For years, critics have accused Miami Beach of being openly hostile toward the Black tourists who visit on holidays like spring break and Memorial Day weekend. But the policies enacted by local leaders and the complaints from white and Hispanic business owners and residents are almost always shrouded in the coded language of dog whistles, allowing for a modicum of plausible deniability.
If you've ever doubted that racism plays a part in the ongoing conversation about the "good tourists" and "bad tourists," one of Miami Beach's most politically connected businessmen conveniently spelled it out in a 2019 email. The internal message, which was leaked to New Times, was sent by Mike Palma to his fellow executives at the Clevelander hotel and bar on March 16, 2019, with the subject line "SPRING Break 2019- our Spring Ghetto Disaster."
"What started off slowly years ago in March has now become a full scale 'Quality of life Epidemic' related to the type of visitor demographics coming to South Beach's Beaches, Entertainment District and Ocean Drive. To be frank, it's a 'African American' demo," Palma wrote. "...[T]he reality is what we have in front of us NOW is NOT a consumer demographic that our city or we want on our public beaches, parks and streets. They are classless, unbecoming, uneducated, ignorant and a bunch of loiterers who spend little money in the district." (The full text of the email is pasted at the bottom of this story.)
At the time, Palma chaired the Ocean Drive Association, which represents business and property owners on the strip. He was also an executive vice president of the Jesta Group, which bought the Clevelander for $20.6 million in 2018. Prior to Jesta's purchase, Palma had been general manager of the Clevelander since 2002.
Palma parted ways with Jesta and the Clevelander in March, according to his LinkedIn profile. In a written statement to New Times, he apologized for his words in the 2019 email.
"I deeply regret the language that I used in a private email and apologize to anyone who may have been offended by my poor choice of words," he said. "While I am very concerned with recent challenges the City of Miami Beach has faced during Spring Break and at other times of the year, I am committed to being a part of the solution to these challenges and working with our elected officials, city employees, business owners, community leaders and all other interested parties to make sure Miami Beach continues to be a world-class destination for ALL visitors from around the world."
A spokesperson for the Clevelander said the company was aware of the 2019 email and had previously addressed the matter internally.
"The comments made by Mr. Palma in his email were unacceptable and his alone, and do not reflect in any way the views of the Clevelander," the statement said. "Upon receiving his email, we took immediate steps to make it clear to him that his comments had no place in our organization."
Miami Beach has a long and ugly history of racism since its incorporation in 1915. Beginning in the 1930s, domestic and service-industry workers were forced to carry a police-issued ID card — a law that was selectively enforced against Black people and used to keep them from roaming the city after dark. Black people were also forbidden from using the beach until 1945, and stores in Miami Beach had separate bathrooms for whites and "coloreds" until the 1960s.
More recently, race has been an underlying factor in discussions about the future of Ocean Drive.
In 2017, the local NAACP branch chastised Miami Beach commissioners for making insensitive remarks about Black visitors who come during Urban Beach Week — the unofficial annual celebration that coincides with Memorial Day weekend. And comments about the "right" kind of tourist have come up over and over again at commission meetings. Last year, when Miami Beach was being considered as a new venue for the Ultra Music Festival, commissioners discussed how Ultra attendees, most of whom are white or Hispanic, are the kind of visitors the city is trying to attract.
"We want the right, high-profile events that are gonna bring people, but people that are gonna behave appropriately, pay a high room rate, that are gonna eat in our restaurants, that enjoy fine dining and fine entertainment, 'cause that’s really what we're about," Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán said at the time.
Ultra takes place during March, a time of year when thousands of Black spring breakers come to town (and often are targeted by police enforcement). After commissioners voted down the plan to host Ultra, Matt Kenny, the city's tourism director at the time, proposed staging a Jimmy Buffett concert to displace spring breakers.
"I think given the challenges we've faced the last few years, $1.5 million is worth it just to build a site that won't let these kids access that area on the beach," Kenny explained at a commission meeting. (That plan also fell through.)
As chair of the Ocean Drive Association and a representative of the Clevelander, one of the oldest and largest businesses on the strip, Palma has played an important role in helping steer the conversation about the future of the tourist district and the kinds of visitors it attracts.
Over the years, he has maintained that the problem isn't the people who spent money at his establishment but rather a different league of tourists.
According to Palma, two-for-one drink specials at other businesses along the strip created "a consumer who is coming to the Drive with one thing in mind, 'What can you do for me?'... They’re basically being taught that Ocean Drive is a discounted area to come and be. It brings that demographic that wants a discount, and everybody else is suffering as a result," he said at a July 2019 meeting of the Miami Beach City Commission's Neighborhood and Community Affairs Committee.
The email he'd sent his colleagues months earlier makes clear the demographic he was referring to.
Beyond his role as a spokesperson for Ocean Drive businesses, Palma's deep pockets have influenced decisions about regulations meant to quell the party atmosphere. In 2016, when then-Mayor Philip Levine proposed rolling back last call from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. to tamp down Ocean Drive's "scene of chaos and crime," Palma was one of the key opponents who worked to defeat the initiative when it appeared on the ballot the following year.
Citizens for a Safe Miami Beach, a political committee that campaigned against the 2 a.m. last call, was almost entirely bankrolled by a limited liability company called BTBOD, for which Palma was the registered agent. Campaign finance records show that in 2017, BTBOD LLC contributed $683,125 to the committee — about 87 percent of the committee's war chest. (Palma declined to answer follow-up questions from New Times about BTBOD and its funding.)
This summer, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber has revived Levine's attempt to enact an earlier last call on Ocean Drive. Gelber is lobbying the city commission to pass a midnight cutoff for alcohol sales in South Beach's entertainment district, which includes Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue.
That might prove easier without Palma in the way.
At a July 29 city meeting, Commissioner Steven Meiner called this summer "an opportune moment" to crack down on Ocean Drive's party atmosphere.
"I think we all recognize that this is really a unique opportunity. The political will, sort of the buy-in from much of the business community, our residents are demanding it.... While we need to be mindful, obviously, of our actions and make sure we get it right, we need to move quickly as well," said Meiner, who has proposed adding a Ferris wheel to Ocean Drive to make the area more family-friendly.
For now, Ocean Drive bars remain closed because of a coronavirus emergency order, and all Miami Beach businesses are subject to the county's 10 p.m. curfew.
After Palma left Jesta and the Clevelander earlier this year, he began working as general manager for Mango's Tropical Cafe, another Ocean Drive mainstay with a second location in Orlando.
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Mango's chief operating officer Joshua Wallack tells New Times Palma was brought on as a contractor. Wallack says that after reading Palma's 2019 email — which Palma forwarded to him after Palma was contacted by New Times — his family-owned business decided to stop working with Palma for now.
"We strongly condemn any language that is in any way not aiming towards a better world of inclusion and peace and equality," Wallack wrote in an email to New Times. "Our country was founded upon life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that is what we believe at Mango's Tropical Cafe and within the Wallack family. We were a short-term consultation client and at this time have chosen to suspend consultation services."
The full email from Mike Palma: