If there was a single moment when the official narrative started to shift for partying on Miami Beach, it was late one night in May 2011. That was when police fired 116 shots at Raymond Herisse, a 22-year-old Boynton Beach resident, who they said was driving drunk and hitting cars. Four innocent bystanders were also shot in the incident, which made national news at the time.
Years later, Miami Beach Police Department paid out $200,000 in a settlement to Herisse’s family and to the innocent bystanders.
But at the time, the takeaway for city leaders wasn’t that police acted improperly. It was that the party was out of control.
The incident marked the beginning of increasingly militarized policing tactics on Miami Beach, specifically concentrated on Memorial Day Weekend — when thousands of mostly-Black visitors from across the country congregate in the city.
It also marked the start of viral videos that city leaders say embarrass the city. Street fights, vandalism and wild behavior. The most recent video to go viral was a group of cars doing donuts in an intersection on South Pointe Drive, while a crowd of onlookers gathered.
“It is not the kind of thing that any city would be proud of. And we’re trying desperately to address it,” said Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola.
Arriola and other city leaders are now supporting a slate of new ordinances that they hope will fundamentally rebrand the city and discourage people from partying hard there.
Elected officials have ruminated on making changes for years but they say a fatal stabbing in November in the middle of Collins Avenue has made the situation in South Beach more pressing than ever.
The package of reforms would mean stricter sound ordinances, an increased police presence, rolling back the last call on alcohol sales to 2 a.m. from 5 a.m., and enforcing a new code of conduct for businesses on Ocean Drive.
The legal mechanism is at times unclear, but city officials say they hope the package will push businesses that cater to tourists out of the area, and ultimately make it more expensive for visitors to stay in Miami Beach.
“If you look at the kinds of retail that’s there, for example, these T-shirt shops, tattoo parlors, occult bookshops, cell phone repair shops, vaping stores, that attracts a certain, you know, clientele, and that is not a clientele that is a high end tourist market,” Arriola said. “A certain clientele that is coming is attracted to the fact that they can stay 80 bucks a night in a hotel, and they don’t have to spend money when they come, they can just go to the beach. All of that’s fine — I’m very egalitarian. People shouldn’t have to be millionaires to come to the Beach.”
He added: “But you’ve gotta be able to follow the rules. No fighting in public, no prostitution, no drug dealing, I mean — the environment down there is conducive to that kind of demographic.”
Talk of attracting a better “demographic” can sound a little bit like attracting fewer Black people. Black tourism to Miami Beach has sharply increased over the last 15 years.
“What happens is people get shamed or are too nervous to talk about this stuff because they’re afraid of the race discussion. I’m not afraid of it at all. That should not have anything to do with race, but the fact that an African-American man was stabbed in the middle of 7th and Collins, you have to ask what’s going on here, right? Like, why would that be happening?” Arriola said. “It’s not happening in Coral Gables. It’s not happening in Bal Harbour.”
Both Coral Gables and Bal Harbour are fundamentally different than Miami Beach. Neither has the same dense mix of bars, nightclubs and hotels. They are far more residential and neither attracts groups of people who come to South Florida specifically to party.
“If you’re trying to diminish the number of Black beachgoers, if you’re trying to lose Black business, the NAACP has no problem helping you with that,” said Dwight Bullard, the executive director of the NAACP of South Dade. “But we call it a boycott.”
The NAACP led a successful 1990 boycott of Miami and by extension Miami Beach. The boycott happened when leaders in Miami-Dade County refused to greet Nelson Mandela with honors. That was because when Mandela was freed as a political prisoner after 27 years of incarceration, he said Fidel Castro helped him end the racial apartheid system of government in South Africa — a historical fact.
Bullard said he hopes the city of Miami Beach does not choose to go down that path again.
The NAACP has bumped heads with Miami Beach for years over the treatment of Black tourists on the beach. This happened most recently last year before the pandemic shutdowns fully took hold, when police were captured on video violently arresting Black visitors.
