Occupy Miami descends into drugs and chaos in an Overtown apartment building
Dusk settles on Overtown. Children ride their tricycles in lazy figure eights along NW Seventh Street. Young men with baggy clothes and fistfuls of dollar bills throw dice next to a windowless bodega. Downtown's skyscrapers rise in the distance like steel and glass sentinels.
For three years, this has been Charane Odho's neighborhood. It's poor and imperfect, the 37-year-old grandma with pale skin, dark tattoos, and raven hair admits — but it's home nonetheless. Suddenly, however, it's occupied.
"It's like we live in a huge crack house now!" Odho says. She points a long manicured fingernail at brown smears on her apartment complex's yellow paint. "They poop on the walls," she says, stifling a gag as she steps over stinking piles on the pavement. "They poop in the back of the building and wipe themselves with socks... Who are these people? We don't know who the hell they are."
Welcome to phase two of Occupy Miami. Protesters call it "Peace City." Locals call it a living hell.
They arrived the last day of January: young and old; black, white, and brown; clean-cut professionals and grimy gutter punks. Their tents and lean-tos once clogged a lawn outside county hall like a South American favela. Now they have overtaken Odho's Overtown apartment building, ripping off doors, tagging the building with black and red graffiti, and hanging posters from the railings. Yet there is little the cops, let alone Odho, can do. The squatters didn't invade. They were invited.
When scores of Miami-Dade Police in riot gear swarmed Government Center on January 31, the crackdown looked like the end of Occupy Miami. The four-month-old movement was already splintering. The tent city had grown dirty and occasionally violent, and even some protesters were glad to see the sit-in shut down.
Yet Occupy Miami didn't die. A mysterious, messianic slumlord who calls himself Señor Paz — Mr. Peace — welcomed the protesters into his dilapidated building at 540 NW Seventh St. For the occupiers, it was a miracle: a haven from the police and a place to plan their campaign against corruption and fat-cat corporations. Paz was their savior.
But for the building's rent-paying tenants, Paz has unleashed a nightmare in Overtown. The squatters blast loud music late at night, openly use drugs, and regularly wage drunken fights with one another. And though Paz claims he is trying to save the neighborhood from crime, tenants say he is to blame for the violence and narcotics. Some residents have begun to fight back against their unwanted neighbors. Tensions are boiling.
Across the nation, the Occupy movement is reeling from evictions and arrests. But the Overtown encampment is a one-of-a-kind experiment. It could either save or scupper Miami's own uprising. Some protesters say it has given them a black eye and have tried to distance the movement from Peace City. Others insist it's the strategic headquarters they need to wage a war on inequality this summer — if city officials don't condemn the collapsing structure first. And at the center of the controversy looms the mysterious Mr. Peace.
"He's on drugs," Odho says of Paz. "He's high out of his mind. He's letting them totally destroy our building. Pretty soon, nobody is going to be able to live here."
Paz, though, says Peace City will change the world. "This is our Zion, our Jerusalem," he says. "It is the place of the righteous."
Like other revolutions before, Occupy Miami is going through its own reign of confusion and terror. Its commandments are broken and abused, its values blurred. And if Señor Paz's apartment building is any indication, the movement's good intentions might lose out to utter lawlessness.
"America isn't real," Paz says. "It's just an idea. It's a whole bunch of people thinking, Oh, this is America. But America is a violent idea. It requires wars and killing. I am not in America."
The 32-year-old sits at a metal table on a sidewalk downtown, picking at a tray of chicken tacos. Unlike many of the Occupy members squatting in his building a few blocks away, Paz wears clean clothes: a designer T-shirt, jeans, and soft leather loafers. His long black hair hangs in perfect coils. His round, scruffy cheeks frame a permanent smirk. Paz speaks slowly and in riddles, often referring to himself in the third person.
"I have not accepted the idea of America in my consciousness," he continues calmly. "The law of Peace City is not the law of America. The law of Peace City is if you are peaceful, you are good."
Paz is not your average Occupy Wall Street protester, not an angry college student, aging hippie, or underwater mortgage holder. Instead, he's an enigma: a wealthy landlord who has opened his $1.6 million property to poor protesters, but faces accusations of stealing from his equally poor tenants. He is the son of a powerful Colombian politician, but is determined to give away his worldly possessions. He says he's not religious, but emulates Jesus. He is the architect behind Peace City, but he just might be insane.
