BY DAVID OVALLE
MIAMI — The moment seemed to capture the super-heated emotions of a summer of national protest: A young Black teenager whacked a Miami police officer over the head with a skateboard during a chaotic demonstration.
The social-media jury, predictably, was outraged and divided. Either the kid was a thug who ought to be thrown behind bars or the cop, who also happened to be Black, was part of an oppressive force inflaming what had been a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration.
But five months later, maybe a lesson — and a little hope — has emerged from the violent clash between 17-year-old Michael Marshall and Miami Police Office Raymon Washington. A few weeks ago, Washington agreed to meet Marshall in a conference room at the Miami -Dade Children’s Courthouse.
Found common ground
Marshall, a standout Northwestern High football player who had never before been in trouble, wept as he read a letter of apology, then peppered the officer with questions about police work.
Washington, at 27 just a decade older, shared that he had suffered a major concussion in the attack, only the latest in over a dozen dating back to his own days of playing football.
They talked. They listened. They found some common ground. And against the odds, Washington and Marshall have since formed a friendship and bond, the officer now a mentor to the kid that struck him.
Today, they text frequently about football, family and life. Washington recently visited Marshall’s house to meet his family. On a recent Friday night, Washington even sat in the stands with Marshall’s family to watch Northwestern beat its rival, Central High.
“When he saw I was there, the smile on his face — I knew I’d made the right decision,” Washington said.
Marshall, a senior who graduates next spring, notched five tackles and two sacks.
“We won. I played great,” Marshall said. “I played amazing. He was so proud of me.”
‘Big teddy bear’
Before his arrest, Michael Marshall had never been to a protest of any kind and had no real interactions with police officers.
He grew up in Miami Gardens, the youngest child of a single mom, Josephine Marshall, a retired nursing assistant. He also has an older sister, Rachel Marshall, and a 4-year-old nephew. Admittedly, Marshall grew up a bit sheltered, preferring skateboarding and soccer to football, at least initially.
But at 6-foot-4, nearly 300 pounds, his size gave him an edge in football as a two-way lineman and sometimes tight end, even if off the field he was far from a mauler. “Mostly, everybody sees me as a big teddy bear,” Marshall said.
Like many teenagers, social media is a huge influence on Marshall. After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, he began to learn about other victims championed by the Black Lives Matter movement, names like Breonna Taylor and Tamir Rice.
Throughout the summer, as protests over police brutality erupted across the country, rallies were staged daily across South Florida. Compared to some other U.S. cities, most of Miami’s protests were relatively calm as police avoided heavy handed shows of force.
The evening of June 10 was one of the few times that Miami police clashed with protesters.
Marshall didn’t know anyone at the protest that began in front of Bayside Marketplace, but he felt the need to be there. He arrived alone, his mother giving him a ride to downtown Miami.
“It was important to me as a young Black man to go out there and stand with my people,” he said. “It was important to represent something way bigger than me.”
But the day’s protests were marred, Miami police said, when some people began vandalizing statutes of Christopher Columbus and Juan Ponce de Leon. As a melee broke out on the streets, a police “response platoon” rushed to Bayside.
Family of officers
Among the officers was Washington, a slender officer who was on duty with his identical twin brother, Jayson, also a Miami cop.
The two hail from a family of law-enforcement officers that includes their father, a retired Broward sheriff’s deputy, and grandfather, a former New York City cop.
Washington grew up in Broward County, and attended Nova High, where he excelled in football, track and swimming. He was no hulking lineman, but a short slender receiver darting around the field.
It was during a game that a teammate crashed into him as he was blocking and knocked him out cold. He was rolled out on a stretcher. “Didn’t wake up for 10 minutes,” Washington said.
He racked up more concussions as a receiver at Becker College, a small university in Central Massachusetts, where he played alongside his twin brother.
Washington quit school, returned to South Florida and, in 2015, enrolled in the city of Miami police academy.
