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Occupy Miami descends into drugs and chaos in an Overtown apartment building

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"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.

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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.