Everybody Party, Nobody Pay

You can't put a price on the people's culture

For years questions about finances and philosophy have plagued the Miami Caribbean Carnival that annually attracts roughly 100,000 revelers. Some support staff claim not to have been paid for their services, and differences over the festival's direction led this year to the creation of a competing Carnival. But the biggest question for many ordinary West Indians who attend is why they should have to pay to get in.

Unlike conventional spectator entertainment, traditional Carnival events depend largely on participation. For the Carnival parade, masquerade band members underwrite their own elaborate costumes and hire the DJs, musicians, sound equipment, and trucks themselves. More important, Carnival is perceived to be an expression of the people's culture: It belongs to everybody. There is no admission fee for the Carnival parade in Trinidad, Brooklyn, or Toronto, yet Miami Carnival, Inc., does charge: This year admission to the two-day extravaganza was $15.

On the final day, October 7, thousands of outraged West Indians took matters into their own hands. By 8:00 p.m. they had torn down the main fence circling the sprawling grounds of the Opa-locka Airport, and Miami Carnival 2001 was free for all -- for all, that is, but the last person actually to purchase a ticket. In the midst of the melee, after demanding her money back, Miramar resident Merissa Hope was arrested by a beleaguered police force unable to maintain control.

Late on Sunday afternoon crowds began rushing the chainlink fence that surrounded Carnival Village along Fisherman Road. Within a fifteen-minute span shortly after 5:00 p.m., at least 500 people of all ages and islands managed to get in. The first group shimmied under and then hightailed it across an empty field to blend in with the tens of thousands greeting the Carnival parade.

Watching that initial sally, more people gathered, growing more brazen with each successive wave. They ducked below the lifted fence carrying coolers, lawn chairs, even pushing baby carriages. Two private security guards in the vicinity were powerless against the onslaught. Whenever they stopped a group from lifting one section of fence, another group rushed under not far off. At one point twelve young men on motorcycles rode under like a West Indian version of the Wild Bunch. The two guards ran away. One of them, José Rivera, explained his retreat: "We call [for backup], but nobody come. Everybody want to party, but nobody want to pay."

Just as another large group crouched at the ready, a pickup truck raced to the fence. Barrel-chested, beret-clad Christopher Spence of the private security agency Ratt Battalion shook his shoulder-length dreadlocks and roared to the crowd: "Get back! Get back!"

The crowd hesitated. "What you gonna do?" someone yelled. "One man against 100?"

"What one man?" retorted Spence. Then, pointing to his chest: "There are 100 men in here."

Cowed, the gatecrashers appealed to Spence's sense of justice. A thin elderly man complained in West Indian patois: "Carnival is poor people's culture. Rich man making money off poor people's culture. Let us in, man."

A mother of three lamented, "People come here with their families. How we supposed to get in at $15 a head?"

A Trinidadian woman shook her head: "Miami Carnival is badly, badly organized."

A young woman snappily dressed in black, red, and green appealed to Spence's African nationalism. "Don't let the crackers and dem tie you up, dread," she warned. "Let the people in."

"None of that don't mean nothing to me," Spence proclaimed. "My job is the perimeter."

A Jamaican transplant to South Florida, Spence identified gatecrashing as a perennial problem at Carnival Miami, mainly because the organizers skimp on security. "I could control this whole area if they would let me set up the positions I want," he says. Miami Carnival, Inc., board member Joan Ragoonan disagrees: "I don't think with the Caribbean people you can ever have control; they feel they don't want to pay and they find a way of getting in."

As soon as the sun went down, hundreds of people burst through holes in the fence behind one of three ticket booths. Opa-locka police Ofcr. Marcos Gonzalez, standing nearby, charged the masses, whipping out his billy club and yelling, "Step back!" But the crowd kept coming. Raising his eyebrows, Gonzalez shrugged and put away the club. Fence down, the admission fee was meaningless.

Just then a woman in an "Event Staff" T-shirt received a call on her cell phone. "They're breaking into our ticket booth!" she screamed at Gonzalez and two other officers. "We've got lots of money in there!"

The cops rushed to the booth, a small trailer, where broken glass from one of the windows lay on the ground. Gonzalez collared a slender woman barely five feet tall wearing an elegant head wrap. He wrenched her arms behind her back and warned her not to resist. "I'm not resisting! I'm not resisting!" the woman insisted. "Please listen."

Jamaican-born Merissa Hope had recently relocated her business selling African crafts to Miramar from Virginia. She came to Carnival alone to see if it would be worthwhile to invest $800 in a booth next year. Having just paid her $15 admission, she hadn't even stepped away from the booth when the perimeter fence came crashing down and crowds flooded through. Hope immediately decided she did not want to go in and asked for her money back. But the panicked ticket-taker slammed the window shut instead. When Hope rapped on the glass, it broke.

Hope was passed back and forth between Opa-locka and Miami-Dade police officers, who shared security duties at the event. Tears streamed down the businesswoman's face as a female Miami-Dade officer leaned over her, yelling, "Money back or jail? Money back or jail? You decide!"

That, of course, was no choice at all. But ultimately Hope was not allowed to choose. Opa-locka police officers charged her with three misdemeanors: criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest without violence. She was taken in handcuffs to the county jail and then transferred to a women's detention facility in downtown Miami, where she was made to remove her head wrap and wait until a friend could post the $150 bond.

Hope's $15 Carnival admission was never returned, and now she faces $1250 in fines. Will she sink another $800 into a vendor's booth next year? "For the sake of my business, I may consider sending my partner to set up a booth," Hope says pragmatically. "As for myself, apart from business, [Miami Carnival] poses a kind of fear. Personally I would not want to be a spectator."

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