Miami Beach Makes Black Tourists Feel Unwelcome During Memorial Day Weekend

How can you say this guy is possibly un-American?
How can you say this guy is possibly un-American?
Photos by George Martinez/

The 20th anniversary of one of the largest institutionalized displays of racism in the United States will return to South Beach this Memorial Day weekend. An estimated crowd of more than 250,000 visitors is expected. We all know this event as Urban Beach Week.

Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales, Mayor Philip Levine, and Chief of Police Daniel J. Oates have ratcheted down the historical ugliness of what has appeared to be a paramilitary operation on the beach. Their primary purpose was to assure that African-Americans (both local and national) do not return en masse to enjoy our beautiful natural habitat.

That habitat has been wide open for business for any other group of nonblack visitors who come in throngs to enjoy events like Art Basel, Halloween, and Art Deco Weekend.

This year, the Miami Beach Police will not conduct DUI checkpoints entering Miami Beach. This alone relieves great delays for visitors on the MacArthur Causeway, and it once discouraged many African-Americans from visiting the Beach. Sounds like the makings of an inviting weekend, right?

Unfortunately, license tag checks of all vehicles on the causeway will remain. This presumes African-Americans will somehow have outstanding warrants for their arrests, suspended licenses, or driving stolen cars in greater numbers than white drivers who cross the causeways every week. Or perhaps this is meant to act as a deterrent for African-Americans exasperated with the delays, from crossing unto the Beach.

Miami Beach Police on patrol during UBW 2015.
Miami Beach Police on patrol during UBW 2015.
Photos by George Martinez/

I have also seen firsthand African-Americans revelers being prevented from driving through white neighborhoods on Miami Beach during the festivities on Memorial Day weekend. The killings of civilians during UBW by police, in circumstances arguably created by the militarization of the event by law enforcement themselves, belies the generally peaceful and joyful enthusiasm of the festival-goers.

As someone who has attended Urban Beach Week as an ACLU legal observer most years (organized by Manning Salazar of the Greater Miami ACLU), I’ve been surprised by how uncharacteristically unwelcoming of African-Americans people are. Not only the police, but many of the residents and officials who leave town during the weekend.

The ugliest comments are often by those who have not been on the beach during UBW.

It is a miracle African-Americans continue coming to Miami Beach for Urban Beach Week and simply don’t stay in Miami. The new leadership should treasure each of our visitors as welcome people as honored guests and not pariahs. While African-Americans may appear to take all of this stride (after all we live in a country of pervasive, unreported racism), it tears at our soul.

This pair is enjoying the beaches.
This pair is enjoying the beaches.
Photos by George Martinez/

In 2012, myself, along with Bradford Brown of the NAACP, and Howard Simon of the ACLU Florida wrote the following to city officials: 

“Like the Cities of Myrtle Beach and Daytona Beach, the City of Miami Beach would appear to be targeting, in a racially discriminatory manner, those who regularly attend Urban Beach Weekend... Overall, the City has planned and will implement choking traffic practices that appear designed to discourage – and ultimately will likely have the effect of discouraging – visitors to Miami Beach. This effort is being targeted solely toward a predominately African American event, which raises serious constitutional concerns.”

Things have improved. But racism still percolates.

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These actions have not come about in a bubble. We live in one of the most Balkanized communities in the country, where Hispanics, whites, and African-Americans go to de facto segregated schools, churches, and don’t mix often after the work bell rings. We live in a country where leaders refuse to even hold hearings of a Supreme Court nominee by an African-American president.

We live in an era where Donald Trump, and his perceived xenophobia, is acceptable by far too many.

It starts with communities, like ours, treating those with black skin differently than the majority of us. Treating African-Americans like potential criminals and dangerous interlopers as enemies instead of as friends.

Urban Beach Weekend matters. It matters a lot. As the largest urban music event in the country it tells the world whether Miami and Miami Beach continue being racist backwater communities that snubbed Nelson Mandela and that the gathering of UBW requires a paramilitary response, or a community that is maturing and  colorblind to all tourists who come to enjoy our diverse community, beaches, and nightlife.

Let’s hope this year will be a Parting the Waters moment — a before and after.

John de Leon is a civil rights and plaintiffs’ lawyer, and past president of the Greater Miami ACLU.

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