Interviewing Paz is like dropping acid with Socrates. "Where am I from?" he repeats a reporter's question. "I am from here. But what is this place?"
In fact, Paz was born Rodrigo León Duque on April 12, 1979, in the bustling Colombian city of Santiago de Cali. He grew up in a spacious condo with its own swimming pool in a posh neighborhood called Chipichape, centered around a swank shopping center. His family owned most of the shops as well as a private Catholic school called Colegio León de Greiff, which he attended for seven years.
"Rodrigo always seemed different," says his mother, Alba Acosta, a lawyer in Cali. "He was always extremely developed intellectually. Even then he was a very tranquil person... He seemed to belong to the spiritual world."
Rodrigo's father, Orlando Duque, was a shrewd businessman and a conservative member of the Colombian House of Representatives. "He was very militant," Acosta says of her husband. "What he said, went. But Rodrigo wasn't like that. He wanted to do what he wanted to do."
Alba watched as her son grew odder with age. By the time he was a teenager, he had withdrawn from most of his friends. When he went off to college in Bogotá, his parents bought him an apartment in the capital. It was the height of the Colombian drug war, and kidnappings were rampant. But Rodrigo spent his nights walking around the city with homeless car washers, talking about spirituality. He began skipping his classes. Soon he dropped out of school altogether.
Orlando was furious. "My husband suffered a lot," Acosta says, "always thinking that he was a failure because his son hadn't finished his degree."
Their relationship only got worse when Rodrigo left Colombia to backpack around the world. The 20-year-old bounced from Colombia to Ecuador, Mexico to Cuba, and then jumped the Atlantic and toured Europe, crashing on strangers' couches. Finally, Rodrigo landed in New York City in 2000. He found work in construction.
But a year after he arrived in NYC, Rodrigo's mother called him with terrifying news: His father had been leaving a business meeting in Cali when masked men with machine guns grabbed him. Eight days later, members of the FARC guerrilla group demanded $250,000.
"It was horrible, horrible, horrible," Acosta remembers. She wired the money, but the FARC didn't release Orlando. After she paid a second time, her husband was dumped on the outskirts of Cali. Alive.
Orlando's near-death experience changed him. He was quieter and prayed more. At first, the experience also brought father and son closer. But immigration issues prevented Rodrigo from returning home to see his shaken father. Soon, Orlando was his brash, business-minded self again, and the rift between Rodrigo and him grew wider than ever.
"My husband fought and worked his whole life for his businesses, but Rodrigo thought that was wrong," Acosta says. "He thought people shouldn't have private property because the Earth belonged to God."
In a last-ditch attempt to make something of his son, Orlando began buying properties in Miami, where Rodrigo had married a pretty young Colombian named Juanita Pelaez. In 2005, the elder Duque bought a rundown, 52-unit apartment building on NW Seventh Street in Overtown for $1.6 million. He signed the deed over to his son and Pelaez as a wedding gift.
A few years later, Orlando suddenly developed a lung condition. He died during surgery in 2008. It deeply affected Rodrigo, who couldn't attend the funeral. Instead, he said goodbye to Juanita and their 2-year-old daughter Cielo. Wearing a white tunic, he set off on foot from Miami Beach up the coast of Florida.
For nearly two months, he slept on the street, next to gas station toilets, under semi trucks, and in drainage canals. "A snake or gator could have come out any time," he says. "God says, 'Trust me.' So I did."
The journey finally ended in Jesup, Georgia, where Rodrigo befriended an elderly blind woman. With his last $6, he took her out to eat Chinese food. "She hadn't eaten at a restaurant in six years," he says. Three days later, his wife bought him a train ticket back to Miami.
That's where he was on September 17 of last year when thousands of protesters began assembling in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park. It was the moment Rodrigo had been waiting for: a peaceful gathering of people to talk about and fight against greed and materialism.
But Juanita was pregnant with twins. She refused to let Rodrigo travel to New York. So a few weeks later, when several hundred local protesters convened on Government Center downtown, it was like a sign from above. Occupy Miami was born. Rodrigo immediately set up a tent of his own, sleeping most nights in the chaotic camp and driving home each morning.
