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Does Miami Beach Need A Reality Check On Racism?

Sammy Mak / WLRN

When WLRN put out a call last week asking Miami Beach residents if they were staying or leaving during Urban Beach Weekend, the overwhelming majority said that they would be leaving until Monday or Tuesday.

Among the most frequently cited reasons for the exodus: a recent history of violence, traffic and noise, along with the event bringing a "bad crowd" into town.

Thinly veiled racial references line the complaints.  "Urban" is a euphemism for "black," and it plainly disturbs many residents of the city to have their backyard turned into a majority-black party.

Considering the rhetoric and popular sentiment surrounding the event, it could be easy to assume that some of these evaluations must be true.  Maybe every Memorial Day weekend the beach really is flooded with undesirable people.  Maybe it's better that the rest of us stay away, as is recommended.

Personally, when I decided to go to the beach on Saturday and Sunday, I went to North Beach to hang out with friends.  I know what to expect from any weekend on South Beach, much less such a notorious one. But after all the effort I was putting into avoiding the chaos of South Beach, my friends and I decided to take the bus down Ocean Drive and see for ourselves what the fuss was all about.  We thought of it as a kind of sociological experiment.

Before Sunday night, my only experiences with Urban Beach Weekend were a traffic-ridden prom night during high school (before local schools started planning around the event), reports of the infamous shooting in 2011, and blatantly racist "oil spill" comments that have been made in my presence.

The scene itself, however, was a different reality. Once you actually broke through traffic surrounding the neighborhood, the South Beach streets themselves were largely quiet and un-trafficked, due to all the road closures.  Even foot traffic was restricted, as barricades lined all major avenues.  Officers from various departments and private security guards stood guard on practically every corner, sometimes even outnumbering weekend revelers.  Paddy wagons were parked in highly-visible locations, as police towers hovered over the mostly uneventful scene below.

There was dancing and drinking in the streets outside the bars and restaurants of Ocean Drive, unencumbered by the usual traffic patterns.  While signs noted that alcohol was not allowed on the streets, the enforcement of this offense seemed relaxed -- as is usual for any three-day weekend in South Beach.  Apart from the occasional smell of marijuana, all seemed normal and well.

Even though the madness seemed a few solid notches down from what I was told to expect, police reported a total of 414 arrests, a number up slightly from last year.

Considering this result, even among a diminished crowd, I can't help but think that the increased police presence is a result of closet racism and media sensationalism.

I would argue that if you were to multiply the number of police on duty on any given weekend, paired with strict orders to be tougher on enforcing acceptable levels of expected crimes, like drinking on the streets and smoking pot in public, then you would likely get similar results.  'Acceptable levels of crime' might seem an anomaly, but on Miami Beach the laws have always been pretty relaxed.  People come here to party, and for a large part the police let the tourists indulge.

You don't always have to shout racial slurs in order to be a racist.  Personal prejudices exist, whether we are conscious of them or not, and for the most part, people do gravitate towards people who are like themselves.  But when we start to see residents complaining about "those people" and leaving by the droves to avoid their presence, the actions start to speak for themselves.  When we officially focus our police forces on this one particularly black weekend more than any number of other South Beach party weekends, those actions speak for themselves.

Because when the success of the event is determined by a lack of violence, it implies that violence is the expected outcome.  It tells the attendees that we don't trust them to do the right thing.  That this crowd in particular can't be let in our city without official supervision.

We need to think about what kind of precedent is being set every time there is a "successful" Urban Beach Week on Miami Beach, from a public safety standpoint.  If there was no big bang on South Beach this year, to whom do we attribute it to-- the police department?  The very fact that credit has to be given (or taken) for maintaining the city's normal state of non-violence could be considered an act of subtle racism in itself.  Therefore, when Miami Beach Police Sergeant Bobby Hernandez takes credit for the peaceful weekend, in essence he is rewriting the narrative.  It's not that the crowd was reasonably behaved-- it's that police were present.

It is appalling to me that in one of the country's centers of hospitality the success of an event is being measured in this way.  Standard questions like the following have become secondary: Did we show our best face to our guests?  Did our visitors enjoy their stay?  Would they come again?

So I am asking Miami Beach residents and police to please grow up and look in the mirror.  All the maniacal hype surrounding this annual event only led to a smaller crowd, half-empty streets, struggling businesses, expensive self-imposed vacations for locals and a stamp on visitors' minds that South Florida is a police state.

Thanks to events like the Miami International Boat Show and Art Basel Miami Beach, we already know that the city is more than capable of hosting an event of this size and maintaining order.

Miami Beach residents must accept that the city is a party destination, and that if you live there, in a sense you signed up for this.  As a friend of mine told me this weekend, the beautiful thing about Miami Beach is that its character changes week to week and season to season, depending on what events are taking place.  This shape-shifting nature of the beach is part of what makes it such an exciting and culturally diverse place to live.  If you live there, this fact likely figured in your reasoning.

But if you find yourself up in arms over a predominantly black weekend that comes once a year, you will need to come to terms with the fact that the problem might not be with the crowd.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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