He’s narrowly escaped plenty of other dangers. He was shot at in Little Haiti. Another time, he got into a bad car accident that sent him to the hospital. In August, he pulled over on Interstate 95 to help people trapped in a burning car — he pulled one person out, and two others died when the vehicle exploded.
Caught on video
Video from that day captured the chaos. Sirens blared. One young man jumped on the hood of a black unmarked police. A couple of young men — not Marshall — smashed their skateboards on the hood. The doors opened and several officers tried arresting one of them.
In a split second, the footage shows, a protester wearing a white T-shirt and a black backpack slammed his skateboard over Washington’s head — an act that happened so quick it’s hard to see in videos.
Almost as soon as he did it, Marshall said he was filled with dread and remorse.
‘Thought I was dead’
Washington didn’t immediately realize he’d been struck. But soon, while still in downtown Miami, his head began to throb. He vomited. Hours later, a fellow officer sent him the video of the attack circulating on social media. He went home.
“I took a shower, ordered a pizza and slept for three days,” Washington said. “I woke up to my brother kicking in my front door. They thought I was dead.”
Marshall was not arrested right away.
Detectives pored over social-media posts depicting that night, then on July 16 released a flier with a screenshot of the skateboarder wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with a Jamaican flag and a gold necklace.
Miami police received an anonymous tip identifying Marshall — who soon surrendered to face a charge of aggravated battery of a law enforcement officer.
He was represented by Miami attorney Julian Stroleny, who couldn’t understand how Marshall had gotten sucked into such a volatile situation.
“I had seen the pictures distributed by the media, I had seen the video, but the young man before me was kind, timid, humble, and incredibly remorseful,” Stroleny said. “He had no priors, excellent grades, and was a star athlete. Not even a detention at school.”
Stroleny began talks with prosecutors, pushing for a plea deal that might spare Marshall a permanent blight on his record. He reached out to Todd Bass, the longtime head of the juvenile division, to see if they might convince Washington to meet with Michael in person.
“I knew that if the prosecution and victim could see the young man that I was seeing, we would get to the right outcome in this case,” Stroleny said. “There were obvious concerns as a defense attorney, to sit these two people down together, but I have a lot of trust in Mr. Bass and the division he runs.”
‘I was that kid’
Washington was resistant. He’d arrested repeat offenders over and over.
Then, Washington learned about Michael’s aspirations.
“I was that kid — high school athlete, wanted to go to college. Had offers on the tale. I was like, I don’t want to screw this kid up. If I can change one life, and that’s it, then that’s it,” Washington said. “I should have been dead three times this year. For some reason, God was like, you’re here for a reason.”
They met on Oct. 12 inside a State Attorney’s conference room at the Miami-Dade Children’s Courthouse. Michael’s mother and sister were there too. So were Miami-Dade prosecutors Mary Anne Spottswood and Freddy Figueroa.
Washington walked right up to Marshall and asked to sit next to him. Don’t lie to me, Washington said, because I’ll know.
Marshall began sobbing as he read the three-page apology letter he’d spent days poring over. Washington talked to him about consequences and responsibility. Then, he revealed his concussion past.
“It was a shock,” Marshall said. “I didn’t know he had a bunch of concussions through the game of football. When he said that, I was devastated.”
‘A beautiful story’
Washington then did something extraordinary. He gave his assailant his personal cell phone, then offered him rides from practice after school and to help arranging tutoring. The officer even called his own father and put him on speaker phone. Marshall apologized to him too.
“Michael, I have just one question for you, did you learn from this?” Washington’s father said.
“Yes sir, I really have,” Marshall replied.
In the end, Washington had a plea that calls for no jail time and probation until Marshall is 19 years old. As part of the deal, the teen will do volunteer hours at the Miami Police Department.
“The divide between police and the communities they service isn’t good for anybody,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said. “This is a shining example of how we can overcome the tense relationships that exist. It’s a beautiful story.”