A group of Miami Springs residents, dissatisfied by what they call inaction in city hall, have formed a new activist group that is pressuring the city council to take a stand against racism.
It all started with a Facebook post by a resident who criticized the city for not releasing a statement after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. From there, it expanded to phone calls, a protest and demands for change at a council meeting.
The post was created on June 2 by Amanda Valdespino, a longtime resident of the small city near Miami International Airport, on a Facebook group called Miami Springs Community. It started with, “Why hasn’t our city council or anyone else spoken up about what’s going on?”
She termed the silence “deafening” and asked residents to take action to protect the black community.
Valdespino says she was upset and frustrated that the community where she’d lived for more than 20 years had said nothing about Floyd’s murder or the loss of countless black lives at the hands of the police. “Their silence should not be tolerated,” she wrote.
Reactions were mixed. One commenter warned against protesters and looters, saying they’d be met with “force by citizens of Miami Springs who are armed and love the city.”
Another wrote of liking the place because of its mostly racial demographics (which is less than 2 percent “black or African American alone,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau). Others spoke out against racial injustice, structural racism, and condemned police brutality. The post drew more than 600 comments.
“And the admin’s handling of the situation was upsetting,” Valdespino said. “He didn’t moderate any of the comments that were happening, especially some of them that were extremely harmful, harassing and, honestly, some of them were racist.”
This was followed by upset calls from residents to the city manager’s office and to council members, said Daniel Gonzalez, public information specialist for the City of Miami Springs. Many assumed the Facebook group was managed by the city. Some feared protests in the quiet town. Others asked why nothing had been done about the comments.
In an attempt to quell the growing unrest, Miami Springs’ official Twitter account, handled by Gonzalez, published a news release on June 4 clarifying the group was, in fact, not owned by the city, but rather operated by a resident. It stated the city had no responsibility for the content.
We have received calls from upset residents over comments posted on sites that may contain our city name: “Miami Springs…” These are NOT OFFICIAL CITY SITES. Our official city sites:
FB & Twitter: @MiamiSpringsFL
City site: https://t.co/Z2yEujaxMP pic.twitter.com/s2extWC5DY
— City of MiamiSprings (@MiamiSpringsFL) June 4, 2020
The Facebook group Miami Springs Community, where Valdespino’s original post and the offensive comments appeared, was created by Nestor Suarez, the publisher of MiamiSprings.com, a site serving the community. It has about 4,000 members.
Asked why Valdespino’s post and comments were allowed to stand, Suarez replied that he runs several Facebook pages. Monitoring them all can be difficult.
Suarez also said the group prohibits posts related to national issues unless they are of strong local interest.
“My general philosophy is that, when it comes to commentary, the First Amendment leads the way, meaning, let people post their things and allow freedom of speech,” he said. “We let people vent.”
Despite the official disavowal of the Facebook page, Miami Springs Police Chief Armando Guzman issued a statement on June 4 denouncing the police officers accused of killing George Floyd in Minneapolis. He wrote that they had “gravely harmed the community relations that the majority of law enforcement professionals have worked very hard and long to develop and maintain.”
For Valdespino, this wasn’t enough. She decided to form a new group called Miami Springs for Justice. “I just got upset and messaged some people I knew that lived in the Springs or used to live here and told them we had to do something, and that we shouldn’t remain silent anymore,” she said.
Soon the group had about 150 members, who began actively urging the city council to take action.
Last night, six members of the group, including Valdespino, spoke to the council in an unscheduled appearance. Valdespino described some background, then said the council’s silence and the backlash from her Facebook post were not representative of the community’s ideals.
“These things do not make me feel safe, and they project an image of fear and hate, words I do not want to be associated with Miami Springs,” she said. “It should not be controversial to support black people, to be anti-racist, and to request that our elected officials do better.”
She also spoke about a protest Saturday afternoon at the Miami Springs Circle that was met by officers in riot gear despite a low turnout.
Braden Harrington, another Miami Springs for Justice member, also criticized the city’s response to the protest, saying it was a waste of taxpayer money and an overreaction by the police department.
“The presence of police officers from Virginia Gardens and Miami Beach was a statement on either the inability of local police to handle 25 peaceful protesters or an attempt to instill fear, discourse or distrust from local business owners,” he said.
The city may have misjudged the number of protesters who showed because they relied heavily on a trending Twitter post that said about 200 to 300 people were expected, said Miami Springs police public information officer Janice Simon. The popularity of nationwide protests also had some influence.
“We didn’t have any idea of the total number of people that could show up,” she said. “We didn’t know, at the time of the preparations, that it would be a small group. Social media is seen by many people, all over. We needed to be properly prepared, because, if something did happen, we would be on the ridge. We had to prepare for the worst.”
Angélica Ruiz, another member, called on Springs police to dump military-style equipment like riot gear and to increase their understanding of racial and economic oppression of African Americans.
The group asked the city council to make an official public statement denouncing institutionalized racism; reallocate some of the police department’s funding to community services such as educational programs for residents to learn about race and social justice, and health services.
Finally, Valdespino suggested the city create a community review board to investigate complaints and issues pertaining to local police.
Responding to the complaints, Councilwoman Mitchell said police had to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
“It’s a responsibility,” she said. “We hired [the police] to protect our community, and they have to make judgment calls, and sometimes they don’t fit what you expect. And you learn and you adjust for the next time.”
Mayor Billy Bain added that police chief Guzman didn’t know how many people would show up. “I think the police had to be aware of what might’ve happened if the wrong people attended,” he said.
Added Councilman Bob Best: “These cops are on the street as military men. . . They’re there to serve and protect, that’s what they’re supposed to do. There has been progress, but there needs to be much more.”
Of the racist comments on Valdespino’s original post and others that are similar, he said: “Some of the stuff that’s on there is absolutely disgraceful and has no business in the city. You talk about racism, go to this site. I don’t go on it, and I won’t.”