," she said. "The way they are doing it is wrong. It's their way or no way."

But Cuban exile leaders adamantly defended their tough stance over Elian.

"We are always sensitive to other communities," said Ramon Sanchez, head of the Democracy Movement, which has spearheaded the demonstrations. "People might at times disagree with us, but the one that created the violence was not the Cuban-American community. It was the federal government."

Sanchez said Carollo was within his rights to demand the firing of the police chief. He likened O'Brien's failure to inform the mayor of the raid to the White House chief of staff declaring war without telling the president.

"The rule of law says we are not overstepping our political influence when we ask that the police force, which is under the authority of the publicly elected officials, do not take steps and actions like the ones taken on Saturday," he said.

But that is not how the rest of Miami sees it.

"People are now just fed up. It's one move of demagoguery after another," said the Rev. Victor Curry, a Baptist leader and president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the NAACP. "They (Cuban-Americans) want to control everything and everybody."

-- Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

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