"He was the one who nominated that the camp be called Peace City," says Arianna Uguccioni, an Italian woman who left her job as a restaurant manager to organize the Government Center protesters. "He was always encouraging people to love one another."
When Miami-Dade Police prohibited gas generators, Paz bought one powered by bicycle. Later, he brought expensive solar panels to charge cell phones and laptops (at least, until the panels were stolen). When cops shut down the camp's kitchen, he allowed protesters to cook food in his apartment building nearby in Overtown. After three years of managing the building, he finally felt like he had a purpose.
"My father was always fighting against corruption," Paz says. "I saw him battle the system until he was able to help a lot of people. Now I'm just following in the same line."
When the light faded from the sky on January 31, the cops moved in. They marched methodically across the Government Center grass, tearing down tents and sweeping up sleeping bags. They arrested a young man for dancing in defiance, and a local blogger for filming them. Media outlets from across South Florida lapped up the scene that day: After nearly four months, Occupy Miami appeared dead and dusted.
But the real action wasn't downtown. It was less than a mile away in Overtown. Paz stood in the blacktop parking lot of 540 NW Seventh St. and addressed 30 of Occupy Miami's most resolute members. Make yourselves at home, he told them, unlocking the front doors on 26 empty apartments. There was only one rule here, he added: no violence. "This is Peace City now," he said triumphantly.
Within an hour, protesters had torn the doors off the dank apartments and moved in. Music blared from speakers. Bongos thumped to the beat. A steady stream of beer arrived from the bodega down the street as occupiers lit spliffs and cigarettes. Someone grabbed a can of black spray paint and tagged, "Occupy THA Hood!" on a building across the street before scrawling peace and anarchy signs side-by-side near a third-story window.
The move was a coup for Occupy Miami. Scores of camps across the nation recently had been shut down. In Oakland, police shot a young war veteran in the head with a rubber bullet during a protest. Even Zuccotti Park in Manhattan had been dismantled.
But Paz's building offered a safe house. Over the weeks to come, it would become a community unto itself. By bringing together punks and professionals, high-schoolers and the homeless, it would come to represent the best of the movement. Its eclectic dwellers fervently believe they are improving America one apartment building at a time.
"That first night was beautiful," says Steve, a handsome 26-year-old who always wears the same shredded black sleeveless hoodie over an upper body of intertwining tattoos. A skull moon stains one shoulder, two devils kiss on his chest, and an anarchy sign burns on his right wrist.
Steve (who, like many occupiers, refuses to give his last name) is one of the building's most ardent occupiers. He was a 17-year-old Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School student in 2003 when the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit came to town. Steve and his friends donned black clothes and bandannas, taunted cops, blocked streets, and choked on tear gas. "I grew up in that shit," he boasts.
Now he calls Occupy Miami his "second revolution." Life hasn't been easy in between, though. His girlfriend isn't in Peace City, he says, because she's detoxing from a heroin addiction. They have a baby girl, who's being raised by his parents. But he believes in the movement.
"This is a system," Steve says one morning, so hung-over that one eye is pasted half shut. "We bring more people and discuss ideas... Eventually, we'll have so many people that the police can't stop us."
Roughly half of the occupiers are young, restless souls like Steve. Some, such as Ramy Mahmoud — an Egyptian-American computer animator and college graduate — have jobs, but most don't. They stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning, sleep until noon, and get by on food donated by local churches. They have plans to plant a community garden behind the building, but the ground is littered with rocks and trash.
The apartments are little more than wooden shells, open to the elements. They don't have running water. Only a few have electricity. Extension cords snake around the building like orange and black veins. And white plastic barrels in the courtyard contain communal water for showering or flushing toilets. It's like a college dorm in postapocalypse America. But there is still a spirit of togetherness, even if it dissolves each night into drunkenness.
"This is camaraderie at its best," says Thomas Parisi, a genial, sunburned Cuban-American activist from New York. "We are going to get this place up to code and then start with five or six other buildings in the neighborhood."
For their part, the occupiers insist they are improving the building, not destroying it. They have removed moldy furniture and patched the roof, however unprofessionally. And they have turned two empty apartments into an Occupy Miami office called "The Future Machine" and a medic's station next door.
