MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- For one weekend out of the year, Miami Beach plays host to what is ostensibly the country’s largest music and culture event for young African Americans, Urban Beach Week. Yet while the loosely organized gathering has been a boon for local business, an increased police presence in recent years has had a dampening effect on partygoers.
Long-simmering ethnic tensions, some say, has made the city less and less welcoming of the annual influx of mostly black youth.
Miami Beach, population 87,000, has been the site of the unofficial gathering since 2001. Every year, starting on Friday and ending on Memorial Day, close to 300,000 people descend on the city for the informal “festival” and indulge in the city’s world-famous beaches and nightlife.
Considered the spiritual successor to Freaknik, a similar gathering for African-American spring breakers in Atlanta that grinded to a halt in the late-90s amid complaints of rowdiness and disorder, Urban Beach Week is a big draw for black youth across the United States and worldwide. Hotels, bars, nightclubs and other local businesses typically thrive during the event.
Still, not everyone is happy with the arrangement.
One resident who goes by the name HotLatte wrote in an online discussion that efforts to curtail Urban Beach Week have “nothing to do with race.” The people that attend, the post continues, “completely disrespect the city, leave TRASH everywhere, disrespect the PEOPLE, walk around NAKED in front of children and the city doesn't have to put up with that foolishness.”
Crime has also been another complaint. Fights, smashed windows and general disorder and chaos have been associated with the revelry since its earliest days. Shootouts have broken out – including a high-profile shooting allegedly involving rap artist Fat Joe in 2007. That incident helped cement the popular image of Urban Beach Week as too rowdy, too debaucherous and too dangerous.
In response, Miami Beach, which has sought for years to get the City Commission to ban the event outright, decided to step up its police presence in anticipation of the Memorial Day weekend crowds.
This year it spent upwards of $1 million on everything from high-tech security equipment to staffing some 400 officers per shift from multiple agencies. A police presence was visible on every corner of the city, and police cars equipped with license plate scanners were posted on the two main causeways that feed into Miami Beach, looking for stolen vehicles and outstanding warrants.
While the moves have led to fewer arrests – 176 this year, compared to well over 300 in years past – there are those who say the motivation isn’t entirely linked to security concerns.
Miami’s diversity is contrasted by a high-degree of segregation. Billy Corben, a documentary filmmaker behind several award-winning documentaries chronicling South Florida’s often bizarre history and colorful characters, once brilliantly described the city and its outlying districts, including Miami Beach, as "not at all a melting pot, but more like a TV dinner, neatly compartmentalized, where the peas occasionally spill over to the mashed potatoes.”
When the peas spill over, trouble usually happens. That trouble all came to a head in 2011.
That year, Miami Beach cops unloaded over 100 rounds into an unarmed driver, killing him and injuring four bystanders. The officers involved have not been charged, and a civil lawsuit filed by the bystanders continues to drag on. The shooting capped a weekend that saw some 431 arrests, mostly for violations such as disorderly conduct and drug possession.
The following year saw Rudy Eugene gnaw Ronald Poppo’s face off in the infamous “Miami Zombie Attack.” Eugene, who was black, was linked to Urban Beach Week, despite the fact that the attack occurred outside the city. So the increased police presence persisted into 2013, to the delight of residents and local politicians, and the chagrin of partygoers and business owners.
Roberto Sanso is manager of Quattro Gastronomia Italiana Restaurant. He told the Miami Herald that crowds this year were noticeably thinner. “Normally I can’t see [Lincoln Road],” he said, describing a typical holiday weekend scene. This past Saturday, he added, “I could see the whole street.”
Reports also note hotel occupancy rates were down 10-15 percent for the weekend compared to two years ago, and several businesses reported a loss of revenue this year – one local business owner was quoted by Miami Fox Affiliate WSVN as being down $40,000 for this year’s Memorial Day Weekend compared to last.
“It has been a very successful Memorial Day on the public safety side,” declared Miami Beach police Sgt. Bobby Hernandez on Monday. “Our goal was to provide a safe and secure destination to our visitors and the least amount of disruption to our residents. We accomplished that this weekend."
A quick stroll down South Beach on a Saturday afternoon demonstrated the cost of that success. On a day normally reserved for the peak of festivities, from one end to the other the sands were empty.