Miami Beach

Drugs, protests and mass arrests. What happened last time Miami hosted a convention?

Miami won’t be hosting the 2020 Democratic National Convention

It's been almost five decades since Miami hosted a national political convention. But it won't be in 2020 either. DNC’s chairman chose to hold the party’s seminal event in Milwaukee.
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It's been almost five decades since Miami hosted a national political convention. But it won't be in 2020 either. DNC’s chairman chose to hold the party’s seminal event in Milwaukee.

The last time Miami Beach hosted a national political convention, it didn’t exactly go smoothly. Thousands of protesters camped out in Flamingo Park for days, vandals smashed windows along Collins Avenue and demonstrators clashed with police and delegates.

It was 1972 and anti-Vietnam War protests rocked the country as President Richard Nixon prepared to run for a second term. Miami Beach had hosted the Republican convention four years earlier without incident while violent clashes between police and protesters injured more than a thousand people outside the Democratic convention in Chicago. So when it came time for the 1972 conventions, both parties picked Miami Beach. (South Florida also appealed to Nixon because he had a home in Key Biscayne, his version of the “Winter White House.”)

The Democratic convention in July went off without a hitch. Protesters crowded into Flamingo Park, but the demonstrations were largely peaceful and only two people were arrested during the four-day event. Most of the controversy centered on the presidential nomination of Sen. George McGovern, who had vowed to end the war.

By the time the Republicans arrived for their convention in August, however, the number of protesters had nearly doubled. As thousands of demonstrators from across the country descended on South Beach, the atmosphere grew hostile.

On Monday, Democrats announced that the party would host its 2020 convention in Milwaukee. Miami Beach had campaigned to host the event along with the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County. Here’s a look back at the ‘72 conventions — the last time Miami Beach hosted a major political convention.

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Protesters talk with police outside the 1972 Republican convention. Miami Herald Collection, HistoryMiami Museum

Flamingo Park encampment

In the early 1970s, Miami Beach was a sleepy city known more as a haven for vacationers and retirees than anything else. Hotels seen as trendy today were largely occupied by seniors who passed part of their days lounging in front on beach chairs.

“It was quiet, there was not much going on. It certainly wasn’t like today,” recalled former Miami Beach Commissioner Nancy Liebman, who first moved to the island in 1969. “All of the sudden when this convention came there was so much going on — protests and Richard Nixon and all that he was involved in.”

The 1972 Republican convention attracted all types of political activists and counterculture groups: There were hippies, Marxists, gay rights activists, Vietnam veterans and members of the Black Panther Party, just to name a few. They all camped in Flamingo Park, which was walking distance from the Miami Beach convention center where the main events were held. The area soon filled with clouds of marijuana smoke. The Miami Beach police chief allowed the protesters to sleep in the park, which had more open space in those days, because he feared that otherwise they’d pitch their tents on residents’ front lawns.

Police and government officials worked hard to keep the protest groups apart, designating separate demonstration routes to avoid clashes, former Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber recalled in his privately published memoir.

“One of my assignments was to stroll through the park each morning checking out problems in the making. In the process I became expert at distinguishing the different brands of pot each group used,” wrote Gelber, who was a prosecutor at the time and wouldn’t become mayor until 1991.

Jane Fonda speaking to anti-war demonstrators at a rally in Flamingo Park during the 1972 GOP Convention. Florida State Archives

But while officials took care to keep the groups apart, to many residents and convention delegates they were all — as one attendee told the Miami Herald at the time — “the great unwashed masses.”

“We were horrified. People did not like that back then,” said Liebman. “There were people running around nude and then of course there were all the people coming to gape.” That was before thong bikinis became a common sight on South Beach and spring break revelers could be spotted dancing suggestively on police vehicles.

Joy Malakoff, who would later become a Miami Beach commissioner, had just moved to Miami Beach from New York. She recalled seeing Flamingo Park covered in tents and sleeping bags.

“I do remember seeing the people with the signs, holding signs at Flamingo Park, and the loud music and the smell of pot,” she said.

In addition to keeping an eye on the protesters, Gelber was also tasked with keeping the peace between residents and protesters.

“‘These are really nice Jewish boys, lonely away from home,’“ he told the island’s elderly residents. Containers of soup and other homemade food soon started appearing at Flamingo Park, Gelber recalled.

Rocky Pomerance

Miami Beach Police Chief Rocky Pomerance during protests outside the 1972 Republican National Convention. Miami Herald archives

In 1972 the Miami Beach Police Department was led by Chief Rocky Pomerance, a former mailman who had started his law enforcement career as a beat cop on Lincoln Road and worked his way up through the ranks. Pomerance was known for quoting Shakespeare and was rarely seen without a pipe in hand. That summer, as the city prepared for back-to-back conventions, Pomerance was determined to avoid the bloodshed Chicago had experienced.

Pomerance sent his police officers to a six-week “human relations” course to prepare them for the onslaught of protesters.

“Bringing in the pony-tailed dissenters to lecture was a brilliant stroke,” Gelber wrote in his memoir. “Remember those were the days when police still maintained order solely by the nightstick.”

