After Pro-Palestine Rally at Art Basel, Miami Beach Restricts Protests

Three months since pro-Palestine activists rallied outside Art Basel in Miami Beach, the city has passed a resolution restricting public demonstrations in a controversial hearing during which Mayor Steven Meiner interrupted speakers expressing concerns on Gaza and cut off their microphones.

“My God, do I wish there had been more protests against Nazi Germany when my people, the Jewish people, were being slaughtered,” said speaker Donna Nevel, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) South Florida, before Mayor Meiner interjected, as captured in a video of the March 13 hearing posted by the group.

“I am not going to allow you to compare the Israeli government to Nazi Germany,” Mayor Meiner said, speaking over Nevel’s voice before terminating her microphone.

Though the mayor has insisted that the hearing was to remain “non-partisan,” activists pointed to the fact that a December 13 memo from Meiner that paved the way for the recent legislation specifically referred to “pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel activists” who protested outside the Miami Beach Convention Center during Art Basel. That memo called on the city and its police department to consider “parameters for reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions for protests” and “discussions of incitement to violence versus free speech.”

The heavily policed demonstration outside the art fair on December 8 saw the arrest of two activists, including one minor on charges of “disorderly conduct.”

“Despite Mayor Meiner’s claim that this resolution is simply about safety around protesting, anytime a community member mentioned Gaza or the genocide in the public comment meeting, he screamed at them, berated them, and shut off their microphones,” said Monica Uszerowicz, a photographer, writer, and Hyperallergic contributor. “These were Jewish members of the community, some of whom are elders.”

Mayor Meiner has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.

The Miami Beach City Commission voted unanimously in favor of the mayor’s ordinance, which prohibits protesters from obstructing pedestrian and vehicular traffic and goes so far as to ban any activity that would “block passage by another person” or “require another person to take evasive action to avoid physical contact” — a stipulation that civil rights lawyer and JVP member Alan Levine says is particularly troubling.

“It’s quite common for municipalities to have laws about obstructing sidewalks and streets, but what this one does that’s different is it says you don’t have to obstruct the whole sidewalk — you just have to be standing in a place where a person has to take ‘evasive action’ in order to get around you,” Levine said.

“Which means if you’re standing holding a cup of coffee, to say nothing of holding a sign, the cops can ask you to move and you can get arrested,” he added.

The legislation notes that people exercising their First Amendment rights — such as by picketing or protesting — must relocate to “a nearby adequate and available alternative forum” or face up to 60 days in jail and/or a maximum $500 fine.

The vote comes after demonstrators preparing to hand out flyers outside the Miami Beach Convention Center during the Aspen Institute’s climate conference this Monday were ordered to relocate to a police-designated “free-speech zone,” the Miami Herald reported. The barricaded corner of Pride Park was not close enough to the event venue to serve as an appropriate spot for the constitutionally protected leafleting action, activists said.

Uszerowicz told Hyperallergic that the recent developments are “setting a frightening precedent.”

“Free speech zones, to my knowledge, are typically set up for specific times and places; in this instance, it’s solely about Palestine,” she said. “This would not have happened if the protests were for a different issue.”

“This is bordering on fascism,” Uszerowicz continued. “If the rest of the country wants to know where we’re headed, they really should look at us here in Miami, fighting for justice and human rights in the face of corporate and national interests.”

Amanda Rose Fischer, a 46-year-old healing artist and birthworker, said she was “disgusted but not surprised” by the new ordinance.

“Miami Beach leadership continues to serve the agenda of only a sliver of its monied residents and their Zionist leanings,” Fischer said, citing the city’s purchase of “immoral” Israeli bonds that was at the center of the protest outside Art Basel in December, which she attended.

Many in the local arts and activism community are still reeling from the recent news that the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA) quietly removed and later reinstalled a portrait of Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said without a public explanation. Amid the museum’s silence, some have expressed concerns that the ICA could be suppressing expressions of Palestinian perspectives and culture in order to appease pro-Israel patrons.

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