Community Relations Board Committee Pushes Back on Racism Charges Surrounding Miami Beach Spring Break

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Community Relations Board Committee Pushes Back on Racism Charges Surrounding Miami Beach Spring Break:

Conduct of a few not acceptable, they say

The Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Committee pushed back on charges that racism is to blame for a heavy police presence and increased arrests during Miami Beach’s unruly Spring Break period, lending its support to the City’s police officers while calling out “unacceptable” behavior.

Since the beginning of February, the City has seen unprecedented crowds for longer periods of time than the usual school holiday season. Officials say pent up demand and cheap airfares and hotel rates as a result of year-long COVID impacts along with Florida’s being fully open for business ahead of other states has created a perfect storm in a small stretch of South Beach. 

At Wednesday's Committee meeting, Miami Beach Deputy Police Chief Wayne Jones said, in addition to the unprecedented crowds, “Unlike past Spring Breaks we are seeing a crowd that is more aggressive, more anti-law enforcement. We’re arresting more people and we’re taking more guns off the street.”

​​​​​​​Between February 3 and March 21, Miami Beach Police had made over a thousand arrests, 398 of them for felonies. During that period, 102 firearms were seized. 

After an increase in the number of violent incidents which included the use of pepper balls by police to break up crowds, the City declared a State of Emergency and implemented an 8 pm curfew in parts of South Beach including the Entertainment District. Images of SWAT officers called in to assist were broadcast internationally.

The Chair of the Miami-Dade Black Affairs Advisory Committee and President of the Miami-Dade NAACP have both expressed concerns in media interviews about the arrests and the messages targeted to the primarily black crowd which they feel are unfair. In a Miami Herald article, Stephen Hunter Johnson, Chair of the County’s Black Affairs Committee, criticized what he called “unneccesary force” used by police to break up crowds that had surrounded them. 

With regard to the charge of racism, Jones, who is Black, said, “I can tell you as a senior person in our law enforcement organization, I would never allow that to happen.”

“What’s driving our arrests,” he said, “is bad behavior. Period.”

“I don’t know why it’s happening,” Jones said. “We are reacting to the bad behavior we are experiencing.”

Neighborhood Resource Office Deborah Martineau spoke to everyone in the room and to young black women in slow, pointed remarks. “I am a Black, proud female officer. I work for a noble profession and I’m very proud of that. I also work for a world class agency. Let me say that again – a world class agency.”

Martineau said that in her role she represents residents, the business community, and the tourists who visit the City. “I have worked every day for the last 15 years to build the trust in the community.”

“I am shamed… Why am I shamed? Because of the videos and the bad behavior that has been going on in the City of Miami Beach.” 

The behavior, she said, “is unappropriate, unacceptable, and it will not be tolerated.”

“We will – I will – and my colleagues will police the bad behavior – not to race, not to ethnicity, to bad behavior. The citizens, the businesses, and the tourists that come here to act appropriately and be on our beautiful Miami Beach, we welcome you. Our students that come for Spring Break that act accordingly, we welcome you with open arms,” but, she warned, “Do not come to Miami Beach and think it is appropriate to act on that [bad] behavior.”

Committee Co-chair, Major Ervens Ford called the bad behavior an “embarrassment to every Black person – us as a community altogether, especially us as members of the Black community.” He criticized the media that “sometimes want these impact comments to initiate dialogue. A lot of the time the impact comments are just that, with the wrong agenda.”

Miami Beach Police Chaplain, Reverend Gary Johnson, said he’s been out walking the streets with MBPD officers. “The majority of these kids are really great kids… There’s only a handful that think they can create havoc in our community.”

While some people may want to assign blame,” Johnson said, “It’s not a racial issue. It’s a behavior issue and we’ve got to address it exactly as it is.”

Community Relations Board Director Shirley Plantin told the Board and attendees she’s also been out with MBPD and “got stuck in the stampede” one of the nights. She said she observed the frequent calls for service as a result of the many fights, twerking on top of a car, and “men doing all sorts of things to the women publicly.”

