August 6, 2021

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Miami Beach urged to be welcoming to Black spring breakers

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After weeks of uninhibited partying on South Beach by spring breakers, Miami Beach police turned away throngs of people — many of them Black and brown — from world-famous Ocean Drive Saturday night using a SWAT truck, pepper balls and sound cannons.

The tactics were intended to enforce an 8 p.m. curfew announced only hours earlier as a means to rid the city of what police and politicians have described as unruly — and sometimes violent — late-night crowds. And they appeared to have the desired effect: by mid-evening, police tweeted out a picture of the empty intersection at Ocean Drive and Eighth Street.

But the use of force to clear out people of color from South Beach alarmed some Black leaders. And if Miami Beach has openly recoiled at the behavior of at-times chaotic crowds filling the city’s entertainment district every weekend, some in Miami are having a similar reaction to the way the city and its police have handled the presence of thousands of people of color.

“I was very disappointed,” Stephen Hunter Johnson, chairman of Miami-Dade’s Black Affairs Advisory Committee, said Sunday morning. “I think when they’re young Black people [on South Beach], the response is, ‘Oh my God, we have to do something.’”

Videos on social media showed police arriving on Ocean Drive Saturday evening to find a massive crowd still on the street after the curfew kicked in. Videos also showed police turning on their sirens and, at one point, firing pepper balls into a crowd, sending people scrambling.

‘If you can’t keep streets safe, you’re not doing your job’

Police Chief Richard Clements said Sunday on WPLG’s “This Week in South Florida” that spring break this year has been uniquely challenging for police due to Florida’s lax COVID-19 rules that attract planeloads of tourists. He also noted “backlash” from the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer that make police confrontations more common.

“It’s been a different environment this year,” he said.

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Miami Beach police officers keep an eye on people along Ocean Drive on March 19, 2021 in Miami Beach, Florida. A day later, police resorted to SWAT teams, military-style vehicles and pepper spray to enforce an 8 p.m. South Beach curfew announced only at 4 p.m. Joe Raedle Getty Images

Clements said police have been “tolerant” of peaceful partying in the streets, but he said there are some among the crowds that have no intent of following the law. And when officers try to make arrests, crowds encircle them, he said.

People threw bottles at police and put their hands on officers, police said. During spring break alone, at least five officers have been hurt, police say.

“There are people that are down here that are really trying to enjoy Miami Beach and South Florida, and they’re abiding by the rules,” Clements said. “But there are those that intermix with them that aren’t and they have really for the most part no desire to be able to abide by the rules.”

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said the curfew and causeway closures announced at 4 p.m. Saturday were aimed to prevent more violence and disorder that have accompanied the large crowds of visitors in South Beach. He described the city as a powder keg ready to blow. Residents cheered the crackdown, some saying the lawlessness in the streets has made them fearful to leave their homes.

“We’re not targeting a group of people, we’re targeting conduct,” he said on WPLG. “If you can’t keep streets safe, then you’re not doing your job.”

‘None of this is new’

But at a time when the country is undergoing a racial reckoning, the optics of cops grappling with crowds and city leaders condemning a largely Black group of visitors was been unavoidable. Daniella Pierre, president of the NAACP’s Miami-Dade chapter, tweeted “#SpringBreakingWhileBlack” Saturday night. She later added: “Unacceptable to say the least.”

Even before Saturday night’s confrontation between police and party-hungry crowds, frustration with the way the city was policing — and talking about — spring break crowds on South Beach was growing among Black leaders in Miami. Diane Connolly Graham, a member of Miami Beach’s newly formed Black Affairs Advisory Committee, told the Miami Herald Friday that “we have to realize that we are definitely fighting an undertone of racism” among the city’s largely white resident base, some of whom have called Black spring breakers “thugs” or “animals” on social media.

While denouncing the fights and police confrontations that have emerged among the crowds, Connolly Graham and others said city leaders should have funded cultural programs for its guests to give vacationers something to do other than drink in the street.

Johnson, the chairman of the count’s Black advisory board, likens the city’s tactics to a “war on spring break.” He said Saturday night’s show of “unnecessary force” was “performative” for residents who’ve been calling City Hall to complain. He noted that police only gave tourists and businesses a few hours notice on the curfew and began firing pepper balls before 10 p.m. It reminded him of how Miami police handled Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer, he said.

“The way that they have acted and the way that they have approached this entire situation, it is a product of racism,” Johnson said earlier this week. “None of this is new…the thought and the idea is, ‘Let’s get more aggressive with our policing. Let’s scare them.”

City leaders — who’ve been fighting for decades to control a party scene tourism boosters once courted — chose not to sponsor any programming this year, citing the pandemic. Instead, ahead of spring break, Miami Beach approved a $2 million plan that included a stepped-up police presence in South Beach and a marketing campaign created to warn college-age tourists that people who get out of line will be arrested. Still, the crowds came.