The protesters also claim they are making the building and the surrounding neighborhood safer, not sketchier. "There are a lot of crackheads in Overtown," Steve says. "But we are fixing up this place so kids see that they don't have to live like that."
Many of the younger occupiers seem to be here to reinvent themselves, and to avoid responsibilities.
Take Luis, a trim martial artist with a nervous laugh, who says he left his wife and three young children in West Palm Beach before hooking up with Occupy. He hasn't seen his family in months. He was head of camp security at Government Center — a role some say Luis enjoyed too much. Like many here, he believes the FBI paid "infiltrators" to start fights within the camp. "We had the KKK come and start shit," he claims. Now, however, he has little to do. "There are points in time when I've wondered if I really need to be here, if it's worth it. But I'm not a quitter."
The collapsing structure is haunted by other strange characters too. An elderly Japanese woman silently walks around handing out cigarettes. A young man named Freedom Rider is stranger still. Wearing a giant, filthy hat with furry ear flaps, he cusses erratically, whispers to himself, and self-medicates with Advil PM. The group has already voted him out several times, but he keeps returning.
"They pretend to be all about democracy, but they exclude people," he says of his fellow occupiers. Unlike the others, Freedom Rider admits there are frequent fights and that some occupiers do, in fact, shit outside the building. "They're trying to get rid of me because I tell the truth."
Behind the carnival atmosphere at 540 NW Seventh St., there are also stories of Occupy Miami actually helping people.
Freddy Diaz lives in apartment 26. The stocky Puerto Rican is a refrigerator of a man with the powerful forearms and scarred hands of a lifelong cook. He had a house, restaurant, and family in Wisconsin, but last November — during the slow months — he headed to Miami in search of seasonal work. Soon after he arrived, he was robbed, left penniless on the streets. "They beat the hell out of me," he says.
Diaz stumbled onto the Metromover, riding in circles until an attendant told him to get off. He walked down the stairs and smack into Occupy Miami. After a few days in the camp, Diaz cooked a meal for his fellow squatters. "When Paz found out I could cook, he brought me here, gave me shampoo and soap," he says. Until the tent city was shut down, Diaz brought three meals a day to Government Center.
"That man has a good heart," he says of Paz.
Charane Odho is watching television in her tiny studio apartment when the ceiling begins to creak and sag. White powder snows down as the plaster bows under someone's weight. Odho races upstairs. In the doorway stands Leroy, a shirtless occupier with long, shaggy brown hair and a sheepish grin.
"I told you guys to stay the fuck out of here," Odho yells, her finger in his face. "No one goes in here!"
"Don't be a bitch," the 20-year-old shoots back, grabbing Odho's arm. "We're just trying to fix it up."
"Get your fucking hands off of me!" Odho screams and walks back downstairs. A minute later, Fernando Azcurra — Odho's boyfriend, who has six inches and 50 pounds on Leroy and a history of attacking people — arrives with a snow shovel in his hands.
The assault happens in an instant. The 35-year-old delivers a flying kick to the kid's stomach. Leroy shrivels up on the ground like a swatted fly. And the whole incident is caught on an occupier's camera. For a week and a half, tensions between Paz's rent-paying residents and his newly invited Occupy buddies have been simmering. Now they are in flames.
Peace City ain't so pacific after all. In fact, Señor Paz's urban paradise is going to hell in a handbasket. Cops have been called dozens of times, code violations are piling up on Paz, drug use is widespread, and Occupy Miami's most reliable members are abandoning Peace City amid accusations of theft and violence.
Odho says her problems with Paz began long before Occupy Miami, back when he was still Rodrigo Duque. "He's a slumlord," she says. "He was then and he is today. It's as simple as that."
When she moved into the apartment building in 2009, Odho says, she was recovering from kidney cancer, showing off a long ugly scar to prove it. A county program gave Paz thousands to help Odho move in on the condition that he renovate her apartment. But he refused to clean up the moldy bathroom or leaky ceiling, she says. "He stole that money."
