Longform

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.

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.