Mention of the holiday in the American midwest conjures images of high school bands, somber veterans and small children waving flags as a small town parades march by.
And then there’s Miami Beach with its collection of images from the past several Memorial Day weekends. Those images are somewhat less draped in Americana. Instead they are of random shootings between civilians and police; imported thugs terrorizing residents and business owners; trash, spent shell casings and worse tossed carelessly over the city’s major corridors.
Many Beach residents don’t even have first-hand experience with the entropy that is Memorial Day weekend on South Beach.
“My friends and I have been getting out of town every Memorial Day weekend for years,” said Louise Lampert. “This is the last place we would want to be. It’s thug central.”
Lampert said her last Memorial Day weekend experience was shortly after the turn of the millennium. She said she was accosted by a small group of out of town visitors in a parking lot not far from Lincoln Road.
“I don’t normally spend time in the touristy areas on weekends, but it was summer and I had some things to do,” Lampert said. “I’d heard it had gotten bad on those weekends but I had no idea until that day.”
Lampert said that on off-duty store clerk whom she knew happened by and helped defuse the situation that she said was otherwise, “very threatening.” She’s been leaving town on Memorial Day weekends ever since.
“It was nice at first — like a mini-vacation.” she said. “But the past few years, it’s begun to piss me off. This is my home. I pay taxes here. And one weekend a year, these people come in here and terrorize everyone, mess up the town — and I’m tired of it.”
It’s been more than a decade since Memorial Day on the Miami Beach became what it is today. Officially it’s “Urban Beach Weekend,” which is a polite politically correct euphemism for a weekend during which predominantly young, predominantly black come from across the country to celebrate all things urban, hip-hop and rap. That translates to record crime, random shootings, mass property damage — and, oh yes, $1 million committed security that local taxpayers get to pay for.
Those taxpayers have had enough, inspired by particularly brisk violence this summer.
“Miami Beach’s government is so concerned with looking politically correct, pandering to phony liberal sensibilities, that they refuse to confront a real problem the people that they work for has,” said Roberto Aguilar, another aggravated resident. “If they cared about he residents, they would do something.”
To date, the Miami Beach City Commission has done nothing to address the root causes of the Memorial Day debacle, critics say. At a mayoral candidate’s debate just this week, Mayor Matti Bower reiterated her long-held position that there is nothing that the city can do about the privately-promoted and sponsored weekend of chaos.
However, two candidates seeking to supplant Bower as mayor have both offered plans to replace Urban Beach Weekend with a slate of activities aimed at recapturing the actual essence of the holiday.
“I disagree with Mayor Bower’s statement,” said comedian turned mayoral hopeful Steve Berke. “There is plenty that can be done and I intend on making Veterans Beach Week a reality by next year. Every year, for the last 10 years, Memorial Day weekend has been invaded by thugs and unruly visitors that have caused a number of public safety and financial problems that our current city leaders have been unable to solve. Miami Beach residents routinely lock themselves in their homes or travel to other cities to escape the carnage that is always associated with Urban Beach Weekend.”
Berke’s plan calls for Miami Beach to promote veterans events throughout the city and with the support of the Miami Beach Convention Center, restaurants, nightclubs, and hotels.
“My plan includes creating a city oversight committee to supervise, plan and promote each years’ ongoing Veterans Beach Week and help discourage the Urban Beach Weekend activities as much as possible, while promoting local hotel and merchant discounts for Veterans,” said Berke.
Berks said that Miami Beach could earmark a small portion of next years $1 million Memorial Week’s security budget to create and promote the Veterans Beach Week event. Overages to the event’s budget would be covered with sponsorship opportunities, Berke said.
“We need to recruit veterans groups such as the American Legion, VFW, Wounded Warriors, Veterans Retreat among other national and local organizations to help promote and market the Miami Beach Veterans Beach Week throughout the country. If we create the veterans event, they will come,” said Berke. “The proposed Veterans Beach Week will include an air and sea show, concerts, land and water-based parades, and a host of other U.S. military themed events that promote Miami Beach’s support and appreciation for our military soldiers. We must not forget that Memorial Day is supposed to be a special day of remembrance.”
Berke’s plan has drawn the support of decorated veterans such as Vets for Freedom founder and Medal of Honor Nominee David Bellavia who supports the idea of a Miami Beach based veterans-themed Memorial Week.
“Miami Beach would be a top destination of choice for service members and their families. The week surrounding Memorial Day has, since it’s inception, been a time for military families and their friends to memorialize our fallen military men and women and to celebrate our nation’s history. If you roll out the welcome mat, we’ll round up the troops,” said Bellavia.
Dianne Thorne, vice-president of Veterans Retreat is also thrilled about the prospect of a Veterans Beach Week.
“Veterans Retreat brings wounded veterans from around the country to Miami Beach so they can unwind, recover and re-bond family relationships while participating in educational, recreational and therapeutic courses and programs for recovering wounded veterans,” said Thorne. “We have seen first-hand how the military community enjoys coming to Miami Beach. We provide services around the country but our number 1 request from wounded service members is to take a vacation/retreat in Miami Beach. We have a list of over 1,000 Veterans who have already expressed interest in coming to Miami Beach.”
Berke isn’t the first bright young mayoral candidate who would like to help reclaim Memorial Day. This summer, rival candidate Dave Crystal penned an op-ed piece outlining his proposal. Part one of the plan proposed buying contact lists from local promoters and e-blasting announcements that Urban Beach Weekend has been relocated to Atlantic City.
Decrying the city’s lack of leadership, Crystal further asserted, “Return Memorial Day weekend to its proper stature and purpose, and that is: honor the brave men and women who lost their lives defending our freedom.
“We should work with the VFW and USO to schedule events now for Memorial Day weekend 2012 for the purpose of bringing our troops and veterans down to the Beach as had been done in bygone days,” Crystal continued. “The city shall sponsor events, such as a ‘land, sea and air’ show for the specific purpose of attracting our troops and those who love them. Ocean Drive shall be closed to vehicular traffic for the purpose of showcasing historic tanks and other armaments.”
Crystal’s plan went on to call for better positioning of police, enforcement of crowd regulations in clubs, and enacting legislation to make dropping one’s pants illegal.
“Miami Beach’s government says there is nothing they can do about it…then step aside and let me show how it can be done,” Crystal said.
Both mayoral challengers recognize that there are obstacles to change.
“It would take a multi-pronged approach,” Crystal said. “We might have to give incentives to promoters to help [redirect would-be visitors] to Atlantic City.”
To date, city officials have both stated and implied that they are powerless to do anything about the challenge for fear of being labeled “racist” or inviting persecution from the purveyors of the racism industry. Berke, though, said he isn’t worried about that.
“I don’t think the residents look at this as a race issue,” Berke said. “They look at it as a safety issue.”
Both candidates believe they can make a difference immediately if elected.
‘If I am elected Mayor, I will get rid of Urban Beach Weekend immediately,” Berke said. “I already have the support of veterans groups locally and throughout the country and I have spoken to event coordinators who have put on similar events. They are willing to come on board under my tenure to replace Urban Beach Weekend with a veteran’s themed weekend by next year.”
“I look forward to becoming the next Mayor of Miami Beach and bringing this plan to fruition,” said Crystal.