Recent weekends were marred by confrontations between cops and crowds. Police said Friday that at least five officers have been injured. A 61-year-old taxi driver was reportedly injured after revelers danced on his car. A shooting near Ocean Drive on Monday killed a 27-year-old Miami Beach resident.

The big crowds, often drinking alcohol in public, have packed South Beach’s 10-block entertainment district — at times creating a panic by rushing down city streets to avoid police-deployed pepper balls or the sound of gunshots. On Friday, the Clevelander South Beach, one of the city’s most recognizable brands, shut down its food and beverage operation, citing unruly crowds and fights.

Pierre, the president of the NAACP’s Miami-Dade chapter, said she understands the city’s need to maintain order in South Beach. But threatening spring breakers with arrest before they even land at the airport is combative and unbecoming of a tourism destination, she said.

“I’ve never vacationed anywhere and saw signs that said ‘vacation responsibly or be arrested,’” Pierre, a graduate of Miami Beach Senior High, told the Miami Herald. “The message isn’t hospitable, it’s punitive.”

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Spring breakers are greeted on South Beach with a warning that loud music and narcotics will get them arrested. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via AP) Pedro Portal AP

‘They dehumanize us’

Saturday’s events were the latest in a series of eruptions between Miami Beach police and partiers in the entertainment district.

When Black tourists picked Miami Beach as a popular party spot on Memorial Day weekend 20 years ago, the city — which was caught unaware by massive crowds — responded by flooding the city with police. After 2011, when a reckless driver fleeing a traffic stop nearly ran over an officer and was killed in a hail of bullets by police, the city responded by making the police presence more intense.

In recent years, spring break has drawn more Black tourists — and more cops. Confrontations circulate quickly on social media. Last year, when video of rough arrests went viral, Johnson, Pierre and then-NAACP Miami-Dade Chapter President Ruben Roberts called for Police Chief Rick Clements to resign.

Ailene Torres, a 46-year-old Afro-Latina South Beach resident, said she’s also concerned about the way some Miami Beach residents talk about Black tourists publicly and online. On private Facebook pages, Torres said, some have called spring breakers “animals.” One person, she said, went as far as to recommend someone “turn on the hose” to disperse crowds.

“They dehumanize us,” Torres said.

Finding solutions

Rather than throw up their hands in exasperation, Johnson and Pierre said they want to work with the city to develop events for spring break in the future. They said they felt hopeful that race relations would improve now that the city has established its Black Affairs Advisory Committee.

Pierre said she has met with Gelber and Clements about the city’s handling of spring break. After and altercation between crowds and police Friday, Pierre visited Ocean Drive personally to witness the interactions between police and visitors.

“I’m disappointed that in the 21st Century, years after Jim Crow laws have ended, we still have to have conversations and meetings on how to treat people fair,” she told the Herald.

Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who came out against the curfew, agrees that the administration should embrace its Black tourists by setting up food festivals and concerts to make the crowds feel welcome.

The city, which attempted to set up a spring break event last year, scrapped its plans to do something similar this year because of concerns about attracting large crowds during a pandemic. The commission still voted this year to subsidize the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and the College Football National Championship, two high-profile events that attract large crowds.

“It’s not that we’re afraid to bring people here,” Arriola said. “This very much is a race issue that makes people uncomfortable.”

Gelber, who rejected the notion that City Hall was singling out a particular race, said he is opposed to spring break programming in a city that is “severely and sometimes chaotically overcrowded.” South Florida’s national appeal as a sun-and-fun destination with little COVID-19 restrictions has created big crowds in Miami Beach, Gelber said.

“I’m actively trying to tell people almost not to come here,” Gelber, who believes a small number of problems has unfortunately made it appear as if a majority of spring breakers are causing problems, told the Miami Herald this week.

But the concept has support. Henry Williams, another member of Miami Beach’s new Black Affairs Advisory Committee, said one of the group’s priorities is how to make spring break safe and fun. The 39-year-old South Beach resident, who performs as a drag queen at The Palace under the stage name Tiffany Fantasia, said racial overtones sometimes accompany talks about public safety among some residents, especially on social media.

Big crowds sometimes make him feel unsafe on his walk home but residents can’t lump all Black people together, he said.

“There are a lot of Black vacationers there that don’t do anything,” Henry said. “It’s the bad apples that ruin it for all of us.”

Martin Vassolo covers the politics and government of Miami Beach for the Miami Herald. He began working for the Herald in January 2018 after attending the University of Florida, where he served as the editor-in-chief of The Independent Florida Alligator. Previously, he was a general assignment reporter on the Herald’s metro desk and a political reporting intern.

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