SoBe resident and Peruvian native Pablo Mejia has a plan for this weekend: Stay home and lock the doors. "It's a black day holiday, as far as I'm concerned," he says. "They steal; they destroy tables. It's dangerous."
Mejia tells this to Riptide while hanging out in Flamingo Park on a recent day. He doesn't consider himself a racist — who does? — but his comments underline the racial tension that's likely to grip the Beach this weekend, when thousands of African-American vacationers are expected to descend upon the area for dozens of events at clubs and hotels during what has become known as Urban Beach Week. (For a list of events, click here.)
Since 2001, when Miami Beach Police donned riot gear and used pepper spray on a crowd of partygoers on Washington Avenue, Memorial Day weekend has been a focal point for conflict. In 2006, there were more than 1,000 arrests — even against popular NFL and NBA players. The next year, a double homicide in front of David's Café II — which sits in the heart of South Beach — marred what would otherwise have been a peaceful weekend.
"That incident ... had nothing to do with the fact that you have a large African-American population that comes here for Memorial Day weekend," says Carlene Sawyer, president of the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I've walked the streets of South Beach at 4 in the afternoon and 4 in the morning, and it is a party crowd, but we're talking about young professionals."
While Sawyer says Miami Beach Police have made some progress — largely through working with the ACLU — she also says gang task force officers from Miami still show up at nightclubs during the weekend and frisk African-American partygoers without probable cause. "The question is: Do you need to use different tactics for these people who come in because they are black?" she says.
Back at Flamingo Park, Mejia isn't alone in his tendency to think about the weekend in terms of race. A man there to play basketball says he has been racially profiled. "I've been arrested for just walking in the street," says the black Miami Beach resident, who declined to give his name. "It's like, just because you're black, they think you're from Overtown."
His friend David Crawford, who is white and has lived in Miami Beach for 21 years, plans to get out of town. But he says, "Race doesn't have anything to do with it. On February 14 [during the boat show], this place is flooded with boat people. It gets ugly. We don't blame it on boat people. You get too many church people in one place, you have problems."