MIAMI BEACH — City leaders here were on the defensive Tuesday amid charges from Black activists that authorities were being too heavy-handed with college students who flocked to the city's beaches for spring break, reigniting the nationwide debate over how police respond to crowds involving predominantly young African Americans.
On Saturday night, less than an hour after the curfew took effect, officers used chemical irritants and high-pitched noises to disperse crowds along Miami Beach’s famous entertainment zone on South Beach. Some officers were outfitted in tactical gear and rode in an armored SWAT vehicle.
Miami Beach commissioners voted Sunday to potentially extend the curfew on weekends in the city’s Art Deco District through April 11, unnerving Black leaders who worry that the city is punishing tourists who in some cases are just out to have fun.
“You create a police state, and where you think you’re fixing a problem you might be creating more problems,” said Valerie Crawford, a member of the city’s newly created Black Affairs Committee. “You almost corralled them into a cage.”
Richard Clements, the city’s police chief, said Wednesday that concerns for public safety became heightened after an increase in large-scale disturbances and fights. He said officers used pepper spray after verbal commands were unsuccessful.
“Miami Beach prides itself on its ability to police a diverse population,” he said in an email. “We police behavior and address it accordingly. When the crowd dynamics become too large to deal with identifying individual persons, [it] becomes dangerous for not only the officers, but for the crowd around them at the same time.”
Miami Beach Commissioner David Richardson said accusations that town leaders are treating Black visitors unfairly are unfounded. Miami Beach, Richardson said, simply has more visitors than it can safely manage.
The greater Miami area has more than 50,000 hotel rooms and hosted more than 16 million overnight visitors annually before the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are not passing ordinances or laws here based on demographics or skin color,” said Richardson, a former Democratic state legislator. “We are merely looking at the conduct of the people visiting the city. This has nothing to do with who is visiting — it has to dowith the sheer number of people visiting.”
This year’s crackdown was not the first, but it was the most drastic in the town’s years-long battle over how to manage the sometimes unruly spring break tourists. The debate is accelerating discussions here about what the world-famous island city wants to be, how it is viewed and whether it can move past its grim history of racial division.
Miami Beach officials say they had no choice but to seek ways to control crowds that had become violent and unmanageable, but some Black leaders in South Florida note that the Miami area hosts all kinds of rowdy events, including large music festivals where drug use is common, championship sporting events, round-the-clock dance parties during Miami Beach Pride celebrations and gatherings of bikers.
But although police have developed targeted strategies for isolating troublemakers during such events, authorities this time embraced a curfew that appears to sweep up all revelers in the same category, which Black leaders say is a telltale sign of discrimination.
“It's like we have learned nothing since the death of George Floyd,” said Stephen Hunter Johnson, a Miami attorney and past president of 100 Black Men of South Florida, referring to the Black man who died during an encounter with Minneapolis police. “Drinking, fighting on a beach and twerking on a car is not new in Miami Beach, and not new to spring break in general. . . . But yet here we are, again, having to be concerned about how our town is treating Black visitors.”
But city leaders contend that the spring break crowd this year was indeed different.
After quickly organizing on social media, tens of thousands of young visitors flocked here, drawn by cheap hotel rates and frustration over the year-long lockdown in their home states. Authorities said many of the visitors are not enrolled in college, which has further complicated group dynamics.
Between Feb. 3 and March 21, Miami Beach police made 1,050 arrests, including nearly 400 for felony crimes. Officers recovered more than 100 firearms, including 10 rifles, and arrested about 275 people in connection with public consumption of drugs, in a state where marijuana is not legal. The drugs involved included heroin and fentanyl, Clements said.
This year’s arrests exceed the number made during spring break periods dating back to 2018, according to numbers released by the police department. There were 834 arrests in 2019 and 871 in 2018.
Videos on social media also show crowds brawling in the streets, stomping on vehicles, storming into businesses and throwing objects at police.
In one especially violent incident, two visitors have been charged with drugging and raping a woman in her hotel room and then stealing her credit cards. The woman was later found dead in her room; the cause of death remains under investigation. Clements called that case “horrible” and added that police are also investigating two homicides.
“We can't ignore the violence that we are seeing,” Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola said.
Commissioner Steven Meiner added that the crowds had been so unruly that police resources are strained and Miami Beach residents had become increasingly fearful for their safety. Residents have bombarded city leaders with phone calls and emails demanding additional steps be taken to rein in the vacationers, Meiner said.
