Unity in the Community

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Unity in the Community:

A frank conversation about memorial day weekend in miami beach

(Photo, l to r: Ruban Roberts, Jonathan Plutzik, Marlon Hill, Connie Kinnard, Jeff Feldman, Tameeka Hobbs, Ernesto Rodriguez, Ricky Arriola)
Miami Beach is making strong efforts this year to embrace its Memorial Day Weekend tradition and further enhance the experience to appeal to visitors and residents alike. The Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel, originally appointed by Mayor Philip Levine and continued by Mayor Dan Gelber, has been working to plan new programs for the previously unsanctioned, unprogrammed weekend that many have called simply a big street party. The programs are designed to give attendees activities besides the partying as well as to encourage residents to stay in town and enjoy the weekend.
In addition to the Air and Sea Show which was added last year, the Panel has planned a BBQ cook-off, a poetry reading, gospel concert, and basketball game between Gelber and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, among other events.
One month out, the Blue Ribbon Panel sponsored a Unity in the Community event, a frank conversation about race and Memorial Day, a weekend when visitors here for the past twenty years have been predominantly African American. The increasing crowds and racial tensions, both expressed and not, have created an uneasy situation in recent years. Last year, the Weekend was moving along very successfully when a fatal shooting occurred on the last night, an incident still on the minds of some panelists.
The Unity in the Community discussion included residents, business owners, and leaders in the African American community. In their words…
Commissioner Ricky Arriola, Co-Chair of the Blue Ribbon Panel: “We do large events very well. We do Art Basel, Food and Wine. We do Super Bowl parties and Gay Pride … there’s always been one event we haven’t been able to figure out and that’s Memorial Day Weekend. Largely we have had unsanctioned events and we’ve hoped for the best. And as Ruban [Roberts] is fond of saying, continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.” After introducing the Air and Sea Show last year, “We're taking the next step, actively programming and welcoming all of our tourists that have been coming here the last twenty years.”
Ruban Roberts, Miami-Dade NAACP, and Blue Ribbon Panel Co-chair: “I think that this is an opportunity, a learning opportunity for all of us. An opportunity to talk about what unites us. I believe that there’s more that unites us than divides us.”
Roberts then kicked off the conversation with a question, which piece of conventional wisdom about Memorial Day Weekend on Miami Beach do you disagree with?
Marlon Hill, business and entertainment hospitality attorney with Hamilton Miller: “One of the things that concerns me about Memorial Day Weekend is that we look at it like an event. It’s not an event. It’s a weekend like any other weekend. It could be last weekend. It could be Christmas. It could be Easter. It’s just a weekend that happens to have a number of activities that a group of people nationally and locally decide to descend on a particular location and when we start to look at a weekend differently from other weekends then we start to do things differently. We need to start by saying this is another popular weekend in a destination city that a large number of people like, that happen to look like me.”
Connie Kinnard, Vice President of Multi-Cultural Tourism, Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau: “There’s a saying, ‘Don’t try to describe a Kiss concert if you haven’t been to one,’ and I say that because I think that there are some perceptions that maybe some people who haven’t been there during that time period kind of may go toward the chatter that they’ve always heard and maybe not look at it for what it is now … if you haven’t been out here in five years or seven years or ten years, then maybe you don’t have the latest and greatest information.”
Tameeka Hobbs, professor of African American history: “I think the perception piece is important. From my vantage point and watching this, primarily the media reports … the media reports speak about this weekend as if it’s an invasion by a foreign country. ‘It is a threat. We are prepared. The police are here. We’re going to have so many on bikes, we’re going to have so many who are lined up.’ It’s a very defensive position that is quite noticeable when you consider that it is another weekend of people coming to do what all types of people come to do at Miami Beach. The question then becomes why is it different and I’m very concerned in the background of this conversation about this extension of something that happens all the time in our society which is the criminalization of black people. In this case we have the criminalization of black leisure and I think that is something that we should explore.”
Plutzik: “I don’t want to be Polyanna-ish about this. I think we have a lot of work to do actually in our community, on a lot of different levels. I mean, obviously, racism is inherent. We can’t deny that. We can’t deny perception or reality. We can’t deny the fact that on any weekend – and I go back to spring break a couple of weeks ago which was not dominantly African American or anything. It was college kids in hordes, frankly, who are frightening the residents whatever the color of their skin. So, we have authentic crowd control, policing, safety of resident issues – perceived or reality – that we have to confront and there’s no question that it feels doubly so at a moment, often unfairly, sometimes not, when a large number of young African Americans show up in our community and what that makes people feel, fairly or not.” Mentioning the recent incident at a Starbucks where two black men were arrested for sitting in a meeting, he said, “that reflects sort of inherent fear of the unknown, something that’s troubling to all of us.”
He said he was reflecting on the “magnificent weekend” last year when “sadly, we had an incident at the very end that cast a pall over the whole weekend, unfortunately, but I do want to emphasize both for tourists, outsiders white or black, and residents there’s a lot of work to do to get it right, better, safer, more comfortable for everyone involved and I think we have to confront that head on.”