“Many other departments may have turned us away and said 'We don’t want you,'” out there, Plantin said to Jones and the MBPD officers present. “You said, 'Come ride with us. Come walk with us. Come talk to us.'”

In a Saturday night meeting with Miami Beach Police Chief Rick Clements, Plantin said the Chief solicited input. “Tell me what you think I can do differently,” she quoted him saying.

Plantin who said she’s “big on making field trips” because “You can’t speak to something unless you’ve been there, can’t criticize what you could do differently unless you’ve walked in their shoes,” said to Jones, “Whatever we can do… It’s not about pointing fingers. Whatever we can do to make it better, count on the CRB.”

Ford added, “To those in the community that want to blame law enforcement for what’s going on in South Beach, shame on you.”

One of the concerns that has been expressed is the lack of programming to give visitors something to do while they’re here. Thomas Battles suggested programming but with activities dispersed throughout Miami-Dade County. Even with programmed events, he said, if people came “like they did this past weekend, you’re still not going to be able to manage it.”

“You can’t inundate Miami Beach with the population that came over the last two weeks,” Battles said. “There’s just not enough geography for all those folks to be there without trouble. Move it around” so it “won’t just be a law enforcement response… What we saw the last two weeks was just a law enforcement response and it didn’t work.”

While Miami Beach had been planning activities for Spring Break, the emergence of the pandemic put an end to those plans. “It really put us in a tough position,” Jones said. Given the potential spread of the coronavirus, he added, “A smart decision was made not to activate this year and look forward to doing something next year.”

Ford offered the assistance of the Committee to get ahead of Memorial Day Weekend planning and urged a collaborative effort with the Police Department, local clergy and business groups.

Daniella Pierre, President of the NACCP’s Miami-Dade Chapter, arrived late to the meeting but noted she has had conversations with Mayor Dan Gelber and Chief Clements. “I wish they would have started a bit earlier but, nonetheless, we are here today,” she said. 

Offering help for Memorial Day Weekend, Pierre said, “We are here to work proactively to devise… a plan for weekends where we already know that we’re going to attract large crowds.” She will be meeting with the NAACP’s youth council and young adults, “to hear their concerns about what they think should or should not be happening on Miami Beach or within Miami-Dade County.”

The discussions of whether this is “racially motivated,” she said, have been ongoing for a long time. “The community has not let them go so, no matter if the NAACP stands before you or not, that conversation has already started so it is not as if we are necessarily bringing up the banter of ‘Oh this is happening because folks are black or brown.’ No, the City has a history of what they have done in the past. We don’t have to perpetuate that. That’s already there.”

“We are here to be a collaborative partner… so that we can put this thing behind us and move forward,” Pierre said. Urging programming, she added, “If there’s no structure, they’re going to act up so let’s work together and we’re willing to do that. Whatever we need to do so that we can be partners in programming ethnic and culturally sound events on Miami Beach."

Pierre said she has suggested a survey of spring breakers “to see exactly what they want… Let’s see what they may want to enjoy while they’re here… We’re looking forward to working together to make that happen.”

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava made a brief appearance via Zoom during which she also mentioned programming and reiterated the County’s support. The County along with a number of local municipalities has sent officers to augment MBPD’s staffing.

“Clearly what’s happening there is a great sadness,” Levine Cava said. “It could have been avoided. I’m sure we could have done more, could have had more preparation, more activities, more care.”

“Almost all of the people who are coming are coming just for a little respite, relaxation and enjoyment after a very challenging year,” she said, and it’s “just a few making it terrible for the rest of us.”

“We stand in solidarity… to do what we can to help diffuse this difficult, difficult situation,” the Mayor emphasized.

“We need to make sure that there are activities that can diffuse the tension and I believe that people are beginning to settle down and that there are activities that are supporting people to have a good time and not be part of some of the unfortunate violent incidents that have occurred."

Photo courtesy Alex Fernandez

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