Loud, angry songs aren't part of Keith Michaud's repertoire. Mostly, he sings pretty, guitar-based folk tunes, as he was doing a couple of Saturdays ago at Fort Lauderdale's Beach Place during a benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina victims.
Unfortunately, by the time Michaud started performing in the mall's open-air courtyard on the sunny afternoon of September 24, the elements were in place for an angry confrontation between music lovers and at least one Beach Place merchant, all leading to Michaud's arrest and, he says, brutalization by Fort Lauderdale police.
It was supposed to be a feel-good performance by local musicians, including Michaud, a popular 29-year-old singer/guitarist who has become one of the mainstays of the South Florida music scene. But some loud music by a band called Icon had already prompted complaints from Paul Burton, owner of the Beach Place Coffee Beanery, who had told the mall's management that the music was driving his customers away. Anger hung in the air like a sharp scent.
During his set, Michaud, an unimposing, easygoing entertainer who stands five feet eight, cautiously introduced one of his songs: "This next one's a little quieter." He started strumming the opening chords of "Mirrorframes," which his fans know as one of his more delicate compositions.
But Burton interpreted Michaud's performance as a subtle dig. He said afterward that he had heard the singer "making comments."
"I didn't hear exactly what he said," Burton recounted, "but he started singing a love song. To chastise me." Burton responded by heckling the singer, according to Michaud and other witnesses. Burton also called security.
Michaud says he couldn't hear what the heckler was shouting, so he stopped the song.
"He kept going and going," Michaud says. "I was trying to play, and this jackass kept screaming at me."
Burton insists Michaud was inciting the crowd. Other witnesses, including benefit volunteers, other band members, and employees at other shops, say they just heard Michaud trying to finish "Mirrorframes."
After a pause, Michaud started singing Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Then he noticed a contingent of officers from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department enter the open-air courtyard. Another performer -- Chris Woods from the band El -- came over to tell Michaud that, at that point, sticking around didn't seem like such a good idea.
By then, neither Burton nor Beach Place personnel were on hand. Some audience members, including a freelance Sun-Sentinel photographer, started excitedly relaying accounts of what had happened. According to several, they fingered Burton as the instigator. But police focused attention on DJ Chris Earl, the only African-American at the event.
"It just looked awful," Michaud says. "They sat [Earl] down in front of everyone, with four cops surrounding him."
Michaud, several other performers, and at least one business owner approached the officers to explain that Earl wasn't involved in the ruckus.
Burton says he had made a hasty retreat to protect his family against an increasingly hostile mob. "I had about 20 guys about to beat my ass," he explains. He soon returned.
Michaud was angrily explaining to the police officers that he and the other bands had been invited by Beach Place management to perform at the fundraiser and had every right to remain. The cops were adamant. "You gotta pack up," he says they replied. "You're trespassing."
As drums, guitars, and amps were packed up and hauled away, Michaud and a few others helped Earl with his DJ equipment. Police tried to hasten the pace of the evacuation.
"They were yelling and screaming at me," Earl says.
Michaud angrily told police they were out of line. "We're here playing a benefit show, free of charge," Michaud says he told the cops, "and this is the treatment we're getting?" Witnesses report that, though Michaud was speaking in a "conversational tone," he pointed his finger at an officer and swore at him.
Without warning, a cop tackled Michaud from behind, and two others jumped on him as he was forced to the ground. The photograph that accompanied a story in the Sun-Sentinel the next day showed Michaud with his face ground into the pavement. At least five witnesses claim they watched as officers then planted knees in Michaud's face and torso as he was roughly cuffed. A crowd of about 30 people gathered.
Michaud says, with the concurrence of some witnesses, that he was already handcuffed when an officer gave him a faceful of pepper spray. "The little old ladies at the donation booth were appalled," says bystander John Ralston, who was scheduled to perform as well. "There were total strangers yelling, 'This man did nothing wrong!' An older man, around 60 or 70, yelled at police, 'You have no right to do this to him!'"
As he was on his way to the back seat of a waiting police car, Michaud says an officer asked him if he had anything else to say. Eyes stinging, face swollen from the pepper spray, he replied, "Yeah. How about 'Fuck you'?"
He got another shot of pepper spray in the eye while handcuffed, he says.
According to the arrest report, Michaud was uncooperative and he was subdued after he refused to leave. It also says that he was informed he was being placed under arrest and that officers used pepper spray when he tried to stand up before being handcuffed. He was charged with trespass after warning and resisting arrest without violence.
Almost a week later, everyone has his or her idea of who caused the incident. The main problem, as Ralston saw it, "is that four bad cops showed up that day."
Joe Johnson, a gruff, former New York City cop who manages Sally O'Brien's Irish pub on the courtyard, believes Michaud "has got a lawsuit and a half against the cops and Burton. This was a disgrace on the part of Beach Place and the vendors who went out of their way to destroy a fundraiser for people who need help."
His daughter, Lacey Johnson, an organizer of the event, blames Beach Place management, including Marketing Director Gabriel Rodriguez, for "letting this whole thing fall apart." Rodriguez, who was present during the altercation, failed to intercede on behalf of the volunteer entertainers, she said.
Burton acknowledges that it was not Michaud but Icon that started problems. Not that Burton doesn't like Icon's style of metallic music. "It's my type of music," he says. "I heard 'em last year at Battle of the Bands. I have a full sleeve of tattoos! Trust me, I like loud music -- but the windows were shaking."
Burton says he had asked several times for the volume to be turned down. After the first request for a volume reduction, Burton says, Icon singer Jeremy Leonard stormed off the stage and confronted Rodriguez. "And he says, 'Listen here, dickhead, who the hell do you think you are, turning my music down?'" Burton reports.
Leonard, who says he had worked with Rodriguez since the beginning of September putting together the event, denies talking disrespectfully to Burton.
By last week, Beach Place management appeared to be ducking for cover. Rodriguez said he couldn't answer any questions at all without referring to the police report.
How did an event planned as benign afternoon entertainment and fundraiser, co-sponsored by the community organization Neighbors 4 Neighbors, spiral into such disarray?
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"I want to gather the facts," Rodriguez said.
The melee has left some lasting wounds. Burton was quoted in the Sun-Sentinel story saying he's given three of the four officers gratis coffee for years and wasn't happy when they seemed to "[act] like they believed those people over me." He denies making that statement -- but admits that his business has suffered as officers stopped making their regular visits after the story was published. "I'll never allow a copy of that paper in my store again," he vows.
Michaud played a show in Lake Worth last week, still wincing from aches in his shoulder and ribs. Even after a rough arrest and 16 hours in jail, he's still cheerful. He does, however, plan to sue Beach Place and the officers who took him down, he says. If he wins, he promises to donate half the money to the Red Cross for hurricane relief.
As for the Beach Place benefit, Neighbors 4 Neighbors Director Lynne Cameron said the group raised $341 despite the melee.