How to change the dynamic around Memorial Day Weekend in Miami Beach is the challenge – and opportunity – accepted by City Commissioner Ricky Arriola, leaders of the African American community, the City’s tourism industry, and DJ Irie.
Tensions flared after last year’s fatal shooting near the end of the holiday weekend in which two men were killed during a dispute over a parking space. Then-Mayor Philip Levine called for a referendum on rolling back the hours of outdoor alcohol sales on Ocean Drive between 5th and 15th Streets. After a campaign by Ocean Drive businesses saying closing a few businesses early would not deter crime – and that the Memorial Day shooting occurred in the 200 block of Ocean Drive around 10:30 pm – voters rejected the early closing time.
While the City Commission is going back to the drawing board on overall issues related to the iconic strip, the question of what to do about unsanctioned Memorial Day activities is now beginning to be discussed. It is a question that is both urgent and delicate.
For nearly twenty years, South Beach has been home to Urban Beach Week, a five day hip-hop festival that is not officially sanctioned by the City. The event, which has grown organically, now attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors for concerts and parties at private locations that do not require City permits. Violence and arrests had declined in the years following a police involved shooting in 2011 and, for the most part, the 2017 weekend was calm until the shooting incident on Sunday night.
2017 was also the first year for the Air and Sea Show, designed to get locals to stay on the Beach and participate in family-friendly activities. Some viewed that as an attempt to push out Urban Beach Week – and black tourists. After a couple of Miami Beach Commissioners called for an end to Urban Beach Week the issue of the City’s record on race relations burst out into the open.
Just before the holidays, Commissioner Ricky Arriola convened the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Memorial Day Weekend for the first of many discussions on how to move forward to create a Memorial Day Weekend experience that celebrates diversity and inclusion while maintaining public safety. The panel, appointed by Mayor Levine and continued by newly elected Mayor Dan Gelber, includes leaders of the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the President of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, and DJ Irie.
Arriola acknowledged and welcomed the challenge of finding a collaborative solution. Noting that he has spent his entire life in Miami-Dade County, the last twenty years in Miami Beach, he said, “Race relations is not something that this County has had as a great hallmark in terms of something we can all be proud of. From a young man, I always wanted to be part of changing that.”
“Miami Beach is known for being a tolerant, inclusive, diverse community but it’s not perfect,” he said. “And in the areas of race relations with the African American community, it’s something we need to do a lot better.”
He called Memorial Day Weekend “a great opportunity for us to change the dynamic”. He said the weekend “has not been the best Miami Beach can do” highlighting what happens when the City hosts events such as Art Basel, the Super Bowl, and the recent Major League Baseball Fan Fest.
“Urban Beach Weekend is something that, in my opinion, is something we’re not doing at the highest level that Miami Beach can do so I think it’s a golden opportunity for us to really embrace the African American community, stand up to what we pride ourselves in as a community which is being diverse and inclusive and tolerant,” Arriola said. “I think that’s the work that’s ahead of us as a committee here to come up with really great ideas how we’re going to do this.”
Arriola said he wanted to think “aspirationally” for the weekend. “I think one of the big misses on behalf of Miami Beach with respect to Memorial Day Weekend or Urban Beach Weekend is that we don’t truly embrace it,” he said. “Let’s all be honest with each other. This is mostly unofficial, unsanctioned events. Again, I’m going to speak for myself. I think that’s wrong. I think it’s here. It’s here to stay. If we keep sticking our head in the sand, we’ll keep getting the same results.”
“It’s been going on for what, 17 years?” he asked. “It’s the only weekend I’m aware of that we sort of pretend is not here, other than policing it.”
For other events, he said, the City rolls out the red carpet and hangs welcome banners. “We officially embrace and help program these events but when it comes to Memorial Day Weekend, [there's] nothing official in the City. I think that’s wrong. I think it sends the wrong signal.”
Without official events, he said. “What happens, in my opinion, is what we have, which is kind of a street party which nobody’s really proud of, right?” Without events taking place, he said, “what you have is just a lot of drinking and kind of just misbehaving,” and “over the course of a long weekend, you have enough – tens of thousands of people – drinking, bad things will happen.”
He wants to “come up with some programming that I think we can all be proud of. And I aspire to do something great. I want to see us do something great that lets the world know that Miami Beach is truly inclusive, truly diverse – race, religion, nationality, you name it. Sexual orientation. Doesn’t matter.”
Acknowledging the “late start” with Memorial Day Weekend less than six months away, he called this year “round one, new start”.
Last year’s Air and Sea Show was “very successful”, in his opinion, and will be continued this year. “The military [and] sports are the two organizations in my mind that are the most diverse, most inclusive, most merit-based when it comes to opportunity and so I think that we could use the Air and Sea Show as a way of showing our nation’s efforts and success in being inclusive and diverse,” Arriola said. Rather than looking at the show as a wedge to drive out Urban Beach Weekend, “Use [it] as a way to bring people together and not divide them.”
