Miami Beach will form a task force with leaders of the African American community to discuss Urban Beach Week, the annual group of hip-hop concerts and parties that bring tens of thousands to South Beach each Memorial Day weekend.
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Following shootings during this past Memorial Day Weekend, including the fatal killing of 30-year-old Ladarian Phillips following an argument over a parking space, Beach politicians reacted strongly to what is perceived to be a crime problem in South Beach.
Commissioner Michael Grieco told reporters Urban Beach Week “is a thing of the past.” Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez fired off an email to the city manager saying, “We need to give the cops back their bullets, remove their body cams, give them their dignity, and let them work all the off-hours stuff they want.” Mayor Philip Levine revived his proposal to stop alcohol sales on Ocean Drive at 2 a.m.
The statements by Grieco and Rosen Gonzalez stoked familiar racial tensions surrounding an event that attracts mostly young people of color and is marked by a heavy police presence and increased crowd-control measures. The city’s preparations for the weekend have drawn criticism from civil rights groups such as the ACLU. For several years, the number of arrests on Memorial Day Weekend has steadily decreased.
The NAACP sent a letter to the city June 2 where it decried any attempt to eliminate Urban Beach Week because it would unfairly target black visitors.
“This appeal to banish Urban Beach Week is nothing more than a clumsy attempt to once again label the weekend as an unruly gathering of unlawful people who take the beach hostage each year,” read the letter. “It would have been so encouraging to instead hear local officials use this event as a springboard for dialogue regarding any number of deep undercurrent issues such as gun violence or illegal access to guns.”
Urban Beach Week has no official organizing body that arranges events and pulls permits. Different promoters and venues put together events that comprise the festivities, which means it cannot be outright canceled by Miami Beach.
On Wednesday, leaders of the NAACP reiterated their stance at the Beach commission meeting, adding they wanted to open a dialogue about how to create more positive sanctioned programming for the weekend instead of trying to somehow ban Urban Beach Week or its attendees.
“What we came to do is talk about solutions,” Ruban Roberts, first vice president of the Miami chapter of the NAACP. “We came to talk about what matters to all visitors and residents.”
Rosen Gonzalez said she was sorry for her email.
“I just want to apologize for my words, which were insensitive,” she said.
Grieco addressed the NAACP leaders by saying he is sensitive to their concerns, but he maintained that his stance is “not about race, it’s about safety.”
“As a commissioner in the city of Miami Beach, one of my top priorities is protecting the residents and the visitors in the city of Miami Beach,” he said. “And more than any other weekend, Memorial Day weekend has been historically a very dangerous time.”
Roberts said he agreed with Grieco that the city should do away with unsanctioned events, adding the city should be more welcoming. He recalled a history of racial tensions in Miami Beach and implored Grieco to keep that history in mind.
“Understand the history. You can’t stop a person from coming to the Beach now. That’s a violation of their civil rights. No matter how much you try, you can’t do that,” Roberts said.
“Nobody’s trying to do that,” Grieco responded.
“OK, but I’m just saying that’s important,” Roberts said. “I want us to understand that our goal is not to have this tension. We want unity.”
Following exchanges where Grieco insisted Memorial Day Weekend merited increased policing and crowd control measures because of the number of people who come and Miami NAACP President Shirley Johnson maintained that visitors on this weekend should not be singled out, Roberts asked Grieco to review his own comments after the meeting.
“Look at this tape and listen to yourself,” he said.
The commission agreed to create a task force with members of the NAACP, police chaplain Rev. Gary Johnson and elected officials.