Heavy police presence tames Urban Beach Weekend festivities

South Beach’s Memorial Day 2013 bash is a party in a police state.

Barricades line the South Beach streets. Mobile watchtowers rise on Ocean Drive. And packs of officers on foot, bicycles and ATVs keep the partiers — and even the guys grilling on the beach — in line.

The result as of Saturday afternoon: No one got shot, unlike in 2011. No one had his face chewed off, unlike 2012.

And few seem too concerned with a police presence. But many feel it’s a little too heavy and a little too targeted toward African-American youth, who have made Memorial Day on South Beach as big as it is controversial.

“A lot of people say it’s a hassle,” said Evan McCloud, a 30-year-old from Bridgeport Conn. “But it’s not that bad if you’re minding your own business.”

“It’s not like the police are just bothering people,” he said.

Moments later, a pack of bike-mounted police officers stopped to talk to him and his two friends as they cooked with two $4 Publix-bought disposable grills balanced on a section of wall between the beach and the promenade.

“No grilling,” one officer said. “You have to put that out.”

“I give you an A for ingenuity,” said another.

One bystander muttered that it made no sense: The two ingredients to extinguish a fire, sand and water, are readily at hand on the beach.

The men quickly shoved the food in their mouths. They extinguished the hot coals. It was still worth it. All told, they spent $80 on two meals for the three of them.

“Last year, we got four burgers and some drinks and it was $150 just for that,” said McCloud’s friend, Jay Butler. “It’s too expensive.”

Penny-pinching partiers and the road closures that keep many from heading downtown in the first place are a nightmare for bartender Ignacio Cardosa at the Medi Bar & Grill on Ocean Drive.

Usually packed on weekends, the bar was virtually empty inside.

“There should be more people,” Cardosa said.

The valets who make their living parking cars had a worse lament: There were no cars to park.

Ocean Drive was all pedestrian and festive. Partiers gyrated to dance-hall reggae pounding out of the bars or eyeballed the ladies in skimpy suits and the shirtless men with testosterone-swollen pectorals. The crowd occasionally split as police rode bikes up the drive, whistling for people to move out of the way.

Dennis Kanashiro, a middle-aged flower salesman from Peru, weaved in and out of the throng and struggled to sell roses.

“This is not going to be as good as last year,” he said. “They closed off Ocean Drive. There’s not enough people.”

Hotels have also taken a hit. Occupancy has fallen more than 10 percentage points – to 74.4 percent – and rates have declined 25 percent to $195 since 2011.

2011 marked a turning point: The police shooting of 22-year-old Raymond Herisse.

Police, saying he was driving erratically, fired more than 100 bullets, 16 of which struck and killed the 22-year-old from Boynton Beach. Police said they found a gun in his car.

An autopsy, released this month, indicated he was drunk but he did not fire a gun. His family announced a lawsuit this week.

After the shooting, police clamped down and installed checkpoints, roadblocks and surveillance cameras. The MacArthur Causeway is narrowed to one lane, backing up traffic almost to Miami.

Some residents, who have cheered the new measures, had complained for years about the traffic and the mess left behind by the crowds. There’s also a racial component: The estimated 250,000 beachgoers are overwhelmingly African-American but only 4.4 percent of Miami Beach’s 90,000 residents are black.

Last year was largely peaceable. But then, on Memorial Day, beachgoer Rudy Eugene attacked a homeless man, Ronald Poppo, at the Miami end of the causeway.

Eugene was shot and killed by police, but only after he chewed Poppo’s face off and blinded him.

“He apparently didn’t have a good day at the Beach,” Poppo said wryly in a July interview with police. “I guess he took it out, took it out on me or something. I don’t know.”

The memories of that bizarre Memorial Day crime are fading. And many partiers had no idea it happened, though the causeway attack became part of Miami crime lore.

On Friday afternoon, two friends from New York City packed up their beach bags and talked about their big plans for the night. It’s the first time Tahnay Gathers, 21, and Cher Grant, 24, have attended what some call “Urban Beach Week.”

They said they were a little surprised by all the police.

"It’s bittersweet," Grant said. "Because your safety should be number one. But —"

"You feel like you’re being watched," Gathers interjected.

"Yeah, you don’t know what to expect," Grant added.

Still, they’re excited for the weekend, they said. They have already seen people they know from New York City, Gathers said.

“This is the place to be,” Gathers said.

Meanwhile, an Asian couple from Delaware stood out on Miami Beach as they watched party goers take turns on Jet Ski-like water scooters.

Yihan Fu, 22, and her boyfriend are vacationing on the beach for the weekend. They didn’t know it was Urban Beach Week, Fu said. The couple has plans to see alligators and spend time at the beach. They’re likely not going to get into any parties, she said.

“We’re just going to walk and watch,” Fu said.

Same with Jake Stepney, who flew down Friday from Fredericksburg, VA. It’s his first time in Miami Beach. He doesn’t want to leave. And the police presence doesn’t bother him a bit.

“As long as I can see all the beautiful women, I’m cool with it,” he said. “I like it. I like it a lot.”

Miami Herald staff writers Evan S. Benn and Gina Cherelus contributed to this report.