By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
3:53 a.m. Sunday: In the VIP room at Level. Below, the beaded, pierced, and braided circulate at a seductive clip. Women grind in micromini outfits, bursting with curves; men pitch attitude, backs against the wall in baggy shorts and shirts; the smell of marijuana adds a festive air to the Ruff Ryder (the rap collective featuring DMX) party.
Above it's another story -- like the pope overlooking Vatican City during Easter Mass, except the congregations are radically different. A group of handsome, square-shouldered gay men sits on a couch, well above the thumping din of black culture. Club owner Gerry Kelly holds court in the highest tier of this mammoth dance palace; alongside the pinstriped and gracious proprietor, the well-tailored men and Iranian house singer Persia dwell in a pocket of old-school South Beach whiteness. The boys sway to the music and sandwich a skinny blonde Latina safely in a back corner. They may be partying in the same club as hip-hop nation, but they are worlds apart.
A few minutes later, the blonde clings to her escort as they wend down to the dance floor. Despite her grinding, she is nervous. "Stay close to me," she demands. Then she lets slip, here at party central for rap America: "There's all these black people here. It's not that I'm prejudiced, you know, but it's kind of weird." After a few gyrations she abandons the foray and retreats upstairs.
From 1:00 a.m. Friday to just hours before the awards taping, about 90 people had been arrested in Miami Beach, reports police spokesman Det. Al Boza. The numbers are raw and likely to change, but from a random reading of the types of arrests, it's clear all hell has remained chained. "License suspended, shoplifting, loitering and prowling, bench warrant, indecent exposure, possession of marijuana," Boza reads. "All the same stuff we see on a regular weekend." A few people, though, rose above petty crime. An unidentified man was arrested for pulling a gun at club 320 Sunday night during a three-man brawl. He later was arrested driving a silver Mercedes across the Julia Tuttle Causeway. No shots were fired in the incident, Boza says.
Then in the waning hours of the uneventful weekend, at 3:45 a.m. on Tuesday in front of Level, the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd broke loose. There was a rush at the door as people started jumping barricades. Somebody pulled a knife in the melee, and for a moment the Source awards lovefest got angry. At press time a 25-year-old man with multiple stab wounds was in critical condition, and a 26-year-old man was in good condition. Both were treated at Jackson Memorial Hospital. A third man was taken to South Shore Hospital with superficial wounds to the arm. No identities had been revealed, and investigators were not sure whether the men had been singled out or if the stabbings were the result of shoving at the door. No suspects were arrested. "What's the real shame here," laments Boza, "is that we got 72 hours of outrageous success and 30 seconds of grief."
Not that the city wasn't ready -- this time -- to squash skirmishes. That was obvious in the presence of helmeted squads of police, equipped with batons and mace, who appeared a few times outside Level. To the untrained eye, such a force looks like a riot squad, but Miami Beach Det. Bobby Hernandez is quick to point out the group is actually a "field force." "There's no such thing as riot police," he explains. The troops were ordered on the street to nip fights in the bud before they escalated into the unspoken word: riots.
Further north at the Miami Beach Convention Center, as many as 200 county police on overtime duty wait for a deployment that never came. When they aren't on patrol -- often in bicycle squads -- the brown-uniformed men and women sit around tables in a mammoth room, playing cards, watching television, and speaking on cell phones. Across the street at city hall, a team of city employees mill about a bank of telephones in the city manager's conference room, manning a hotline: the city's communications nerve center. As the clock nears 1:00 a.m. Monday, the crew gets its first call on the hotline -- from a resident asking for directions. They make conversation and pick at a garbage bag full of dried wasabi peas, pistachios, and the remains of fried turkey bits.
Some of the calm could be attributed to the presence of the Fruit of Islam, dapper men of Louis Farrakhan's Chicago-based organization, the Nation of Islam. They were at the heart of the Source's security strategy this year, after a fight shut down last year's award ceremony in Pasadena. Who but dozens of edgy ex-cons in suits and bow ties could be the guardians of order, provide a buffer between the hip-hop set and the cops, and preserve the tough-guy allure of rap culture?
When the 47-year-old FOI security chief Dennis Muhammed first arrived, he believed the Miami Beach Police Department was not exactly hip to the nuances of interacting peaceably with black people. Muhammed, in charge of the approximately 150 soldiers on guard, began meeting with Miami Beach police just after the Memorial Day mayhem. "I learned that because there's not a black population on the Beach, [Miami Beach police officers] had not had the proper training in terms of really knowing how to deal with African Americans," he says during an interview Friday at the FOI's command post in the Shelbourne Beach Resort. "That's a reality." But he adds the officers with whom he worked displayed a "willingness to learn" how to relate to blacks.