Urban Beach Weekend: When will Miami Beach value black tourists?

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Urban Beach Weekend is an annual, totally informal event on South Beach. Tens of thousand of tourists flock here for a three-day celebration of hip hop. It’s long been a point of tension on Miami Beach and this year, after a Sunday night altercation ended with a shooting, a police chase, and a police shooting, Miami Beach city officials are looking for ways to curtail the annual event. 

As city officials readied to pat themselves on the back Monday morning for a successful dismount of Urban Beach Weekend with the addition of two city-endorsed events – the World OutGames and the inaugural National Salute to America’s Heroes – a string of shootings Sunday evening would force them to tell a different story.

Late Sunday night, nearly a dozen shots rang out in South Beach, between Ocean Drive and Alton Road. In an unfortunate break in a nearly peaceful Memorial Day Weekend, two lives were lost – one at the hands of a visiting 19-year-old and the other by a Miami Beach police officer. Ladarian Phillips, the one killed by the teen in a parking dispute, was a father, a son, and a brother.

In an already contentious political season for Miami Beach politicians, the weekend punctuated in bloodshed has only stoked the ambitions of the anti-Urban Beach Weekend coalition. The ugliness of a child losing his father in a spat over a parking space has left city officials and residents alike doubling down on a brand of “ugly” corrosive to the spirit of liberty we’ve come to celebrate on Memorial Day.

“Urban Beach Weekend is a thing of the past. … After 17 years of trying to handle this and trying to measure success by the number of arrests or by the lack of shootings, this is something that we’re no longer going to tolerate.” – Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco.

In a leaked email to City Manager Jimmy Morales, Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez reacted by questioning the leadership of current Police Chief Dan Oates. An excerpt from the email reads as follows:

“We need to give cops back their bullets, remove their body cams, give them their dignity…”

Mayor Phillip Levine, during a heated exchange of words over limiting alcohol sales with Mangoes owner David Wallack, attempts to discredit his opponent by attacking his business acumen. While he makes the argument that Urban Beach Weekend is bad for the Miami Beach brand, Wallack argues his business made a name for the city.

“You inherited a business. Go get a job. Go build a company.” – Mayor Phillip Levine

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These exchanges are deeply problematic. For nearly two decades the city has grappled with how to deal with what is now more than a quarter-million mostly black and African-American tourists during Memorial Day Weekend.

If I did anything for almost 20 years I would hope to have nearly expert knowledge on the matter. But the City of Miami Beach has fallen short time and time again because they continue to ignore the giant elephant streaking along the beach.

Until the city can be honest about the role racism plays in their policing and politicians can embrace the value of black tourism during Memorial Day Weekend, constructive solutions will evade the leadership.

Year after year, instead of finding ways to collaborate with private club owners and promoters, hotels, transportation alternatives like Uber and Lyft, and restaurants and bars, instead of developing strategic partnerships with brands to profit handsomely from the explosive market that is Urban Beach Weekend, the city opts for aggressive law enforcement and restricted traffic flow.

If the city were to critically evaluate measures taken in the past and work with cities with similar tourist activity, it could produce something special. But officials still don’t see value in the mostly brown and black faces making the choice to travel to and spend money in their city.

Miami Beach needs to change its perception of black people and begin to adopt an asset-based approach to solving the needs of its visitors. They will come. Crime will happen. Crime happens in this city perpetually. It is what you do before and after that decide what the story of the weekend will be.

Whether I agree with the permanent expulsion of Urban Beach Weekend is a moot point. It is the telling of the right story that I am urging.

A one-year-old lost his father. A mother and a father lost their son. Let’s demonstrate decency and appropriately express our  condolence to the local family. Too often we see loss of life among black citizenry as par for the course. Such a noble act from the mayor and city leadership would have been appropriate.

We’ve done a great disservice to both locals and visitors by making 250,000 tourists the scapegoats for a lack of vision from city leadership. Most of these tourists have followed the law and contributed to the economy.

It is the time city own up to its shortcomings. That can only happen if leadership takes a hard look at its checkered past with black people.

Let’s tell a better story. If you don’t know what to do with all those beautiful black people in your city, consult someone who does. If racism presents a blind spot, show accountability.

Hire the best PR firm you can. Show all the stakeholders the potential value of this weekend. Then consult with people with expertise developing programming for hip hop beach goers. Steal best practices from cities that host similar entertainment and music festivals. The City of Miami hosts more than 300,000 concert goers during Ultra Music Festival. The City of Miami Gardens hosts one of the largest jazz festivals in the country, with concert participants reaching nearly 70,000.

I lived on Miami Beach for five years. What I found most deflating was when business owners fell in line with the bigotry. During Urban Beach Weekend, restaurants would alter their hours and menus. Some would close all together. I still remember the day in 2015 when I walked past a sign on Collins Avenue in front of a good sushi restaurant.

I walked back to get a second look. A crude sign was taped to a podium with the words “Chicken wings and fries, $8.99.” The standard menu was unavailable. I stood there in complete marvel. There it was in plain sight, the giant elephant so many among us fail to see.

Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco wrote about why Miami Beach thinks it’s time to end Urban Beach Weekend. You can read it here