Miami Beach controls Memorial Day revelry
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – After years of controversy regarding Urban Beach Week, the annual Memorial Day weekend when thousands of young African-Americans converge on the island for three days of partying, the Miami-Dade NAACP and the City of Miami Beach waded into a discussion aimed at creating a more palatable experience for visitors and residents.
NAACP Miami-Dade President Ruban Roberts and Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola moderated last week’s forum held at the Betsy Hotel. Panelists included Betsy Hotel owner Jonathan Plutzik; Miami Beach police spokesperson Ernesto Rodriguez, Florida Memorial University Professor of African American History Tameeka Hobbs, Attorney Marlon Hill, Greater Miami Cultural and Visitors Bureau Vice President of Multicultural Tourism & Development Connie Kinnard, and Miami Beach resident Jeff Feldman.
Arriola co-chairs the Memorial Day Weekend Blue Ribbon Panel launched in 2017. He said despite Miami Beach successfully hosting numerous prominent events, Memorial Day Weekend has “historically been, for the past 20 years, a weekend that has been challenging…” “We do large events very well.We do Art Basel, Food and Wine, we do Super Bowl parties, and we do Gay Pride. We do all of these great, great large events but there’s always been one event we haven’t been able to figure out and that’s Memorial Day Weekend,” Arriola said. “Largely, we have just had a lot of unsanctioned events and hoped for the best.”
Memorial Day weekend, also known as Urban Beach Week, has been a point of contention on South Beach for several years. The city’s response to the predominantly black visitors has been markedly different than its response to large predominantly white groups.
In a 2016 New Times oped, ACLU attorney John Leon wrote: “As someone who has attended Urban Beach Week as an ACLU legal observer most years, (organized by Manning Salazar of the Greater Miami ACLU) I’ve been surprised by how uncharacteristically unwelcoming of African-Americans people are. Not only the police, but many of the residents and officials who leave town during the weekend. The ugliest comments are often by those who have not been on the beach during UBW.”
Kinnard addressed the sentiment by saying, “Don’t try to describe a KISS concert if you’ve never been to one.” She said she made it a point to visit South Beach during the Memorial Day weekend so that she could form an opinion based on firsthand observations; noting that many people form a perception about the weekend, “Without even really participating.”
The forum’s audience included media, Miami Beach business owners and residents; some apparently fed up with what has been categorized as three days of debauchery, excessive noise and uncontrolled litter perpetuated by young scantily-clad blacks.
Adding perspective to concerns regarding the amount of trash remaining when the weekend concludes, Hill pointed out that organizers of large events typically anticipate some degree of trash being left behind because of the sheer number of people involved; pointing to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras festivities as an example.
Hobbs’ concerns about the weekend centered on the “criminalization of black people,” something she said happens “all the time” across the country. The professor and author of "Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home" said it’s painful to see the way black people, “who are coming to do what other people come to South Beach to do” are treated differently. “The media reports speak of it as an invasion,” said Hobbs In addition to the return of last year’s Air and Sea Show, the city is also planning to coordinate a host of events during the weekend that Arriola said will be more “high class.”
The historical significance of young African-Americans gathering in an area of South Florida where, not too long ago, their ancestors could only frequent as curfewed employees adds a poignant dynamic to a conversation geared toward making the weekend a pleasant time for all involved.
Offering welcoming remarks at the beginning of the forum, Mayor Gelber shared that he and current Miami Dade School Board member, Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall were once colleagues in the Florida House of Representatives.
As they discussed their mutual representation of parts of Miami Beach, Gelber said he told his friend, “When we were young you couldn’t be in our city without an ID, and now decades later,” you’re representing it.
To which he said Ben-dross-Mindall replied, “We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a ways to go.”
COMMUNITY DISCUSSION: DeAnne Connolly Graham, chair of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce's Women's Business Council, interacts with fellow audience member at forum.