When Design District megadeveloper Craig Robins announced plans in 2015 for a huge five-story parking garage, residents in neighboring Buena Vista fell into two camps. Many who've lived there for decades see the garage as an intrusion that will usher in full-on gentrification, while others, including several newcomers, believe the project will encourage positive development that will lead to a reduction in crime.
But as the garage plan goes before the Miami City Commission this afternoon, what began as philosophical differences among neighbors has grown so heated that one community leader has been arrested and another says she's received death threats. A board member of the Buena Vista Stakeholders, a group that supports the garage, even found his car set on fire in apparent retaliation after he called code enforcement on other residents:
Donald Shockey, a board member of the Buena Vista Stakeholders, found his car ablaze after calling code enforcement on his neighbors in attempt to clean up the neighborhood.
Courtesy of Donald Shockey
Last week, neighborhood activist Susan Braun, who is president of a different group, the Buena Vista Neighborhood Association, filed a complaint with the Miami Police Department over her arrest at a community meeting in February. After three months of uncertainty, the charges eventually were dropped in May. Braun, a filmmaker and artist who has collected signatures from longtime residents who oppose the garage and made a short video of their voices, now believes her arrest for disorderly conduct and resisting an officer was an attempt to discredit her ahead of the garage vote.
"It seems like they went to great lengths to put me in jail, which is where I'd be right now if I didn't have the financial ability to hire a lawyer," she says.
Braun says that on February 15, the night of the arrest, she attended a meeting of the Stakeholders at Shadowlawn Elementary, where she hoped to ask their president, Lorena Ramos, to hold elections to ensure the group accurately represented the interest of neighbors. But as Braun stood to speak, Ramos and another Stakeholders member, Carmen Ramos-Watson, shut her down, saying she wasn't on the agenda. Ramos then asked a police officer to remove Braun from the meeting.
From here, the accounts of the dueling homeowners' associations diverge. Braun either fell to the ground or was pushed, and was either walked out of the meeting or dragged by the officer. Short clips of low-quality video show Braun, who has a history of serious back problems, writhing on the ground in handcuffs, screaming and calling for an ambulance. At one point, her dress comes up over her hips in front of all of her neighbors. Braun spent the night at Turner Guilford Knight jail, where she says she was denied medical care and forced to strip in front of an officer.
"I've been going to homeowners' association meetings for at least 15 years, how long I've been in that neighborhood. I've never seen anything like that," resident Evo Love says. "These women are on the mike calling Susan crazy in Spanish and in English. I thought that was just wrong... I think she was arrested for no reason. That meeting discouraged me from going to any more meetings — if you can get arrested for speaking your mind about where you live and protecting your neighbors."
Sylvie Robert, who owns and lives in a small apartment building in the neighborhood, says she was equally appalled.
"Susan was not doing anything wrong, in my opinion," Robert says. "It was something absolutely ridiculous."
Ramos, on the other hand, contends the officer was right to arrest Braun.
"She was really out of hand. I myself asked the officer to escort her out, and she refused," Ramos says. "She was obviously resisting the officer, and I have 21 names of residents who are available to speak on behalf of the officer, since Susan has been claiming physical abuse." (Another Stakeholders' board member, Ron St. Paul, also told New Times he believes the officer's actions were appropriate.)
But Braun believes Ramos saw the arrest as a way to undermine her opposition. More broadly, she questions whether Ramos and the Stakeholders are doing the dirty work of Robins and his partners, who need at least some support from the neighborhood to move forward with the garage. (Robins did not return an email or a phone message left with his assistant Wednesday.)
The proposed site of the garage, off North Miami Avenue between NW 44th and NW 42nd Streets.
via Google Maps
Ramos, for her part, denies any improper contact or relationship with the developer. And though Braun points out that Ramos did nothing to diffuse the situation at the February meeting, Ramos says she ultimately had no say in whether the officer decided to arrest Braun that night.
"I never asked for her to be arrested; I asked for her to be escorted," Ramos says.
In supporting the garage, Ramos says she's simply representing the wishes of members who voted in favor of it almost two years ago. Blaming Braun for stirring the pot, Ramos says she has received death threats and says at one point she even had to call police after eight neighborhood men surrounded her and promised to "fuck me up." And she points out it was a member of her group whose car was set on fire.
"The people being retaliated against are the Stakeholders," she says. "We're the ones that are under attack."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Ultimately, Braun doesn't blame the officer for her arrest, saying she believes he was "pushed down the path of police misconduct." Through it all, Braun says her only mission has been to fight for the integrity of the neighborhood, including many longtime elderly and disenfranchised residents who would be harmed by gentrification. And she says she has nothing personal against Ramos or the Stakeholders.
"I'm not into speaking ill of them for the sake of speaking ill, but at this point, from code enforcement to the garage to my arrest, they've caused harm," she says. "When people oppose them, there's a lot of intimidation... I think the developers now just go straight to Stakeholders because they know they're going to get support."
As of now, the complaint filed by Braun with Miami Police remains under investigation by the department's internal affairs division. In the meantime, the parking garage plans are up for a first reading before city commissioners today at 2 p.m.