Code enforcement records indeed show eight outstanding violations and six past violations dating back to when Paz's father bought the place. Odho now fears that the entire building will soon be condemned. Miami police have told her and her neighbors to put their rent into an escrow account until Paz allows them out of their leases. But Odho can't afford to lose her security deposit. "This is my home," she says. "Why should I have to move out?"
Paz disputes Odho's claims. "They say they are going to attack my pocket and bring me down," he says, laughing at the idea. "It's a cleansing process. We are getting rid of the nonpeaceful people. There are people here who are involved in dark businesses like prostitution and drugs. We are bringing them into the light."
Odho has, in fact, been convicted of misdemeanor prostitution; her neck tattoo reads, "Property of Sir John A. Acosta." And her boyfriend, Azcurra, has been convicted of selling marijuana and charged with crimes including burglary and battery.
But police records also show that Occupy Overtown is fomenting, not fighting, violence and crime. Cops have responded to the building 18 times in the month and a half since the occupiers arrived, compared to only a handful of times in the previous months. Ten of those were for "criminal mischief."
Sometimes the crimes are more violent. On February 15, half a dozen Occupy Miami members were watching a movie in Freddy Diaz's apartment when an argument began. A hard-drinking construction worker named Johnny kept interrupting the movie. When a former Marine named Fernando told him to shut up, Johnny punched the veteran in the face.
Fernando returned five minutes later with a metal pipe. "You've got to respect me," he shouted while bashing open Johnny's head.
"He beat the hell out of him," Diaz says. But when the cops arrived, everyone in the building scattered. Johnny spent several days bleeding in the medic's office. ("He probably needed stitches," Steve says with a chuckle. "But we told him: 'Nah, man, you look good!'")
It was a glaring instance of Paz's one rule being flagrantly broken. The occupiers quickly voted the two men out of the building, to no avail. "They apologized the next day," Paz says. "They had violent thoughts, but we chased those thoughts away."
Without any rules, violence and suspicion are rampant. Luis, the former Occupy Miami security guard, suspects his fellow protesters of stealing thousands of dollars in donations. When Uguccioni, one of five occupiers who founded a nonprofit to accept donations, tells him that she has never received any money, he flips out.
"Where's the money?" he yells. "Somebody is pocketing the cash. There should be no corruption inside Occupy Miami. We are supposed to be for the people, not stealing from the people. Some of these people are becoming the 1 percent."
"I can't stand to hear people talk badly about other occupiers," Uguccioni says.
"There are bad occupiers here!" Luis shouts. (Later, Uguccioni tells New Times that she has been afraid of Luis since he worked security at the Government Center camp. "I saw him walk off with people, claiming he wanted to just talk to them," she says. "But both times they ended up with stitches.")
The chaos at Peace City is splintering the movement in other ways too. Some Occupy Miami members who don't live at the camp would like to see it shut down.
When New Times first arrived at the apartment building in early February, some protesters argued the Overtown occupation wasn't an "official" part of the movement. "Occupy Miami is in a transition phase right now," said John Noone, a clean-cut activist who runs a pet-sitting business.
Two weeks later, however, several dozen Occupy Miami members met in Bayfront Park and made it official. In the shadow of the extinguished Torch of Freedom, they voted unanimously to recognize the apartment squatters as a "working group." "This will stop the infighting online by recognizing that it's part of Occupy Miami," Kevin Young, an occupier who led the meeting, said at the time.
Instead, the feud between the Overtown occupiers and more mainstream members has only gotten worse. The two factions are now battling for control of Occupy Miami's social media sites. The movement's main Twitter account recently announced it had been "hijacked by a small, non-consensus group of radical members." The Occupy Miami Facebook page was also temporarily hacked by someone inside Peace City. Meanwhile, the Overtown occupation is slowly driving away more moderate members.
"This is a black eye on the Occupy movement," says Shannon Reaze, an Overtown community organizer and Occupy Miami supporter who is now helping tenants move out of Paz's building. "The violence and drugs going on here are way outside of what I thought Occupy stood for. This place is destabilized."
"I'm going to get a lot of shit for bringing you up here," Steve tells a New Times reporter as he ducks into a dark, doorless unit on the top floor of the apartment building. He walks through a room of broken furniture and pauses before the red glow of the bedroom.