Roberts then asked the panelists for the first thing they think of when they hear “Memorial Day Weekend in Miami Beach”.
Hill: “Concerned. Concerned as to how visitors are welcomed … whether they come from Trinidad or New York, all visitors want to be treated the same … The color of the dollars do not change … I’m concerned because of the past history of Memorial Day on Miami Beach.”
Kinnard: “I think young. I don’t necessarily think a color per se. I know it’s predominantly African American … college students, some high school, maybe it’s their first trip … I think younger. And younger in some cases maybe not knowing etiquette in some areas and certain things that they need to do. We just need to think about that because at the end of the day they’re tourists as well.”
Jeff Feldman, resident and general contractor: “Fear. Maybe not the way you think I might say it. Fear in that none of us like to see racism. None of us … I’m always afraid that I’m going to see it … every year, I start to see the fearmongering heat up … and I fear, also, incidents. I feel like we hold our breath in this city from Friday night until Monday, Tuesday morning, the end of the weekend. We hold our breath. Hopefully this year, nothing happens. Last year we just made it through by the skin of our teeth and then we didn’t … I fear that every year. I don’t care. Come here. Party. Have a good time. The incidents, I don’t want to see that.”
Hobbs: “Painful … We may do it differently. We party differently. We listen to our music differently. We style ourselves differently ... To see them coming to do normal human types of things but people that don’t really want you there … that is a dynamic that is incredibly painful.”
Plutzik: “I want visitors to feel they belong and residents feeling comfortable to stay. Part of the clash here is about race but part of it’s about different behavior and, by the way, that doesn’t mean illegal behavior. It doesn’t mean bad behavior always, although etiquette can go over the bad line, but part of it is a community trying to figure out how to deal with a bunch of young, mostly but not entirely, African Americans who are behaving a little bit differently and, I just want to confront it, not because they’re bad people but because that’s one of the realities the discomfort comes from, cultural differences that do exist and we’ve got to confront that effectively in order to make this whole thing add up in a way that works for our community.”
Roberts thanked the group for their candor. “I thought that was a very difficult question for you to be very candid about … I think that you’ve all hit on some very significant issues so when you talk about etiquette, when you talk about fear, when you talk about those types of things, those are real fears that people feel inside” cautioning that “sometimes the culture of fear is being promoted. Whenever you have 200,00 people in one location in a place as small as this and you have one incident, I think that’s a successful weekend.” Noting no one ever wants to see a fatal incident like last year, he encouraged the participants to look at “the glass half full, not half empty.”
He then asked the panel how Memorial Day Weekend here has changed over the last 20 years.
Hill: In the early ‘80s no one wanted to come to Miami Beach. Miami Beach is now an attraction to all types of people … it’s one of the most attractive, cosmopolitan, culturally vibrant places to go … what has changed, it’s attractive … it’s a great vibe … one of the hottest destinations in the world … there are many of the [African American] visitors who come who actually buy. This is something that is not told. It’s another myth. We own property here and the media, unfortunately, tells a story that we don’t want to hear … We want this city to be able to welcome every visitor and every future resident irrespective of their background and their heritage.”
Ernesto Rodriguez, Miami Beach Police Spokesman and resident: “The City was not prepared for those types of crowds which led to incidents … from a policing standpoint, from a city standpoint in terms of planning, we’re having this type of conversation, how we can make it better. Last year was an initial shift. I think it’s good that we’re having this conversation.”
Hobbs: “As we’re talking about these issues, I think if we’re really going to get to the root, we have to deal with our own implicit bias and our stereotypes. What do you really see and when you’re looking at these people, what are you really experiencing when you look at their behavior? Are they really behaving any worse than any other group of people? Or is it just because of the stigma that’s attached to them that it takes on a higher line?”
Kinnard: “What’s different is social media … it makes everything live right then … When you have DJ Khaled and Puffy out here that’s what’s hip and that’s cool. They’re all talking Miami Beach. The movies that get made, that’s all hip and trendy and you can get it on social media and people want to be a part of that … good or bad it affects how the weekend goes … how can we use that same media for the good?”
Plutzik: “The crowds are larger and we live in a gun-filled society and there’s a lot of fear out there, by the way, rational and irrational … you have some, I’m going to say young men because mostly … [Hill interjects, “Knuckleheads"] … knuckleheads who feel like they’ve got to be armed to come and have a party, and so I want to confront that reality, too, for all of us because that society that we live in, this society that causes some visitors to be fearful … and why our residents are fearful. And now layer on social media, sort of the intensity of the weekend is exponentially greater … Because of the size of the crowds, because of the nature of society black and white … where there’s a lot more in the way of guns floating around and this energy of social media which ratchets up this emotion and sense of what’s going on, again  good or bad.”
Hill: Reflecting on the unity theme... “You can only be responsible for your own behavior and your own actions ... what are you doing to demonstrate the best of Miami Beach in welcoming someone … everyone wants nice experiences. Think about your own actions. Don’t disappear from Miami Beach. Stay. People are not invading Miami Beach."

 Watch a condensed version of the program, edited by the City of Miami Beach.

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