“On so many issues we deal with, you hear both sides, and as an elected official you’ve got to kind of weigh, which way is best,” Meiner said. “On this one, it was literally very one-sided; it was a very loud chorus of residents.”
Some Black leaders said they shared the concern about reports of unlawful behavior, but questioned whether the city’s lack of planning and its militarized response had exacerbated the situation.
“I’m saying you can’t let people do what they want and be disruptive to society,” Crawford said. “But on the other hand, I think there should be a pull back to say, okay, what could we have done differently?”
With new vacationers arriving daily, the students who gathered on South Beach on Tuesday questioned why they should feel as if they are being punished because of the past actions of others. Many said they spent months saving the money to make the trip.
“I was like, dang, a curfew now?” said Dyshonique Jones, a 21-year-old student from Towson University in Maryland. “They messed it up for a lot of people.”
Jones, who arrived Monday, said she briefly thought about canceling the trip, but ultimately decided she “needed a break like this.”
“We don’t really travel, we don’t get to go out because of the pandemic,” said Jones, a biology major.
Once known as a laid-back destination for seasonal residents and retirees, Miami Beach has grown and evolved in recent decades as new high-rise condominiums continue to be built along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay. The 15-square-mile city is home to about 90,000 residents, but African Americans account for just 4 percent of the population, according to the Census Bureau.
Melba Pearson, a Black civil rights attorney and former homicide prosecutor for Miami-Dade County who lives in South Beach, said race and policing have been fraught issues here for generations.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Miami Beach was known as a “sundown town” where only Whites were allowed to reside.
Black Americans were allowed onto the beach only if they were employed there, and then were expected to promptly leave when their shift ended. Even famous Black musicians and sports stars had to abide by the rules.
Miami Beach was the site of Muhammad Ali’s star-making victory against Sonny Liston in 1964. But with many hotels still segregated, the new boxing champion stayed in mainland Miami, in a historically Black neighborhood. While training in Miami Beach, Ali ran along the causeway, where he was occasionally stopped by police.
After integration, Pearson noted, Miami Beach gradually became more accepting and welcoming of non-White visitors. But the debate over Miami Beach's treatment of Black visitors has remained divisive, especially during big events that have tended to attract mostly non-White visitors.
In 2011, the Miami Beach Police Department came under especially intense criticism during “Urban Beach Week,” which for the past two decades has been held over Memorial Day weekend. That year, a dozen Miami Beach police officers fired 116 rounds at a Black motorist, who was intoxicated and allegedly had been driving recklessly.
Raymond Herisse, 22, was killed, and police bullets also struck four bystanders.
Although the Miami Beach Police Department has undertaken a number of changes in recent years, Pearson said it’s still common to hear some of her neighbors refer to Black tourists in town for spring break and other high-profile events as “thugs and animals.”
“It's the same dog whistle and racially coded language that we have heard for decades and generations,” said Pearson, who ran for Miami-Dade state’s attorney last year. “You hear people say, ‘Oh, I remember how the Beach used to be,’ and what they are referring to is the 1990s when European models used to come here for photo shoots. . . . They have this nostalgia of the time when the majority of our tourists were not black and brown people.”
Although Miami Beach has previously implemented curfews during spring break, this year’s was especially early, and it was announced just four hours before it was scheduled to go into effect.
“I have lived here for 24 years, and I have never, ever seen a SWAT truck deployed to deal with any crowd situation,” Pearson said. “And then you are deploying [chemical irritants] on spring breakers . . . for a curfew that has been poorly messaged and folks probably didn’t even know about it.”
Pearson and Johnson both argue that implementation of the curfew could even exacerbate tensions over spring break, and runs counter to the policing changes that many Miami-area leaders said they wanted to work toward in the aftermath of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.
But some business owners and beach residents say the scene on Miami Beach has been scary for weeks, and things last weekend reached an unacceptable level.
“I’m afraid to walk to my car,” said an assistant manager at a popular night club who declined to give her name. “I look out the front door of our club and I see fighting and screaming and people just acting crazy. The curfew is helping, but it’s a bad situation.”
Although he voted to extend the curfew, Arriola said Miami Beach needs to do a better job embracing its Black tourists and making them feel welcome. He noted during Pride, an annual celebration of the city's vibrant LGBT community, city leaders “roll out the red carpet” by hosting parades and other events.
“We do not do that for the Black community, and I have challenged us to do that,” Arriola said. “I have not been very successful. That frustrates me.”