"You're not wearing a wire, are you?" he asks in a moment of paranoia. Convinced that the reporter isn't an undercover FBI agent, he leads the way into Occupy Miami's inner sanctum.
The tiny room is packed with overlapping limbs, noise, and a thick haze of smoke. More than a dozen bodies lounge on sleeping bags, most of them well on their way to getting drunk and stoned. Red and black graffiti covers every square inch of the walls like the scratches on an insane asylum cell. A teenager with an Afro the size of a beachball plays a didjeridoo over a Gorillaz tune blaring from a cell phone.
Freedom Rider leans out an open window and screams, "Occupy the hood, bitch!" into the darkness.
Luis passes a joint the size of a small cigar. Steve takes a short drag and says, "I bet you've never been inside of a revolution like this before."
What revolution? Two months into Señor Paz's bizarre experiment, Occupy Miami is fizzling out. The supposedly hard-core activists here spend their days drinking and getting high. And as Peace City devolves into lawlessness, the most committed occupiers are leaving. Local landowners and politicians want the place shut down, while cops are suspicious. Yet as long as Paz wants the protesters around, nothing short of a demolition order can keep them out.
Some, like Diaz the cook, are getting the hell out before they get hurt. One night, Luis and two other young occupiers went to Diaz's apartment and told him to get out. Luis had a knife in his hand, and another guy carried a large stick, Diaz says. "They wanted to take my kitchen from me just so they could cook," he explains.
"Here, you cannot guarantee anyone's safety anymore," he says quietly. Carole Patman, a pretty middle-aged woman with short hair and sparkling eyes, nods in agreement. She joined Occupy Miami after foreclosure and a third divorce left her homeless, but now she is also worried for her safety and considering leaving.
"There need to be rules," Patman says. She stares out at NW Seventh Street, where a teenage occupier shrieks while wobbling uncontrollably on a tiny motorcycle. "We need God here," she adds.
Paz isn't concerned — even though his peaceful community has become a place of violence and fear. Even though his tenants have stopped paying rent. Even though he says he faces fines of $1,000 a day and could soon lose the building altogether. Even though he loaned his SUV to someone a week ago and hasn't seen it since. Despite it all, Paz says Occupy can keep his building indefinitely. He hopes it sparks a new nationwide movement.
"My battle isn't for the building or for money," he says. "My battle is for Peace City. And Peace City is people."
He continues passionately, "Occupy Miami was virgin soil, people hungry for ideas. These people were looking for an answer. I showed them the truth, chased out the liars, and the ones who believed are still here."
But as the Overtown occupiers increasingly adopt a siege mentality, local law enforcement is ready to play its part as Big Brother. On the afternoon of March 13, more than two dozen Miami police — many in SWAT gear and carrying assault rifles or shotguns — poured into Peace City. They forcibly searched the protesters for weapons, claiming they had received a tip that occupiers were armed and dangerous. No one was arrested, but the message was clear: We're watching you.
"The repression against Occupy Miami is only going to get worse," Parisi claims. Apparently, so too will the group's paranoia and isolation. "The police have people inside our movement," he adds. "They have infiltrated us with confidential informants."
Police declined to comment on the raid or the legality of Peace City. As long as Paz owns the building, it's not clear they can do much about what's going on inside.
Meanwhile, Odho and her neighbors are saving money to move out, convinced that their landlord has lost his mind. They aren't alone in thinking so: Paz's own family worries that his revolutionary movement is slowly but surely ruining his life.
"Many people think he's crazy," says Alba Acosta, Paz's mother, speaking on the phone from Colombia. "We took him to a psychologist to determine if he's crazy. But it's difficult. Someone who is crazy is not going to admit it. He knows what he's doing. But he's not living in the real world."
She continues her lament: "He needs psychological help. He has three kids that he has to support. Instead, he spends all his time looking after these homeless people."
Contrary to Odho's claims, Paz doesn't have a mansion in West Palm Beach. He isn't sitting on millions. Since his tenants stopped paying, his mother has had to wire him money so he can pay his own rent for a small apartment in Miami Lakes.
"Of course I was worried, but what can I do?" Acosta says. "More than anything, I'm worried about my grandchildren. They are the real miracle. But in his mind, the only miracle he sees is Peace City."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.