By Michael E. Miller
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When South Beach kicks out the last of its unwashed weekend masses into the graying light of dawn, they often drift across the causeways to that downtown Miami warehouse district known as Park West.
They queue up in lines of 50, 100, or 200, eager to join the gyrating throngs of DJ slaves within Club Space's cavernous, dimly lit interior. They've navigated the maze of empty one-way streets, found a parking spot, paid a petty extortionist -- either parking attendant or entrepreneurial homeless person -- to "watch" their vehicle. They do this because, in the words of one wide-eyed clubgoer whose message was recently posted on miami.citysearch.com: "Space is hands-down one of the best clubs in the World. The music and lights are amazing. And you have 2 have a multiple roll night to make it till 10am. SPACE ROCKS."
On Club Space's massive, 30,000-square-foot shoulders the City of Miami has hung its revival dreams for a particularly dank section of town. Its allure among young urbanites with the cash for nonstop music, alcohol, and drugs (and later, maybe, for posh restaurants and apartments) is what municipal planners and schemers had in mind last year when they created an entertainment district saturated with 24-hour liquor licenses within walking distance of downtown's two sports arenas. Anchored by Space, the strip club Goldrush, the currently closed Fuel (which Space co-owner Luis Puig is said to be buying), and Exile (a new club that expects to open in December), NE Eleventh Street at least is undeniably livelier. "It really created the 24-hour entertainment industry that we have right now that's transforming Park West," effuses Patricia Allen, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority.
Allen's enthusiasm is lost on Roberto Bazail. He's afraid to go downtown anymore and believes there's a big problem with this new entertainment district the city and Puig have worked so hard to create -- namely, the city cops Puig hires to work off-duty outside Club Space. "Bottom line, these guys are pigs, violent pigs," Bazail growls, recalling a night he says he was beaten and arrested outside the club. "It's like the bullies who beat you up in high school have got badges."
Bazail's is not the only complaint the Miami Police Departmenthas received about the conduct of off-duty officers outside Club Space. Since January 2001 the department's internal-affairs unit has fielded several charges from patrons who claim they were abused by overzealous cops at the club. The complaints range from mere whines about rude behavior and profane language used by officers to allegations of excessive force, including pepper spray and hard punches, to subdue arrestees.
In September Club Space shut down briefly for remodeling and reopened October 12 with famed DJ Paul Van Dyk headlining. "A great night," noted a club reviewer at cooljunkie.com. "And considering the volume of people waiting to get in, a special mention goes out to the Space staff for working on previous problems and keeping things calm and controlled at the door."
Sgt. Gene Kowalski, who worked with and supervised the half-dozen cops who regularly provided security at Club Space, says most of them didn't return in October. He didn't either. The long hours and crowd hassles, he says, simply weren't worth the extra pay. But Kowalski denies the officers used excessive force. "If people get out of hand and need to be handled, then sure, they will be," he allows. "But it's not like these [officers] are a bunch of animals. These are all guys who went up to New York, digging out bodies."
None of the allegations against the officers has been sustained by internal affairs, and Club Space proprietor Puig says he's not aware of any complaints about the cops. The local ACLU hasn't heard a peep either. But to the people who suffered what they say is abuse at the hands of police, the experience has left them questioning whether downtown Miami is safe for nightlife.
Bazail, a diminutive 36-year-old, was arrested outside the club on February 4, 2001, around 3:15 a.m. When he later filed a complaint, Bazail told police he had stepped out of a taxi across the street from Club Space and was waiting there for two friends who were inside. He was immediately approached by Ofcr. Willie Ealey, who told him he wouldn't be able to get into the club wearing sneakers and that he should leave.
This is how Bazail describes that encounter: "I tried to explain that I was just waiting outside for my friends to come out. [Ealey] came toward me very aggressively, saying, “You got to go.' Then he grabbed my arm, spun me around, and twisted it behind my back. He kicked my legs out from under me and took me to the ground. I was screaming. That's when the rest of the cops jumped on me and started kicking me and hitting me with their clubs. One of them took pepper spray and stuck it right under my nose. The blood's running in my eyes and snot is hanging out my nose and I can't breathe. When I saw the blood, I screamed out that I'm HIV-positive, and that's when they stopped. One cop was taunting me while I was on the ground: “You're HIV-positive. You're going to die anyway.'"