Livin' in a Video

The massive police presence might just add to the thrill of play-thuggin' on Miami Beach this Memorial Day

Morales believes that for such well-heeled and ultimately harmless visitors, the police presence over Memorial Day weekend is excessive. That may be because an earlier Urban Beach Week caught police unawares. The event began in 1999, with a few promoters from New York City putting on parties that went largely unnoticed by Miami Beach residents or officials.

Word of mouth and coverage on Websites like blackbeachweek.com began to spread, but it wasn't until 2001 that the crowds hit critical mass.

That year more than 250,000 mostly African-American young adults filled the streets, horrifying residents more accustomed to the Beach's then-waning European and model-friendly club scene. Much like the largely Anglo-American spring break crowds who terrorized Fort Lauderdale residents in the mid-Eighties, the Memorial Day 2001 crowd left behind complaints of drunken brawls, snarled traffic, urination on the sidewalks, and public fornication.

Memorial Day weekend is one big party, and the Miami 
Beach police are keeping tabs on you
Julia Beverly
Memorial Day weekend is one big party, and the Miami Beach police are keeping tabs on you
Wyclef Jean (center left) and Buggah D. Govanah 
(center right) hang out with Jean's fans
Julia Beverly
Wyclef Jean (center left) and Buggah D. Govanah (center right) hang out with Jean's fans

In 2002 police lined the streets. There were squad cars and motorcycles parked at every corner along Washington and Collins avenues. Officers on foot patrolled the congested corner of Collins and Seventeenth Street, stopping cars with tinted windows or music blaring. Whenever eager young men jumped into a convertible packed with bikini-clad beauties, officers would literally pull the men out of the car, even if the honeys seemed happy with the company. Cowed by the cops, underage or underbudget wannabes from Kendall, Perrine, and Liberty City stood outside the clubs, hypnotized by the spinning rims on passing Escalades. In one glorious moment, rapper Method Man called out the window of his SUV, asking for a lighter for his blunt. The scene looked less like Scarface than detention hall with the police as hall monitors. Except that when fights broke out, the cops wore riot gear and wielded pepper spray.

The show of force curbed the excesses of 2001, so the tactics were repeated in 2003 and will likely be used again this weekend, when Miami Beach plans to have 700 officers on the streets. "We'd rather be overprepared than underprepared," says Miami Beach police public information officer Bobby Hernandez. The PIO reassures New Times that riot gear and pepper spray are not visible except in the case of "large crowd disturbances." For example? "They've been deployed a couple of times when the crowd has gotten a little rowdy." So basically, the riot police are as much a part of the scenery as the palm trees.

Eager to deflect criticism for overpolicing an African-American event, Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer formed the Miami Beach Black Host Committee last year to work with the police and make sure African-American visitors feel welcome. Committee chair Henry Crespo says the motivation is money. "The economic impact has political impact," he argues. So the Black Host Committee organizes workshops and public symposia on hip-hop culture before the weekend's events.

But Crespo insists that when you've got fine women, you've gotta have police: "Women come to Miami Beach dressing sexy and they shouldn't feel intimidated." And then there's all that expensive champagne. "When guys get drunk and act disorderly, surely there should be some warning [from police]," he says. "But if the person continues to act irate ..."

"They will beat your ass," laughs 21-year-old rapper Reynos. The Dominican American has been coming down from New York for Memorial Day weekend since 2001, when he was a seventeen-year-old rhyming on the mixtape scene. "Since before I could get into clubs," he says. So what did he do? "I got my ass in clubs!"

Now legal age, Reynos is returning to shoot his first music video for his debut album, Stand Up, on indie label Latin Flava. Like so many other genuine and aspiring stars, whose faces are seen on flyers, vans, and mobile billboards all over the Beach, Reynos will have a street team building a buzz about his single, "Tato OK." A party anthem in English whose chorus comes from Dominican slang for a-ight, he represents the growing Latin side of the urban scene, a supersize rapper like his idols Biggie Smalls, Big Pun, and Fat Joe.

Reynos views the police presence as just another part of the crazy scene. He remembers seeing a group of drunken men who appeared to be play fighting, only to be rushed by police and then hauled off to jail for the rest of the weekend. He didn't protest, because he didn't want to get hauled away himself.

"I don't know what type of law enforcement is going on over there," Reynos says, still laughing. "In a way it keeps everybody focused, trying not to get locked up the whole weekend. It makes everybody feel safe. You don't walk around thinking that something's going to happen to you."

After all, it's fun to pretend to be gangsta. But that doesn't mean you are a gangsta.

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