Government

Points of Pride: Surfside Residents to Protest Town "Canceling" Pride and Free Speech

Surfside raised a rainbow flag to commemorate LGBTQ+ Pride in 2021.
Surfside raised a rainbow flag to commemorate LGBTQ+ Pride in 2021. Photo courtesy of Tina Paul
Less than a week after the first anniversary of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse, Surfside residents will stage a protest in observation of another historic day: the anniversary of the Stonewall riots of 1969.

Today at 5 p.m., demonstrators plan to gather outside the Surfside Town Hall prior to a special commission meeting. On a promotional page for the rally, organizers declare, "Surfside can't cancel pride!"

The rally follows Surfside Mayor Shlomo Danzinger's statement to the Miami Herald earlier this month that though he supports Pride Month, he believed that flying a rainbow flag at Town Hall would pave the way for "satanic" banners and swastikas.

"You’re opening yourself up to these elements, which I’d really like to keep away from. It’s not that it’s not allowed, it’s either all or none and we didn’t want to open it up," Danzinger told the Herald.

After the Herald article ran on June 15, Danzinger doubled down on Twitter, opining that government poles should be used to raise government flags, and that "[c]hoosing which causes a municipality signals to support will only lead to more problems."
Danzinger did not respond to a request for comment from New Times via email Monday morning. Surfside spokesperson Frank Trigueros did not respond to a phone call requesting comment.

The town's stance was based on advice from attorney Lillian Arango, who represents the city. On May 3, Arango sent Danzinger and other town officials a link to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the City of Boston cannot deny a Christian group's request to raise a Christian flag at city hall.

Surfside resident Gerardo Vildostegui, one of the organizers of today's rally, argues that Arango and Danzinger's reading of the Supreme Court is wrong and that the town can raise a Pride flag just as it did outside its community center last year and as neighboring municipalities like Miami Beach have already done this year.

"If her reading was right, then all these cities around us would be afraid of flying Nazi flags It should've been clear that no other jurisdiction agrees with her reading," Vildostegui says.

A change.org petition in support of a Surfside Pride flag had garnered 432 signatures as of Monday night.

"The rainbow flag is a powerful symbol of tolerance and love. It should be noncontroversial for a government to embrace that message," Vildostegui says.

Writing for the majority in the Supreme Court's decision in Shurtleff v. City of Boston in May, Justice Stephen Breyer noted that the city could not restrict the Christian group from putting up its flag because the pole was used as a public forum for private speech, which the government could not regulate. Breyer left the decision open, however, so that governments would be allowed to regulate their own speech and put up flags of their own choice, such as via a government resolution.

Arango did not respond to New Times' request for comment through her law office at Weiss Serota Helfman Cole + Bierman. But late Monday, the Miami Herald reported that four out of Surfside's five town commissioners have now signaled support for raising a pride flag, with Danzinger the lone holdout. According to the Herald, Arango issued a statement saying the town should create a formal flag policy.

In any event, LGBTQ pride is not the only issue at the heart of today's demonstration.

Two other rally organizers — resident Victoria Saife and former Town Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer — say the event is also a protest against what they say is town leaders' disregard for free speech, as well as a controversial proposal on the current commission agenda.

On June 14, Saife spoke during the "good and welfare" segment of the commission meeting to criticize city officials for bowing to developer interests and alleging conflicts of interest.

After telling her three times that she was breaking the rules of the comment period by talking about agenda items and speaking about specific commissioners, Danzinger had three police officers escort Saife out of the commission chamber.
"It’s kind of shocking when I look back at the video, like, 'Oh my god, this doesn't feel like America,'" Saife tells New Times. "I felt like I was in North Korea or Russia, being thrown out after disagreeing with the elected officials."

The item on the agenda, which Saife mentioned before she was removed, calls for the town to revisit its ordinance limiting the number of beach chairs private hotels can set out on the public beach before visitors arrive. The current ordinance specifies ten chairs per hotel. A discussion item authored by Vice Mayor Jeffrey Rose, a realtor and home builder, calls for an increase to the limit and a loosening of other restrictions.

"Consideration may be given to increasing the size of the staging areas for beach furniture, as well as the permitted number of beach furniture that may be staged and ready for location on the beach," reads Rose's item, which would also allow hotels to use vehicles to transport the chairs on the beach.

Salzhauer, who supported legislation to limit the number of beach chairs while she was commissioner, says more chairs effectively privatizes the public beach by squeezing out non-hotel guests.

"This is a gross overstepping of equitable use of resources. This is favoring hotels over members of the public on a public beach," says Salzhauer, who was unseated in March in a six-way race for four commission seats.

Salzhauer's ally during her time on the commission, former Vice Mayor Tina Paul, was likewise defeated in March when she ran for mayor against Danzinger and then-Mayor Charles Burkett. Danzinger prevailed in the tight threeway race, winning 501 votes to Paul's 476 and Burkett's 466. Paul had successfully pushed for Surfside to raise a Pride flag last year and offered to donate a rainbow flag to the town.

Since their election defeats, Salzhauer and others have been outspoken against the new Surfside commission, which they say is more pro-developer than pro-resident.
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos