‘Toxic mix’: Miami Beach mayor mulls ending spring break after violence

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Pedro Portal/AP</span>
Photograph: Pedro Portal/AP

City leaders in Miami Beach are to rethink their approach to the annual student right of passage known as spring break after successive weekends of violence left two people dead, hundreds arrested and dozens of guns confiscated by law enforcement officers.

The mayor of Miami Beach, Dan Gelber, told the Guardian the mayhem was akin to a giant, unruly street party, with authorities struggling to control tens of thousands of unwanted guests and a business community blocking measures to try to control it.

“I don’t feel like some of them are particularly good members of the community,” he said after a coalition of bar and nightclub owners persuaded a majority of commissioners to block his proposal for another midnight curfew for this past weekend.

Related: Miami Beach imposes curfew on unruly crowds as spring break turns deadly

“I appreciate our hospitality industry, they invest in our community, but to listen to them like we’re gonna ruin them by asking to have a curfew for three nights is absurd to me.”

The city did approve a dusk-until-dawn ban on alcohol sales over the weekend, coinciding with Miami’s highly popular Ultra music festival. But Gelber felt that, and the assistance of state law enforcement providing extra officers and surveillance drones, was still not enough to curb the violence taking place during the college students’ annual pilgrimage to one of Florida’s most popular party cities.

“I understand why 18-year-olds want to come here, and 25-year-olds want to come here. It’s on the ocean, the scenery is beautiful, the weather’s great, it’s got a great feel to it and creates electricity,” he said.

“I also think we’ve become a destination for not simply people who are looking to have a foolish good time, but those who might have more sinister desires. We’ve attracted members of gangs, and we’ve obviously attracted people who bring guns because we seize them with regularity.

“So it becomes a pretty toxic mix. It’s not really a spring break at all, it’s a sort of a street party that ends up with a lot of disorder or criminal behavior.”

Miami Beach is among a number of Florida cities wrestling with an upswing of spring break violence in recent years as hordes of students attracted by the state’s warm climate, plentiful beaches and easy access to alcohol seek to party during a recess from their studies.

In Panama City Beach, police made almost 400 arrests for “spring break-related crimes”, including possession of firearms and drugs, leading up to what is usually a chaotic final weekend of the month.

In other popular spring break cities, such as Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale, authorities report that pre-emptive measures such as youth curfews and a no-tolerance approach from law enforcement over alcohol and traffic rules have created a calmer environment than the disorder of previous years.

“When we have intelligence that we’ll have a whole bunch of out-of-towners coming in, especially of this age group, we just appropriately plan and execute,” Eric Feldman, interim police chief of New Smyrna Beach, told the city commission, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

None of the cities, however, have experienced violence on the scale of Miami Beach, which enacted a similar state of emergency following two shooting incidents last year that left five wounded, and a near-riot on South Beach the year before that saw police fire pepper balls at students.

Also in 2021, two spring breakers from North Carolina were indicted for the murders of two tourists in Miami Beach.

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Gelber plans to meet with city, business and community leaders, and police chiefs following this year’s spring break to strategize for future years. Unlike other cities that solicit spring breakers for economic reasons, he says, Miami Beach does not need or want their business.

“If you get rid of the things that attract people here, namely liquor and places to go, that will help,” he said.

“We’re constantly coming up with ideas. Sometimes we try not have any activities, then sometimes we’ve tried to program it more. We had some shows, some music, during the day so people could go somewhere and not just sit around with others looking to create a problem.

“But when you get later in the night and people are drinking and maybe getting high there’s another whole set of issues, and I don’t know that we could program that. We just have to close up businesses. I think that if you really want to end spring break you have to have a curfew so people will go somewhere else.”

Gelber said the discussions would address likely causes of the problems: “We’ve been looking at data as well as anecdotal experience and we know there’s a confluence of a lot of different things happening,” he said.

Dr Laurence Steinberg, an expert on adolescent psychological and brain development at Temple University and author of the upcoming book You and Your Adult Child, said college students are often ill-equipped to make rational decisions.

“There always were the drunken trips to Florida for spring break, that’s been around for at least 50 years. Sensation-seeking, novelty-seeking behavior peaks around age 19 or 20, so there’s something about the brain that inclines kids that age toward doing risky and reckless things,” he said.

“But these kinds of shootings don’t take place in other places. If it weren’t for the easy availability of guns, and gun culture, this thing wouldn’t happen. Young adults get into fights more often in the UK than they do in the US, but they’re not lethal.

“So you’ve got a mix that’s ready to be ignited, kids at the age where they’re likely to do risky, reckless things, you’ve got big groups of them, and you’ve got them drunk. All you have to do is throw some guns into the mix and you’re going to get the shootings. That’s probably the biggest thing that’s changed.”