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Racial tensions remain after Miami Beach arrests, moves to break up spring break crowds

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It’s been a bad spring break for Miami Beach, marred by a series of tense and sometimes violent confrontations between city cops and the mass of mostly black college kids who have flooded bars and the beachfront.

Cellphone videos have caught cops in paramilitary gear shooting pepper ball guns at throngs of black spring breakers, a group of officers tackling other young blacks and one cop responding to a kick from a female visitor by appearing to choke her. A dozen officers, in turn, have said they had been injured — one with a broken nose, another a fractured hip.

The growing crisis over coronavirus has quickly eclipsed the latest allegations of racism by Miami Beach’s police force. This weekend, following a national call to curtail large crowds, the city announced a sweeping crackdown — setting curfews on restaurants and bars and closing much of the beach.

But for many young black tourists and leaders, the outrage remains.

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Ruban Roberts, who chairs the Miami-Dade chapter of the NAACP, has demanded the resignation of City Manager Jimmy Morales and Police Chief Richard Clements. Former state lawmaker Dwight Bullard, who is the president of the NAACP’s South Dade branch, joined Roberts in the call. Roberts even questioned the city’s coronavirus response plan, which focused beach closures on a stretch that is the most popular with spring breakers, nicknamed the Cabaret district by critics of the all-night parties.

“I guess COVID-19 only exists between Fifth and 15th streets,” Roberts stated. “Everything they do is the selective targeting of certain groups. Why don’t they shut everything down beyond Fifth and 15th streets?”

City leaders have pushed back, denying allegations of racism and defending police tactics, saying most cops confronted spring breakers only after responding to street brawls or disturbances.

“To convert this into a racial issue is really unfair,” said Mayor Dan Gelber, who argued civil rights cases during his career as a federal prosecutor. “Our officers are protecting everyone, including the people coming here and the perpetrators.”

Gelber also insisted that the city’s emergency measures were crafted only to follow the recommendations from public health professionals.

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“When you have tens of thousands of people in a crowd, that’s what we’re targeting,” he said. “We’re not targeting a race. We’re targeting crowds.”

Racism allegations not new

Criticism of Miami Beach police when it comes to dealing with throngs of young black vacationers is nothing new. The department has been scrambling for years to find some type of balance for spring break and Memorial Day Weekend, which has also become a go-to event for young blacks.

A major recent flashpoint came on Memorial Day weekend 2011, when police officers from several agencies fired more than 100 bullets into a vehicle being driven by Raymond Herisse as it slowly careened down Ocean Drive, striking some parked vehicles.

Herisse was killed and four innocent bystanders were struck by police bullets and badly injured. Some civil rights leaders who gathered last week to demand change cited even older history, like the 1960s when blacks weren’t permitted to cross the causeway without being fingerprinted, photographed and carrying a work permit.

Jeanne Baker, who chairs the police practice committee of the ACLU of Florida, said Miami Beach “has a long and troubled history of racial discrimination.”

Over the last decade, the department has installed license plate readers to keep track of vehicles traveling to the island and has rerouted traffic on streets to try and keep more control as the masses make their way through. This past weekend, critics say the department also employed overly aggressive crowd-control tactics.

But arrests were actually down this year during spring break, compared to 2019. During the first 10 days this year there were 77 arrests by Miami Beach police. That’s down from 217 arrests over the same time period last year, according to records provided by the police department.

And despite the drop in arrests., the number of police officers injured this year spiked. Last spring break three police officers were injured in scuffles with vacationers. So far this year 12 cops have been hurt.

“We are not instigating these altercations,” Gelber said. “These are all calls for help.”

And while videos of clashes with police may drive the conversation on social media, Gelber said those videos often lack the context explaining the totality of the incident in question.

Two violent videos

One of the videos last week captured the aftermath of a brawl at Fat Tuesday’s on Ninth Street and Ocean Drive. Video of the brawl, posted to a private Facebook page but not shared as broadly as the clashes, shows a group of young people throwing punches at each other and wrestling outside the bar, disrupting business there.