Miami Beach is a global destination city for people who want to party, said Bullard. He called it a virtual “right of passage” for many young Black people — particularly in the South — and said no package of legislation will be able to change that fact in the cultural eye.
“If that’s baked into the cake, you can’t all of a sudden go into that cake and pull out whole eggs anymore. It doesn’t work. It’s baked into the cake now,” said Bullard.
He said the city should figure out ways to foster and interact with visitors, instead of creating an antagonistic relationship.
“Pricing them out ain’t it,” he said. “Because they’re already saying ‘I’m saving my money for Prime 112.’”
Keisha Brown, who is Black, and her group of friends, who are also Black, recently came to South Beach to party from Chattanooga, Tenn.
“We just come down here to have fun, we’re tired of being in these small little cities,” said Brown.
She said it was her second time visiting South Beach, and if the city of Miami Beach makes the atmosphere less inviting for groups like hers, she would just go elsewhere.
“I’ll just go to Vegas,” she said. “We bring y’all in some money. We bring Miami in some money. We buy alcohol, buy souvenirs, buying clothes, buying shoes — why would y’all want to stop that?”
Javier Vera moved to South Beach from Chile because of the party scene. He’s a DJ and he’s lived on Ocean Drive for more than a year. He says that sometimes things do get out of hand on South Beach.
“I really think the politicians and the hotel owners need to sit down and come to an agreement about how to address things,” he said. “But they need to do it in a way that keeps the scene alive. Because a lot of people like me, we make our living here in the clubs — and that’s why people come here anyways.”
Miami Beach residents have already blocked a previous attempt to crack down on the nightlife scene in South Beach. In 2017, city voters rejected a proposal that would have rolled back alcohol sales on Ocean Drive to 2 a.m. from 5 a.m. The measure failed by an almost 2-to-1 margin.
The proposal was supported by former Mayor Philip Levine and residents who said they wanted to make the area safer for residents and tourists alike.
In a presentation before the Miami Beach city commission last month, Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Clements shared data about the reality of crime in the immediate area surrounding Ocean Drive — known as the South Beach Entertainment District. The data showed that more than a quarter of citywide arrests for things like cannabis possession, battery and resisting arrest happened within the district.
About 1-in-5 citywide arrests for homicide, rape, robbery, auto theft and aggravated assault happen in the district per year, according to the data.
“People often say we can’t arrest our way out of it. The truth is — we can arrest our way out of it,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, at the meeting. “But of course that’s not a great thing either.”
In an interview, Mayor Gelber said he knows this country is in the midst of an historic reexamination of relationships between the police and the public. And he doesn’t want Miami Beach to be known as a police state.
But the reality is that police are constantly called to chaotic scenes involving drunk tourists on South Beach, he said. And that kind of dynamic dictates how the city polices the area.
“They’re being called by a restaurant owner or a [passerby] who sees something. Or 20 people call immediately because it’s an open fight and they have to run over there to sort of disarm and de-escalate everything,” he said. “Anytime you do that in a crowd where there’s been a lot of drinking and et cetera, you end up putting your police at risk, you put visitors at risk, you put bystanders at risk.”
Gelber said he wants to put out the word to businesses and visitors that the city will be rebranding itself as a “cultural destination,” starting with the package of reforms.
He’s positive the ordinances will pass through the city commission soon, though the timeline and some specifics about how they will discourage hard partying are still up in the air.
“If we were in the middle of a desert with nothing else around us, like, let’s say, Las Vegas, then maybe we’d have to say ‘This is the only way we’re going to attract people here,’” he said. “But for crying out loud, this is the most beautiful area in the world with these long, exquisite beaches, parks with beautiful paths, architecture that’s stunning and interesting everywhere.”
“I’m sort of thinking that people will come here,” he said.
As far as the reforms potentially backfiring and hurting the economy, Gelber said he is not worried about that.
“Anybody who says ‘I’m not coming because I can’t go wild’ — good riddance,” Gelber said.
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