By Lizette Alvarez,
Even for South Beach, the country’s premier tropical party place, mayhem hit surreal heights this past week — a turn of events turbocharged by Florida’s nonexistent covid-19 rules and Miami Beach’s longtime lax approach to late-night raucousness.
According to police, a 24-year-old woman visiting from Pennsylvania was drugged, raped and found dead in her hotel room, according to police. Two out-of-towners have been arrested. A man was shot and killed. Random gunfire has pierced the air. An Ocean Drive restaurant was trashed — inside and out — by fighting customers. Cars randomly stopped on the street, refusing to budge, as crowds partied.
Fights broke out. People stomped on cars. People got stampeded. A man, disguised as the Joker from “Batman,” stood on a car and rained down dollar bills on throngs of people. Egging on a cheering, mask-free crowd, a woman rolled down her bikini bottom and twerked from the hood of a police car.
Miami Beach police brought out riot gear, a military-style truck and launched pepper balls to disperse the revelers, most of whom were people of color. It was a show of force similar to how the department has handled other large, unruly events. As in past years, this has led to charges of racism and heavy-handedness. With few ways to shut down the bacchanal, the city manager declared evening curfews Thursday to Sunday for restaurants and bars in the district and restricted late-night access to the island through April 12, a move that has tempered the chaos.
Welcome to Spring Break 2021. It’s easy to see how we got here. After a traumatic year and a trying winter, Florida, a state that offers maskless freedom and wide-open bars, beckoned as the perfect escape. And last weekend, sultry South Beach, which has courted clubgoers and hard drinkers for decades, became the biggest party in America. Pandemic? As the flag-waving Joker howled from atop a car, “Covid’s over, baby!”
Thousands of spring-breakers booked dirt-cheap airfares, hotel rooms and rentals. But so did many others, including out-of-state nonstudents eager to get in on the pandemonium. Miami Beach Police say they have arrested 1,050 people since the first week in February, 400 of them for felonies. Half of those people arrested for felonies were adults from other states. The police also confiscated more than 100 firearms.
“You have thousands of people collected together looking for a chaotic moment,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a former state lawmaker and federal prosecutor, told me. “How do you avoid chaos?”
Good question — one the city finally needs to figure out. Gelber said Miami Beach had ditched its plan to sponsor organized events for spring-breakers because it seemed unwise to actively lure students to the island amid the pandemic. Fair enough. It budgeted $2 million for police and launched a publicity campaign warning people that lawlessness would not be tolerated.
But Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is being lauded by fellow Republicans for his aggressive business-first handling of the coronavirus pandemic, has taken the opposite tack, in essence saying: Come one, come all, bring your money, forget your mask. Mixed messages tend to cancel each other out. And for years, South Beach has accommodated partyers with eager-to-please ordinances, infuriating residents but appeasing businesses.
City leaders and police grew increasingly concerned last week when they realized this was no ordinary spring break. Thousands gathered on the streets — “a powder keg,” Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Clements called it during an emergency city commission meeting. Residents were scared to leave their homes.
“How long can you go before something bad happens and you realize you didn’t say something,” said Clements, who explained that police had used pepper balls because officers felt threatened. He has launched an internal review of the action.
Some Black leaders spoke harshly about the city’s and police’s handling of the crowd. They said the city set the wrong tone by greeting the visitors with warnings of arrest, and they said police used unnecessary force. Racism, not common sense, drove the decision-making, they said.
These critics perceive a troubling pattern in Miami Beach, where Memorial Day weekend festivities draw thousands of Black visitors who come for rap and hip-hop events. In past years, police routinely deployed officers from all over the county to control the crowds.
“I’m still disappointed that in the 21st century, years after Jim Crow laws have ended, we still have to have conversations and meetings,” Daniella Pierre, the head of the NAACP’s local chapter, told the Miami Herald.
Gelber, who met with Pierre and consulted with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights unit, told me he gets it. “I understand why they are upset, but the problem is that we have had gunplay,” he said. “We are not responding to people. We are responding to conduct.”
Meanwhile, Memorial Day is around the corner. It’s time for city officials to rethink their crowd-control strategy.
Lizette Alvarez, a Post contributing columnist, lives in Miami.
Read more: Leana S. Wen: We can’t stop risky behavior, so we just need to make it as safe as possible Ashish K. Jha: Virus variants mean our covid winter isn’t over. Don’t ease restrictions now. Lizette Alvarez: Even by Florida standards, Gov. Ron DeSantis is a covid-19 catastrophe Sarah Layden: Hope you’re enjoying March Madness here in Indianapolis. Could you move that mask up?