An armed white man who got into a traffic confrontation with a group of black teenagers protesting housing inequality on Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been charged with hate crimes, prosecutors said Tuesday.
Mark Bartlett, 51, is charged with three counts of aggravated assault with prejudice and two firearms counts, Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a news release.
The charges are brought under a state law allowing enhanced hate-crime penalties when a crime is motivated by prejudice.
The state attorney’s office said if Bartlett is found guilty on all charges, he faces up to 55 years in prison.
“Actions matter. Words matter, and the crime matters,” Fernandez Rundle said. “That underlying crime, plus those words, that prejudice, is evidenced, then that’s when the enhancement kicks in. There were racial epithets that were used in the video, so I think you all saw it, or witnesses told us about it.”
Cellphone video taken by bystanders shows Bartlett carrying a handgun and yelling racial slurs at the teenagers on bicycles blocking traffic in downtown Miami. Bartlett’s girlfriend was also involved — at one point calling the group “thugs” — but was not charged with any crime.
Jamel Anderson, 16, was one of the victims of the Brickell Martin Luther King Jr. Day incident.
“He was trying to make feel like we nobody. He was trying to make us feel like nothing,” Anderson said. “We ride bicycles and everything to stop all the gun violence and everything. We was out there to protest it and our fair housing in our community.”
The protest involved potential loss of affordable housing in the impoverished Liberty City neighborhood. It coincided with a much larger event, “Wheels Up, Guns Down,” that was timed to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day and involved mostly young African-American men riding motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles at high speeds in traffic, popping wheelies and riding while standing on the seats.
Dwight Wells, the founder of the “Bikes Up Guns Down,” Boys and Girls Miami, said, “Racism against African-American kids, Spanish kids, kids from all different in all different ethnic backgrounds is not tolerated in Miami or in the United States of America.”
The state attorney’s office said the entire incident took place along three different parts of Brickell Avenue.
“Part of the complication of this was trying to put those three together,” Fernandez Rundle said.
Bartlett’s lawyers said in an email that they are disappointed in the new charges and contended they were brought partly because of political pressure.
“Clearly this mob of people who were commandeering traffic, and taunting passengers, while wearing masks and gloves, were not peacefully protesting,” attorneys Jayne Weintraub and Jonathan Etra said in the statement. “They were committing multiple crimes for which the state attorney is not holding them accountable.”
Bartlett also told police he never pointed his gun at any of the protesters, according to an arrest report.
An arraignment hearing is set Wednesday for Bartlett. His lawyers’ statement said he would be found innocent. He had initially only been charged with carrying a concealed weapon.
“I’m sure the defense attorneys will do their best to find criticisms and cracks in the case, but right now, we believe we’re doing the right thing,” Fernandez Rundle said.
Attorneys for some of the teenagers have also filed a civil rights lawsuit against Bartlett and his girlfriend, Dana Scalione, accusing them of hate crimes, assault, battery and infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.
Those lawyers, Lee Merritt and Marwan Porter, have also been pushing for hate-crime charges to be filed.
“In this day and time when you have kids being killed at schools, churches, movie theaters, we cannot take this kind of conduct lightly. It can end tragically,” Porter said.