In future years, he’s hoping to bring “salon talks with African American authors, politicians, thinkers, pastors, entertainers or others, to sort of elevate what’s happening during Memorial Day Weekend.” Make it “not just about a big street party but it’s something like the TED talks, the Aspen Ideas Festival, these sort of more cerebral [events] and not just about a party but something to show Miami Beach at its best. I’m trying to rethink and reimagine what Memorial Day Weekend can look like. I’m very interested in that.”
Ruban Roberts, First Vice President of the Miami-Dade Branch of the NAACP, told Arriola, “I welcome your ideas. First of all, I love the thought of you using the word inclusive and I think that’s very important. I think that we definitely need to be mindful of the visitors who’ve been coming here for twenty years on Memorial Day Weekend and how we can welcome them.” He agreed with Arriola that the City should officially sanction the event and that “there should be banners hanging” welcoming attendees.
Programming is important, Roberts said. “There’s an old southern saying, ‘An idle mind is a devil’s workshop.’ I think that we definitely need to have some sort of activities from morning to night” he said suggesting “yoga, mindfulness [activities] early in the morning on the beach for early birds. Activities for night owls.” He used the Essence Festival as a comparison of a programmed event that has been successful. Roberts also urged creating opportunities for African American vendors.
Arriola said, “I tend to be a big ambitious thinker … I would love for us to be the thought leader, whether it’s policing or any issue of the day, when it comes to race relations that Miami Beach and this weekend is the place where the intellectual conversations and solutions are occurring. It’s not going to be this year but down the road that we collect all the great minds from across the spectrum to have these conversations.”
Ian Grocher known as DJ Irie said, “I think we have a really unique opportunity, right? And I think it starts with embracing what is currently happening.” He also referenced the Essence event and ComplexCon. “[It’s the] same audience that you have currently Memorial weekend but they’re engaged on a creative level, everything from new artist showcases, to sneaker culture, fashion. All these different things are on display at ComplexCon … It is about ideas. It is about expression and it’s pushing the culture forward. And it’s a lot of the same folks that are here Memorial weekend either idle or hanging out. They’re also there but engaged. I think we have a unique opportunity to embrace parts of the Essence Festival, embrace parts of ComplexCon, and really create something totally new and totally unique that’s next level and be really proud of.”
When the issue of messaging was raised, Roberts said, “I think one of the things we have to do is stop making it about one particular race ... Who named it Urban or Black Beach Weekend? Who called it that? How was it perpetuated? If it’s Memorial Day Weekend and you know the majority of people coming over here are black, it’s just Memorial Day Weekend.” The wrong messages, he said, are divisive.
“The thing is when you divide you get less of an opportunity to mingle with people that they may be different from,” Roberts told the group. “The more opportunity they get to have to mingle with people that may have a different skin complexion the more opportunities you get a chance to learn more about each other and then be more accepting of each other … We can’t control the media but we can’t perpetuate those things in our actions. This is an inclusive type of event and that’s what it should be about."
Arriola noted he was the swing vote in bringing the Air and Sea Show to Miami Beach but that he was concerned. “I didn’t want the message to be we’re trying to push out African Americans but rather have an inclusive weekend.”
Mickey Markoff, Executive Producer of the show, said he believed it was an opportunity to celebrate all members of the military, noting its official name is the National Salute to America’s Heroes.
Reverend Garry Johnson, South Florida President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Miami Beach Police Chaplain, cautioned, “Those same soldiers who came home, couldn’t come over to Miami Beach” during segregation. The perception, he said, was that the Air and Sea Show “was meant to drive out the weekend. The perception is there. The reality is, we’ve gotta change it.”
“I’m glad we’re having this conversation because the only way it’s going to work is that we gotta have a real conversation and a meaningful conversation that changes the perception, Commissioner,” he said to Arriola. “What you said – and what changes the perception is – let’s deal with the real issues. African Americans are going to continue to come over here and look to have a good time. What we need to make sure we do is when they come, they’re treated with the utmost respect and they understand there are some laws in place that you’ve got to follow. It’s all about the messaging.”
Roberts said rather than “giving instructions about how to behave” he wanted to have information in local hotels with event listings that direct people to “places they are interested in so you don’t have to tell them how to behave. They will go to things they are interested in.”
“The problem is this has never been a sanctioned event,” he said. Moving in that direction “will help to keep it more organized.”
The group agreed it wanted to move forward on several things: 1) to refer to the entire set of events as Memorial Day Weekend and the National Salute to America’s Heroes; 2) to brainstorm events that are doable for the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend including involving minority vendors; and 3) brainstorm ideas for additional programming around food, entertainment, and conversations that can be built upon in future years.
Recognizing time is short, the group agreed to meet frequently with its next meeting set for January 12.
Photo (Memorial Day Weekend, 2017): Felix Mizioznikov / Shutterstock.com
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