MIAMI – 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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