But Roberts took exception with the arrests of seven men afterwards, noting that six of them were charged only with resisting arrest without violence. How, he asked, can a person can be arrested for resisting arrest if there is no other charge?

Two other videos have been viewed on social media hundreds of thousands of times. One shows a woman thrown to the ground after colliding at full-speed with a police officer racing to another scene, the other is a take-down of an Illinois man by several officers on the sand.

In the first video, an officer and a young woman careen into each other on Ocean Drive, the force enough to knock the woman to the ground. It appeared to be accidental. The video shows the officer pivot toward another scene, then head back to her and put his hands on her neck after she kicked him.

The second video shows a group of men wandering away from police on the sand across the street from Fat Tuesday’s. When an officer tries to grab the arm of a 23-year-old Illinois man, the man appears to pull his arm away. A few seconds later a group of officers pile on and take him to the ground.

Making things worse, on Saturday night a 22-year-old man from Georgia was shot by police during a confrontation at the bar/restaurant at the Barbizon hotel on Fifth Street and Ocean Drive. The man remains hospitalized in critical condition. Police haven’t commented on the shooting, only saying they were alerted to a man with a firearm inside the hotel.

To help in his quest to remove the police chief and city manager, Roberts posted a petition on that has already been signed more than 1,000 times. He also says it’s time to create a civilian oversight panel to keep an eye on Miami Beach police, much like the Civilian Investigative Panel does in Miami.

“The constant maltreatment of black visitors on Miami Beach during high impact days such as spring break, Memorial Day Weekend and others will no longer be tolerated,” Roberts wrote. “We’ve had enough of being racially targeted, assaulted and shot by the city of Miami Beach police and nothing being done about it.”

Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola called on Roberts and the NAACP to work with the city to control crowds during spring break instead of attacking the officers trying to maintain safety on the streets.

Arriola was a proponent of the city’s plan to install food trucks, an alcohol stand and concerts on the public beach to give spring breakers something to do. The program, which the city paid about $500,000 to host, was canceled due to coronavirus fears.

“I think the statements are grossly unfair to our police chief, city manager and mayor,” Arriola said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. I think it would be more constructive if the NAACP would focus on the behavior of the crowd during spring break and what they can do to help prevent these situations in the future.”

On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended against gatherings of more than 50 people, more restrictive guidance than the CDC had previously issued.

Based on its previous guidance to limit gatherings of more than 250 people, Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales initially used his temporary emergency powers to force restaurants and bars to reduce their capacity to under 250 people.

Then on Sunday, Morales — who declared a state of emergency in Miami Beach on Thursday — ratcheted up the city’s limits on large gatherings by requiring that non-essential businesses close by 10 p.m. and enacting an 11 p.m. curfew for the entertainment district in South Beach where crowds of spring breakers have convened in the last two weeks.

By Monday, city leaders had made the rules on gathering even more strict, asking the owners of sidewalk cafes to cut their capacities in half and asking residents to prepare for full-on closures in the near future.

“Let me tell you something, especially to the young people out there: You have a mother, you have a grandmother. Maybe you have a great-grandmother,” Gelber said in announcing the new measures Sunday. “That virus can be extremely deadly to them. The whole concept of a pandemic is to work as a community.”

Gelber said he hopes the emergency measures send a strong message to potential visitors to South Florida.

“The party is over,” he said.

Kevin Millan, president of the Beach police union the Fraternal Order of Police, said his agency is comparable to any around the country when it comes to dealing with large crowds. But the crowds during Super Bowl week, for instance, are much different than the one’s created by spring breakers.

“They have been much more confrontational. We want them to have a good time, but not at the expense of the businesses and the people who live here,” Millan said.

This story was originally published March 17, 2020 7:00 AM.

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