MIAMI (CBS4) – When the Miami Heat plays its home opener against the Orlando Magic Friday night at the American Airlines Arena, a national television audience will be watching.
Outside the arena, on Biscayne Boulevard, Miami’s other “heat” will be protesting. Miami police officers and firefighters are planning to demonstrate against pay and benefit cuts imposed on them by the city last month.
Armando Aguilar, President of the Fraternal Order of Police union, said he is expecting a big crowd of angry cops, firefighters and their supporters.
“We are going to set up a staging and area, and have busses to bring people to the rally,” Aguilar said Thursday. The union expects that more than 2,000 people could participate in the demonstration.
The unions are furious that the city unilaterally imposed pay cuts of five to twelve percent, and reduced retirement and pension benefits.
The protest has been planned for weeks.
The city already has had to scrap plans it made for a huge block party on Biscayne Boulevard on the Heat’s opening night, worried that not enough officers would volunteer to work crowd control.
The Heat had also expressed concerns about fan safety.
The police union says officers who are working the game Friday were “drafted” for the duty, and would not have volunteered. Cops ordered to be on duty will now find themselves policing protesting police.
Miami’s police chief, Miguel Exposito, says he expects everyone to be on their best behavior Friday.
“We don’t expect anything other than that,” Exposito said. “We’re going to handle this demonstration like we do every other.”
Mayor Tomas Regalado said he understands that police and firefighters are upset, but says the city had to impose the cuts and will continue to defend them against a lawsuit brought by the unions.
“These are tough times,” Regalado said, adding that he was “disappointed” by the decision of police officers to stage the protest.
“This could be seen as a message that Miami is not safe,” Regaldo said. “And downtown Miami is safe.”
Those in the business of boosting Miami see nothing but a public relations plus in the Heat’s Friday opener and the value the “Dream Team” of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh bring to the city’s image.
“It’s priceless. It’s an infomercial for Miami,” gushed William Talbert, CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Talbert dismissed the notion that protesting police and fire employees would distract from the opening night celebration.
“This is a sporting event. The whole world will be watching the Miami Heat. What goes on outside is a non event,” Talbert said.
Talbert said if network television takes its focus off of the basketball court Friday night, it will be to show scenes of South Beach, palm trees and a stunning skyline.
“Thank you, Miami Heat!” Talbert exclaimed.
The protesting cops and firefighters are expected to erect banners on boats outside the Triple-A in Biscayne Bay, in addition to marching and making noise on the Boulevard. They had scheduled a news conference for Thursday afternoon to outline details of the demonstrations.
The Heat issued a statement saying the arena would open to fans early – at 6 p.m. – to help them make their way to their seats in time for the 8 p.m. tipoff.
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