After weeks of uninhibited partying on South Beach by spring breakers, police turned away throngs of people — many of them Black — from world-famous Ocean Drive with a SWAT truck, pepper balls and sound cannons.
The tactics were intended to enforce an 8 p.m. curfew announced only hours earlier on Saturday to rid the city of what police and politicians have described as unruly and sometimes violent late-night crowds. And the tactics 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 South Florida 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 Miami Beach police arriving on Ocean Drive Saturday evening to find a massive crowd still on the street after the curfew kicked in. Videos also showed officers turning on their sirens and, at one point, firing pepper balls into a crowd, sending people scrambling.
At a special meeting on Sunday, Miami Beach city commissioners extended the Thursday through Sunday curfew and causeway closures through April 12.
Glendon Hall, the chairman of Miami Beach’s newly formed Black Affairs Advisory Committee, said he was on Ocean Drive at the time helping “goodwill ambassadors” guide the crowd off the street, but did not see what led police to use pepper balls. The ambassadors are city employees who hand out masks and help tourists.
Before the dispersal, he said, the crowd was peaceful. Then a Coral Gables SWAT truck drove nearby, and tensions rose. The pepper-ball shots set off panic, and the crowd rushed down the street. Hall took cover behind a tree.
“The truck showed up and nobody knew why the truck was there,” he said. “When we tried to calm things down, that hyped things up.”
‘If you can’t keep streets safe, you’re not doing your job’
Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Clements told the Miami Herald on Sunday that Saturday night’s incident would be reviewed internally. He said his officers only fired tear gas as the crowd began to surge toward them. He said police wouldn’t fire the pepper balls simply to break up a crowd of people.
“I think officers felt threatened at the time,” the chief said. “There has to be an element there of either the crowd fighting or coming at officers.”
He said Sunday on WPLG’s “This Week in South Florida” that spring break this year has been 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 have made police confrontations more common.
“It’s been a different environment this year,” he said.
Clements said police have been “tolerant” of peaceful partying in the streets, but he said some people have no intentions of following the law. And when officers try to make arrests, crowds circle them, he said.
In recent weeks, people have thrown bottles at police and put their hands on officers, police said. During spring break alone, police say at least five officers have been hurt.
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said the curfew and causeway closings announced at 4 p.m. Saturday were aimed to prevent more violence and disorder. He described the city as a powder keg ready to blow. Residents cheered the crackdown, some saying they’re afraid to leave their homes.
“We’re not targeting a group of people, we’re targeting conduct,” he told WPLG-Local 10. “If you can’t keep streets safe, then you’re not doing your job.”
South Florida’s national appeal as a sun-and-fun capital with few COVID-19 restrictions has created bigger crowds in Miami Beach than the city anticipated or that police can handle, Gelber said. Cheap airline tickets have contributed to that, he said.
“We have an enormous number of people coming here,” he said at a news conference Saturday. “It’s more than, I believe, in previous years. If you see some of the photos and the videos, it feels like a rock concert everywhere.”
‘None of this is new’
But at a time when the country is undergoing a racial reckoning, the optics of police officers grappling with crowds and city leaders condemning a largely Black group of visitors has been unavoidable. Daniella Pierre, president of the NAACP’s Miami-Dade chapter, tweeted “#SpringBreakingWhileBlack” on 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 local Black leaders. DeAnne 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, Connolly Graham and others said city leaders should in the future consider funding cultural programs to give visitors something to do besides drink in the streets.
Johnson, the chairman of the county’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 gave tourists and businesses only a few hours’ notice about 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 that 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 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, with many drinking in public, have packed South Beach’s 10-block entertainment district — at times fueling 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.
Hall, of the Black Affairs Advisory Committee, said he didn’t think controlling crowds is a race issue. He agreed with city leaders that the big crowds on South Beach’s party strip were causing capacity and safety issues, not to mention COVID-19 concerns.
Whenever hundreds of people gather in one place to drink and party, there is the potential for chaos, Hall said. He recommended closing parking garages to prevent day trippers from adding to the crowds and, in the future, funding events across Miami Beach during busy weekends to spread out the crowds.
“That area is just not built for crowds like this,” he said. “When you have those types of crowds, even when most of the people are not causing any problems [or] not doing anything illegal, all it takes is a small element of that to magnify the problem.”
Police spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez said about twice as many people have been arrested compared to last year. The city has made about 1,000 arrests since the first week of February, he said. They have also seized about 80 firearms, including four on Saturday night.
Chief Clements, who said he was “alarmed” by the number of firearms he’s seeing, said most of the problem seems to be that people who drive here are bringing weapons down from open-carry states, where they are permitted.
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.”
‘They dehumanize us’
Saturday’s events were the latest in a series of eruptions between Miami Beach police and partyers 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 unprepared for the big 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 intensifying the police presence.
In recent years, spring break has drawn more Black tourists — and more officers. 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 the police chief 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.
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 an altercation between crowds and police Friday, Pierre visited Ocean Drive 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 Miami Herald.
Miami Beach City Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who has spoken out against the curfew, said the city shouldn’t tolerate violent crowds but added he agrees that the administration should embrace Black tourists by setting up food festivals and concerts to make visitors feel welcome.
The city, which attempted to set up a spring break event last year, scrapped 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.”
“I’m actively trying to tell people almost not to come here,” said Gelber, who believes a small number of problems has made it appear as if a majority of spring breakers are causing problems.
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,” Williams said. “It’s the bad apples that ruin it for all of us.”
Author: Martin Vassolo
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.