The classes didn’t always go smoothly, however. One political activists brought in to lecture was greeted with boos and hisses, Gelber recalled.

Vietnam War protesters face off against police on Washington Avenue with the Miami Beach Convention Center in the background. Miami Herald Collection, HistoryMiami

Miami Beach officials told the police officers that they couldn’t retaliate if protesters cursed or spat at them, a message that wasn’t well-received by everyone. But the classes allowed Gelber and Pomerance to identify the officers who were most likely to cause trouble and station them far away from protesters during the convention.

Pomerance, said Paul George, resident historian at History Miami, “set the tone for his police.”

“They weren’t permissive but at the same time they kind of drew the line and they were able to keep people from breaking into the convention center,” he said.

The police chief also had a sense of humor. When one political activist threatened to march thousands of nude protesters down Collins Avenue, Pomerance threatened to march alongside them wearing only his police headgear, according to Gelber.

A coffin and a circus elephant

When the protests started to heat up, Pomerance and his officers were prepared.

On Aug. 22, the day Nixon would be nominated for re-election, roughly 3,000 protesters demonstrated in the streets of South Beach. Some clashed with police and delegates, pummeled passing cars and burned an American flag. Vandals smashed windows along Collins Avenue. Outside the Atlantis Hotel, where a group of protesters ripped down pictures of Nixon, one demonstrator punched a convention attendee from Kentucky, knocking out two of his teeth.

Some demonstrators, their faces painted a deathly white, led a rented circus elephant pulling a coffin down Meridian Avenue. Others wore Nixon masks smeared with red paint.

Outside the convention center, protesters chanted anti-Vietnam War slogans, yelling “Murderers, murderers,” to arriving delegates. They chased a Republican senator with shouts of “There’s blood on your hands.”

Protesters outside the 1972 Republican National Convention march with an elephant down Meridian Avenue in Miami Beach. Miami Herald Collection, HistoryMiami Museum

By the end of the day, more than 200 demonstrators had been jailed. One group of protesters, packed into a yellow police van on their way to jail, broke into a rendition of The Beatles’ song “Yellow Submarine.”

Three policemen, two photographers and several protesters had been injured, including a Vietnam War veteran who was hit by a car and had to be taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital. There were also reports of protesters being clubbed by police, according to Herald articles from the time.

But the toll could have been much higher. Officials had learned that protesters had secret plans to launch a massive attack on the convention center during Nixon’s acceptance speech, according to Gelber’s memoir. Police had brought in buses from across the state and parked them in front of the convention center six deep to shield the delegates.

“There was great fear that there were going to be tremendous demonstrations, a lot of bloodshed … but it never materialized anywhere close to what a lot of people feared,” said George. And by the end of the convention, Pomerance had emerged as a national hero.

Never again

Seymour Gelber, who would go on to become the mayor of Miami Beach, pictured in 1957 when he was a legislative aide in Tallahassee. Miami Herald archives/Courtesy of Seymour Gelber

Still, Miami Beach officials had had enough. Chuck Hall, the mayor at the time, vowed not to invite either the Republicans or the Democrats to host their convention in the city again unless the federal government picked up the tab. The delegates and protesters hadn’t spent much money during the convention, but the event had cost the city a lot of money.

“I’m going to try to get a bill in Congress to have the federal government pay all the costs of these conventions,” Hall said. “They really don’t bring much money into the city. Politicians are usually freeloaders. They expect to get everything for nothing.”

Even Miami Beach hoteliers, usually happy to have an influx of visitors in the city, said they hoped the national political conventions would stay away.

“I would doubt that we would invite them in the future,” Edwin Dean, then the executive director of the Southern Florida Hotel and Motel Association, told the Herald at the time. “As of now, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.”

And Flamingo Park bore signs of the encampment long after the protesters had departed. “It also took a long time to get the odor of marijuana out of Flamingo Park,” Gelber wrote in his memoir.

That was the last time a city volunteered to host both parties’ conventions in the same year.

Pat and Richard Nixon shake hands at the 1972 Republican National Convention. Bob East Miami Herald

The 1972 conventions also marked the end of an era for the hippies and their anti-war movement, George said. U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War ended the following spring and with it the main rallying cry that had united protesters.

“It was a very colorful time,” George said. “In many ways, I’ve often thought, the last hurrah of Hippie-dom was that conference in ‘72.”

Nearly five decades have passed. Today’s political conventions are financed by host committees that raise millions of dollars to cover the costs. Police have new technology and strategies to monitor demonstrations. In their bid to host the 2020 Democratic convention, organizers in South Florida said they planned to spread the events across Miami-Dade County, holding caucus meetings at the Miami Beach Convention Center and speeches and voting to select the Democratic nominee at the AmericanAirlines Arena in downtown Miami. In the weeks leading up to the Democratic National Committee’s decision about where to host the party’s main 2020 event, some long-time Miami Beach residents said they were ready for another convention.

“I hope Miami Beach gets the 2020 convention,” Malakoff said before the decision was announced. “But one’s enough. Not both.”

Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report