By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org
A crowd disturbance on Fort Lauderdale beach that resulted in the Police Department’s deployment of tear gas has left beach residents and business owners in an uproar.
The Memorial Day disturbance was downplayed by the police chief and was not widely reported by the media, but complaints to city officials have prompted City Commissioner Dean Trantalis to invite the public to a meeting to discuss the unrest. The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. on June 27 at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, 1 Hall of Fame Drive.
According to police, a “large fight broke out’’ about 5:30 p.m. on May 26 on the beach southeast of Beach Place, a popular complex of bars, restaurants and retail shops at 17 S. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., also known as State Road A1A.
“Several hundred subjects surrounded the fight making it nearly impossible for officers to break up the fight safely,’’ Police Officer Zack Baro said in a report. The fight spilled into A1A, blocking traffic. “More onlookers came out of Beach Place and continued to agitate the crowd . . .,” according to Baro.
Police Capt. Jonathan Appel reported that several hundred people “cheered [the fighters] on.” After Appel ordered the crowd to disperse, bottles and debris were thrown at the officers. A water bottle struck Baro’s head, Appel said.
About a dozen police officers working at off-duty jobs responded to the beach to back up the dozen officers already there.
‘AEROSOL DEFENSE SPRAY’
When Appel got concerned about the safety of his officers and the public and became worried about losing control of the area, he ordered that an “aerosol defense spray” be deployed on the ground upwind of the crowd, according to the police report.
The tear gas dispersed the crowd and no injuries were reported, the report said. One person was arrested.
Juan Restrepo, manager at the nearby H2O Café, 101 S. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., said in an interview that the gas forced patrons at sidewalk tables to flee either inside the restaurant or down the road with napkins over their faces. The disturbance caused the café to close about 6:30 p.m. instead of at its normal 11 p.m. closing hour.
The next day, Restrepo said, numerous tourists asked him if such unrest was “a regular thing” on the beach. He said many of them told him they do not plan to return to Fort Lauderdale.
Mayor John P. “Jack” Seiler said during a June 4 City Commission conference meeting that the crowd appeared to be a spillover from Miami Beach’s Urban Beach Week. Because of heavy police presence in Miami Beach, “word got out through the social media . . ., saying, ‘Let’s all go to Fort Lauderdale … move from Miami Beach to Fort Lauderdale Beach,’” the mayor said.
Restrepo said the rowdy crowd, composed mainly of youths, were not the usual visitors to Fort Lauderdale beach.
Responding to a 300-word article on June 7 in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that downplayed the unrest, “Joedavotta” posted on the newspaper’s Web site, “I was there and it was dangerous…About 10-15 police units besieged the place…SWAT arrived. Pepper spray fill[ed] the air. A1A was jammed with traffic … Debris was strewn across the beach.
“VictoriaHoliday” posted on the Web site, “Many, many, many in the…crowd demonstrate[d] classless behavior…They [were] aggressive…and unpleasant…If you tell me the event does not attract thugs – you are lying.”
In the Sun-Sentinel article, Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderley denied that the disturbance was a riot.
“If there were a riot on the beach, I think we would have had more people going to jail . . . We had the situation under control,” Adderly was quoted as saying.
During the commission conference meeting, Fred Carlson, a member of Fort Lauderdale‘s Central Beach Alliance Board, cautioned against making too much of what had happened.
“We’re risking overreacting on this issue … On the matter of police presence, they were there when I drove through [the beach] around 6 o’clock … I don’t think we should get all bent out of shape about [police] coverage because it was there,” Carlson said.
But the mayor and Trantalis appeared to disagree with Carlson.
MAYOR: ‘CAUGHT OFF GUARD’
“We seemed to be caught off guard,’’ Seiler said.
“I think we got caught with our pants down, and I truly believe we were not prepared,” Trantalis said.
When told that the police chief appeared to downplay the disturbance in the Sun-Sentinel article, Trantalis said in an interview: “Everybody wants to downplay it…We were caught by surprise. We haven’t seen things like this for decades.”
Although city commissioners normally are notified of all serious police events shortly after they occur, the police did not inform the elected officials about the beach disturbance. The commissioners learned about the unrest from outraged citizens the next day.
Seiler complained during the conference meeting that the commission should have been made aware of the unrest on Memorial Day.
“I’ve been inundated,’’ Trantalis told his fellow commissioners. “I’m sure all of you have been inundated with people who live and visit the area who feel extremely threatened.”
City Commissioner Romney Rogers said his secretary visited the beach at 2 p.m. on Memorial Day. She found the crowd “the rowdiest she has ever seen.” Citizens complained to Rogers about the large number of glass containers littered on the beach after Memorial Day.
“We need to go back to enforcing the open container law,” Rogers told other commissioners. “There shouldn’t be glass out there.”
Spur of the moment advertising by Fort Lauderdale beachfront bars also drew people to the beach, the mayor said. The mayor and Rogers both said beach businesses have a responsibility to beef up private security when they attract large crowds of customers.
Rogers praised the police for quickly quelling the disturbance. “The marketing surprise was the bad part,” he said.
Seiler disagreed with several people who wrote him blaming the disturbance on blacks.
“This isn’t about race,” the mayor told the commission. “We have had a tremendous diversity on Fort Lauderdale beach…It was just a raucous party crowd that was attracted regardless of race and economic background.”
William Hladky can be reached at [email protected]