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Just hours after Miami Beach enacted an 8 p.m. curfew for spring breakers to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, cops wasted no time enforcing it. By 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, the local police department had deployed SWAT teams to clear the streets with pepper balls, sound cannons, and military-style vehicles.
Now, local Black leaders and legal advocates are concerned about the use of excessive force against the predominantly Black college students seen partying in the streets of the Florida vacation destination.
“I understand that people are angry that there are kids gathering together and partying. But Gov. Ron DeSantis has told the entire country that Florida is open for business,” Stephen Hunter Johnson, the chair of the Miami-Dade County Black Affairs Advisory Board, told VICE News. “I firmly believe Black people are entitled to the same treatment as anyone else.”
Florida has been open for business through most of the COVID-19 pandemic as DeSantis has opposed statewide lockdowns for nearly a year. Three weeks ago, in his State of the State address, he even bragged about how his state handled the pandemic, despite more than 32,000 virus-related deaths since last year.
In the past, city leaders had criticized people for gathering in large crowds and shut down festivities that grew too large. But on Saturday, the City of Miami Beach decided to take a different approach to the state’s overall treatment of the pandemic. Officials voted to close down streets and impose penalties against Miami Beach tourists on the city’s main commercial strip between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Sunday night, Miami Beach Police reported they arrested at least 50 people and confiscated eight firearms. The Florida Justice Center tweeted that they’ll be requesting a list of people arrested Saturday night in hopes of providing free legal assistance. The Florida Bail Fund did the same.
Glendon Hall, the chairman of the Miami Beach Black Affairs Committee, doesn’t think young spring breakers are being treated fairly either. He told the Miami Herald that he didn’t see what led police to use force but that the crowds were mostly peaceful at first.
“The truck showed up and nobody knew why the truck was there,” he told the outlet. “When we tried to calm things down, that hyped things up.”
Alex Saiz, the legal director for the Florida Justice Center, told VICE News that social media has played a huge part in pinning existing issues on the new crop of young Black tourists.
“The city of Miami Beach is essentially demonizing hundreds of thousands of people for the actions of a few,” he said. “I’m not pretending these are not problems, but nothing at this point warrants pepper bullets. The things that are going viral here are essentially misdemeanors.”
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, however, denied that police response had anything to do with race.
“We’re not targeting a group of people; we’re targeting conduct,” Gelber told local news outlet WPLG-Local 10. “We don’t like these arrests because it endangers officers and arrestees who may be drunk or high and bystanders. The only option we have right now is to make sure we can control our streets.”
Miami Police did not immediately respond to VICE News’ requests for comment, but Police Chief Richard Clements told the Miami Herald that Saturday’s police response would be reviewed internally.
The curfew was originally put into place for 72 hours, but on Sunday, Miami Beach city commissioners voted to leave the spring break protocol in place until April 12, according to local news outlets.