God Help Us

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of hip-hopness

By 1999, Philadelphia's "Greekfest Weekend" in Fairmount Park had devolved from what began as black college fraternity boys' rites-of-spring beer blasts into a citywide orgy of "whirling," in which large numbers of young men would surround young women and grope, strip, and sometimes sexually molest them. Police on the scene were often unable to intervene without shooting, because the girls would be surrounded by crowds sometimes twenty deep.

In each case, the CRS analysts found, problems were subsequently alleviated with the implementation of a few basic concepts: Keep traffic moving with an effective traffic plan; make sure police, city officials, business owners, and promoters communicate; send clergy and community volunteers into the streets to spread goodwill; make arrests only when absolutely necessary.

Unfortunately none of this experience was utilized on South Beach last Memorial Day. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, Battles was in Myrtle Beach, preparing to ward off racial conflict at Black Bike Week, a motorcycle festival that attracts 100,000 young people and features scantily clad young women spreading their legs on shiny Kawasakis amid outbursts of public sex and urination. Like everybody else in the Miami-Dade crowd-control business in 2001, Battles missed the mobs that deluged the Beach for four days. Level and other nightclubs were filled to capacity, and crowds of frustrated youths formed outside. By the time the streets finally cleared, police clocked approximately 200 arrests, 3 nonfatal shootings, 3 sexual assaults, 2 stabbings, and 15 robberies.

Happiness is embracing a few hundred thousand hip-hoppers, says the Justice Department's Tom Battles (center)
Steve Satterwhite
Happiness is embracing a few hundred thousand hip-hoppers, says the Justice Department's Tom Battles (center)

The aftermath was especially dizzying because a similar hip-hop invasion for the Source Hip-Hop Music Awards was scheduled to occur in just three months. Battles was contacted by MIABPD Lt. Michael Aucu, who had attended the CRS's 1999 conference in Atlanta. He provided a critique based on the CRS playbook.

Battles identified several problems. One was lack of communication. "The club owners didn't communicate with the Miami Beach PD to let them know exactly what they were doing and the kinds of crowds they were expecting. So the police were sort of caught by surprise. That was a big mistake."

Nor, Battles says, had there been a town hall meeting in which residents and business owners could air their concerns. Or a welcome brochure for the visitors. Above all, no one had organized a God Squad.

The God Squad, like most elements of the CRS strategy, was borrowed from Daytona Beach, a mass-party mecca that hosts the Daytona 500, Daytona Bike Week (the world's largest motorcyclist gathering), and Black College Reunion. In 1988 Larry Edwards, a Baptist pastor who is chaplain of the city's police department, organized dozens of ministers to help serve as buffers between cops and the approximately 200,000 black youths who show up for the reunion each year. He came up with the catchy name "God Squad" to give his holy patrolmen more credibility among gangstas and thugs. Dozens of other volunteers, dubbed goodwill ambassadors, provided backup.

Surprisingly, the tactic pacified the unruly so well that municipal officials in other party towns insisted Edwards come to them to spread the light: "My thing is that we're going to kill 'em with kindness because they're looking for the opposite," Edwards says of the hip-hop hordes.

When Battles began working with Miami Beach authorities, he invited Edwards down from Daytona to explain the God Squad system. It was successfully incorporated into the major-events plan the city worked up for the Source Awards. Happily, the partying and street cruising last August proceeded smoothly. (There were a few noteworthy incidents, including a nonfatal stabbing in front of Level and the arrest of a recklessly speeding Source Awards producer, Raymond Scott, who was pulled out of his Ferrari and charged after scuffling with a traffic cop.)

Edwards, who is 47, returned to Miami Beach earlier this month to further the God Squad concept in the minds of police officers. He thinks MBPD commanders may underestimate the importance of God Squad deployment. "They have to be a link from the police department to the community. They've got to sell the story of the job the police officers have to do," the pastor warns. Edwards is concerned that not enough Miami Beach officers understand when to let the God Squad do its thing. "You have to train with the police officers for the concept to work. They've got to be on one chord with when to back out. That's something that we're going to work more on in the city of Miami Beach."

Edwards also warns that the God Squad on Memorial Day weekend could be too tiny to defuse much evil. His tried-and-true system requires many more ministers on the streets than goodwill ambassadors, but Miami Beach has it the other way around. While 100 to 150 clergy patrolled around the clock during Daytona's Black College Reunion last year, only five to ten have so far signed on for Urban Beach Week, along with about 150 goodwill ambassadors.

How well things will go on South Beach next weekend is anyone's guess. So far local authorities are following the CRS's state-of-the-art strategy for a successful mega-party. They have organized a traffic plan designed to keep vehicles moving and held public forums to both inform residents of the event and allow them to vent. The volunteer goodwill ambassadors will give visitors directions and distribute welcome brochures, and they will alert police to disturbances. Battles says that the Miami Beach Police Department is coordinating with the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Florida Highway Patrol. "We're basically going by the Justice Department book word by word," offers Miami Beach police spokesman Bobby Hernandez.

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