"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.