Byline: TIMOTHY GIBBONS, The Times-Union
Hundreds of North Florida residents, mostly union members, joined the throngs of protesters surging through Miami on Thursday to protest a hemisphere-wide free trade area being negotiated in nearby downtown hotels.
The vast majority of protesters marched and chanted more or less peacefully, although a few blocks from the main gathering point, hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police officers filling the downtown area.
Thirty-six protesters were arrested throughout the day, on charges ranging from battery and aggressive assault to trespassing and resisting arrest, police said. And one officer suffered minor injuries. It was unknown Thursday evening where the arrested protesters were from.
Aubrey Skillman, who drove down to Miami from St. Augustine early Thursday morning, said he was caught up in one minor clash with police while watching some friends dance near a local union headquarters.
The police line pushed forward and used clubs and pepper spray on the group, said Skillman and two friends.
"They just bum-rushed the crowd," said Lauren Bitting-Ellis, also from St. Augustine. "I didn't see any people being malicious or even taunting the cops. My first thought was, 'Am I still in America?' It just blew my mind."
Still, Skillman, a cook in St. Augustine, and the others said it was worth taking the day off work to come to the protest.
"The United States, with all of its riches, does not have the right to exploit workers, the environment -- even other governments -- to get profits," he said. "It's placing corporate greed over people's lives."
Police said Thursday afternoon that they had no report of the incident.
Mid-afternoon, hundreds of protesters clashed with police a few blocks from the site of the main protest. At least 1,000 protesters -- many wearing bandanas across the bottom half of their faces, surgical masks and blue batting helmets -- approached lines of police blocking downtown streets. Others carried gas masks and tried to pull down security fences with large hooks.
The officers used their batons mostly to push back the protesters but occasionally used them to strike the demonstrators.
Police also displayed stun guns and used a spray that smelled like rotten eggs to disperse protesters. The demonstrators sprayed a cream on at least one officer and threw objects at others. Police had at least two armored vehicles at the scene.
"We are holding strong," police spokesman Jorge Pino said. "We're basically trying to maintain the peace downtown, but there are some individuals that are unfortunately trying to disrupt our efforts."
The omnipresent police officers, many clad in RoboCop-like riot gear, did put some activists on edge.
At one point, several protesters chased two men and a woman out of the crowd, cursing at them while saying they were undercover cops. The individuals all denied the accusation.
Nevertheless, the march and rally were, on the whole, rather peaceful. Carrying giant …