Victor Van Gilst isn't a tourist in this town, but he knows a lot about what it's like to be one: As a free-lance tour guide, he makes his living leading visitors on excursions around South Florida. And late last month, Van Gilst says, he got a different sort of glimpse into the world as seen through the sun-addled eyes of the sojourning masses:
He was screamed at by a Miami Beach cop.
Van Gilst and a friend were driving up Collins Avenue in his yellow LeBaron convertible, top down, patiently threading their way through the thick South Beach traffic and taking in the always colorful Saturday night sights. As they approached Sixteenth Street, the pair barely took note of a few Miami Beach police cars parked, lights flashing, in the far right lane. But just as Van Gilst inched past in his LeBaron, one of the patrol cars attempted to cut across the stream of traffic. Unable to maneuver out out of the way, Van Gilst stepped on the brake, effectively blocking the cop's path. As Van Gilst remembers it, the driver of the police car got out, came around to his side of the LeBaron, and posed the following straightforward question:
"Are you a fucking tourist? Or do you live here?"
Blue-eyed and blond, the 41-year-old Van Gilst was born and raised in the Netherlands and does bear an undisputable resemblance to members of the genus Turisticana. He worked as a police officer in the Netherlands from 1976 to 1986 and was stunned at the officer's colorful choice of words. Van Gilst was not, however, too stunned to reply. "I said, 'Officer, I've been a cop in Holland for many years, and we don't get away with this language,'" the Dutchman recounts. "'I have someone with me, and we're religious people, and it's very embarrassing.' He said, 'I don't give a fuck about your religion.'"
Instead Ofcr. Guillermo Berrier wrote Van Gilst a ticket for failing to yield to an emergency vehicle, explaining with a certain lack of cordiality that Van Gilst's deficient driving skills had interfered with the completion of an arrest.
Pamela Thompson, Van Gilst's companion, was aghast. "I've never seen something like that before," says the 25-year-old preschool teacher. "I'm thinking, well, maybe he had a bad day. He was just yelling, saying a lot of bad words. I'm a black American, I know how cops are, and I said to Victor, 'Better just don't say anything back to him.' Victor's not a person who uses bad language. He was just asking, 'Man, why am I getting a ticket? Why are you yelling and saying these things?' And [Berrier] was like, 'I don't give a F.'"
The next thing Van Gilst knew, he was being ordered into the back seat of Berrier's patrol car, next to the man whose arrest Van Gilst had apparently disturbed with his yielding faux pas. (The suspect, Van Gilst recalls, had earlier been characterized by the irate officer as "a violent criminal" but was in fact unconscious during much of their time together; he did, however, manage to exhibit violent bouts of vomiting whenever he came to.)
Van Gilst was taken to jail and booked for disorderly conduct. But he says he wasn't allowed to use a phone until 10:00 the following morning and thus was unable to arrange for a fill-in to pick up the 140 tourists he was scheduled to meet at the Port of Miami at 9:00 a.m. The tourists were stranded on the dock, a fact later cited by the tour company, according to Van Gilst, when they informed him they'd no longer be doing business with him.
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Van Gilst's arraignment on the disorderly conduct charge (a misdemeanor) is scheduled for October 27. He vows to go to trial. He has also filed an internal affairs complaint against Guillermo Berrier.
A five-year Miami Beach police veteran, Berrier has been cleared of wrongdoing in three prior complaints of discourtesy, and has also been lauded in several annual evaluations for "professionalism in dealing with the public" and for "making the city a safer place to live and visit." Berrier is not permitted to comment about a pending internal affairs investigation, but the report he filed after the incident states that Victor Van Gilst was "screaming . . . 'Arrest me, arrest me!'"
Van Gilst maintains that he never raised his voice but admits he may have been a tad derisive when he asked, "What are you going to do next, arrest me?" as Berrier was filling out the failure-to-yield citation.
Informed about Officer Berrier's alleged aversion to tourists, Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau spokesman Mayco Villafana said he had a hard time believing a Miami Beach cop would be discourteous; rather than comment about the incident, Villafa*a added, he'd prefer to wait for the outcome of the internal affairs investigation.