MIAMI (AP) — Prosecutors began taking sworn statements Thursday from a group of black Florida teenagers as they weigh possible hate crime charges against an armed white man who confronted the young people with apparent racial hostility during a housing inequality protest on Martin Luther King Day.
Several of the teenagers met for more than two hours with prosecutors about the incident involving Mark Bartlett, 51, and his girlfriend on a downtown Miami street. The group riding bicycles was blocking traffic to draw attention to their potential loss of affordable housing due to redevelopment in the impoverished Liberty City neighborhood.
Cellphone videos show Bartlett walking up to the group that was arguing loudly with his girlfriend. He had a handgun at his side and was yelling racial slurs, although he never pointed the weapon at anyone, according to an arrest report. Bartlett is charged so far with illegally carrying a concealed weapon, which is a felony.
"We know what we saw in the video, but it goes beyond that," said Don Horn, chief assistant Miami-Dade County state attorney. "We're going to do everything we can to see that justice is done in this case."
Bartlett attorneys Sidney Fleischman and Walter Reynoso issued a statement Thursday saying their client apologizes for using offensive language but denies committing any crime, saying his aim was to protect his girlfriend.
"That language is inexcusable. Mark is not a racist and his true character is not defined by the use of this offensive language on that day," the statement says. "Mark emphatically maintains his innocence."
The protest was timed on the King holiday not only to link it to the slain civil rights leader but also to take advantage of media attention to Miami's annual "Wheels Up, Guns Down" event, said their attorneys. This involves mostly African-American young men on dirt motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles riding at high speed in and out of traffic, popping wheelies and riding while standing on the seats.
"They wanted to use that platform to get their message out," Merritt said. "We believe this crime was a hate-based crime, that the only reason for targeting these individuals was race-based."
Police have tried repeatedly to discourage the riders, citing the danger they pose to themselves and others, and every year dozens of people are arrested and many vehicles seized. The bicyclists involved in the confrontation were not directly affiliated with it, although they called their protest "Bikes Up, Guns Down."
On the cellphone videos, a woman identified as Bartlett's girlfriend, Dana Scalione, is shown arguing with the teenage cyclists about blocking the street in the upscale Brickell neighborhood and complaining she had to pick up children. At one point, she calls them "thugs" after claiming one of them on a bike rode over her foot.
Then Bartlett enters the picture with his handgun at his side, calling the group "losers" and using harsh racial epithets. Police were called and Bartlett was arrested, asking officers "why am I being arrested when those kids are free to ride around? I did pull out my gun. But I never pointed it at them," according to an arrest report.
Under Florida's hate crime law, Bartlett could face much more serious charges such as aggravated assault.
Another attorney for the teenagers, Marwan Porter, said a civil lawsuit will also be filed against the couple. The teenagers who attended the news conference declined to speak to reporters.
"They are still trying to process what happened," Porter said. "It was very traumatic for them."
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