Memorial Day weekend in Miami Beach this year spawned two scandals over casually racist politicians.
City Commissioner Michael Grieco, who is running an embattled campaign for mayor, demanded the city cancel Urban Beach Week, the city's largest celebration centered on black tourists, after two people were shot this year, including one killed by cops. Then Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez wrote an email asking the city to "give cops back their bullets" to combat what she claimed was rising crime (even though police had literally just killed someone and police stats suggest crime is actually dropping on Ocean Drive).
In response to those dubious outbursts, two representatives from Miami's chapter of the NAACP showed up at a city commission meeting last night to call those comments "insensitive" and to demand more respect for black tourists.
Only Rosen Gonzalez, who is running for Congress, took the criticism well. Grieco ended up in a testy back-and-forth with the black civil rights group. He insisted he understood the underlying issues but was still sticking by his demand to end the Memorial Day weekend parties.
"When you have said the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong people, we certainly have an open mike to give you an opportunity to make things right, if that's what you ask for," said Shirley Johnson, president of the the NAACP's Miami chapter, while urging Grieco and Rosen Gonzalez to engage with the black community. This past June 2, the NAACP sent Miami Beach a letter saying it opposed shutting down Urban Beach Week, because crime occurs year-round on Ocean Drive and it appears discriminatory to crack down on only an event for black people.
Urban Beach Week has been a topic of heated debate in Miami Beach for close to two decades. The unofficial party weekend draws huge crowds of mostly black patrons to the Beach. How much of a "crime problem" the weekend creates is another story. While the city's wealthy, pearl-clutching elite freak out about crowds of black people every year, patrons question whether any event of that size would increase similar nuisances such as petty theft. The NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union, and other groups have also criticized the local government for harshly policing the weekend. In response to comments from Grieco and Rosen Gonzalez, Miami Beach Police released stats showing crime is actually dropping year over year on Ocean Drive.
From the dais, Mayor Philip Levine announced he's creating a "Blue Ribbon Committee" of local stakeholders to figure out how the city can better regulate the swelling Urban Beach Week crowds. Last night, Johnson and chapter vice president Ruban Roberts said repeatedly they were not speaking in order to criticize specific commissioners. (Roberts actually praised Police Chief Dan Oates and said that the cops shooting one person in 2017 was at least better than Beach officers firing 100 rounds into a moving car in 2011.)
Only Rosen Gonzalez seemed to understand why her comments had upset the NAACP. She offered a clear, contrite apology for her comments suggesting the police should shoot more people. There's obviously a racial bent to those comments, because officers have been proven to shoot and kill black people disproportionately.
"I learned a valuable lesson that words matter just as much as actions do," Rosen Gonzalez said. "I will do anything moving forward to make this right."
Grieco, however, refused to back down from his call to make Urban Beach Week "a thing of the past" and continually fought with the NAACP over whether his comments were truly racially insensitive. By the end of the discussion, Mayor Levine had to gingerly step in and mediate to ensure Grieco didn't get any more egg on his face than he'd already earned.
Grieco began by showing up late to the NAACP's presentation. But he tried to pass his tardiness off as a good thing: He is a defense lawyer and a former prosecutor for embattled State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who has long been criticized for ignoring police who murder black people on the job and needlessly prosecuting black children as adults. He began his chat from the dais last night by effectively trying to claim he's a warrior for black people, loudly criticizing Levine for pointing out that Grieco had been late to the commission meeting.
"I heard the mayor took a potshot at me while I was driving in about my absence," Grieco said. "What he didn't know is that I was actually in Broward County representing an African-American 17-year-old just now, who'd been inequitably treated by the Broward County State Attorney. So maybe be careful about why I'm not here. Maybe ask somebody."
Then, in front of NAACP members who were bringing him concerns from the black community, he reminded those NAACP members that he had "sat on panels with Martin Luther King III" on racial bias in policing, effectively bragging that he's already "very sensitive to the issues we're discussing today" — which he himself caused. (Grieco is also the target of a state investigation after the Miami Herald tied his mayoral campaign to an illegal fundraising committee.)
Urban Beach Week is not a city-sanctioned event (it's informally organized), and Grieco and the NAACP both say they feel that if the city were to host more official events for black people, Memorial Day crowds could be tamed a bit. Grieco went on a tangent about how he wished the city had begun having a dialogue about how to allegedly "fix" Urban Beach Week 17 years ago, when the inaugural event took place.
"We have," both Johnson and Roberts said, cutting off Grieco and sounding slightly annoyed that nothing seemed to be getting through.
Throughout the dialogue, Grieco continued to talk over the two NAACP representatives. As Roberts tried to explain that black people were banned from using the city's beaches until the early 1960s and that "Miami Beach has come a long way," Grieco cut him off and said, "I know the history."
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After Grieco claimed his comments were "not about race" but instead "about safety," he began throwing out straight-up dog whistles.
"Their directions, per the internet, are to 'take over the city,'" Grieco said of the mostly black patrons of Urban Beach Week. "That's what the websites tell them to do. There’s no other weekend like that. No other weekend where we have to bring in the amount of law enforcement support from outside the city." He claimed it's "not reasonable to ask the City of Miami Beach to treat Memorial Day weekend like any other weekend." He claimed the weekend scares away residents and other visitors.
At this point, Johnson and Roberts seemed flabbergasted.
"Mr. Commissioner, when you get a chance, play this tape back and listen to yourself," Roberts said.