In Common

A city and people without a public square. A movement with no space for moving. “In the end they left us with nothing but the ultimate act of freedom: trespassing.”

Daniel Rivero

Those days, when Miami was young and Gianni’s blood had just dried on the steps of the Versace Mansion, the days were long and the days were hot. Our young faces would not burn in the sun and the sweat on our backs was not enough to weigh us down. The city opened itself to us like a mouth waiting on a sacrament, a treasure to be mined from the imported sand that covered the beaches.


Our prospecting tool of choice that summer was a battered October 1997 issue of Transworld Skateboarding that featured a tour of the city. So many times had I thumbed through the pages that the names of the spots were branded into my head: The Jewish Rails, the Freedom Tower, the Cutler Ridge Library and the fact that everything south of it was “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” After years spent on family visits to Little Havana, we retained the cred that we had, in fact, been in town the day Hurricane Andrew weed-whacked its way through the city. But in truth the place was still a mystery to my twelve-year-old consciousness. That summer of 1998 we made the move permanent, and my brother and I, at first without a friend outside of our cousins, rumbled over the sidewalks to see what it was all about.


That June we packed up our two family cars and drove 1,000 miles south of our stomping grounds just outside of Washington, D.C., a place that would set the bar of expectations for how a good life should be lived. Our home backed up to a sprawling forest that provided the room we needed as children to roam and feel free, outside of observation and left entirely to ourselves. If you hopped the creek from the trail that started just beyond our property line, you would meet another trail that took you to Lake Accotink, where we fished, or you could connect to another trail that led past the backyard of a friend’s house and to our elementary school without crossing a single road. We spent an entire summer in those woods with shovels and tools in a remote area we claimed, building a BMX course hidden from the adults, hidden from police, hidden from our parents. At the same time this house was a short trek from the Franconia station, the furthest reach of the D.C. Metro system’s Blue Line. Unsupervised, we took the train into the city to visit museums, and later with our skateboards, to visit Pulaski Park, the plazas near the National Archives and Federal Reserve and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library plaza near Chinatown.


Quickly we realized that in Miami there would be no such distinctions between free zones and the city. Skateboarding is an artform that masquerades as athleticism. As skateboarders we longed for the concrete, the quirks of urban architecture that would provide the blank canvas upon which we could paint. But the concrete sucked up the heat from the sun and surrounded us in every direction without end. Lawless, wild areas were not to be found. There was not the faintest concept of a public plaza. In their place we confronted chain link fences and Wackenhut security guards. If we wanted a sense of freedom, we would have to study the transit maps and take it for ourselves.


We trespassed beautifully, in the open and discreetly. With our skateboards we trespassed in church courtyards. We trespassed in courthouses, hospitals, on the front steps of irritated households. We trespassed in malls and snuck onto the roofs of public schools. We strode into abandoned stadiums, frequented homes under construction and Cold War-era missile testing sites on federal lands in the Everglades. We trespassed in public parks while staff informed us we were not welcome because of our skateboards. We waited for the turbaned security guard in the golf cart to drive away so we could sneak right back in and do it again.

The crown jewel of our dominion was the University of Miami. The lush landscaping doubled as protection from the sun and as a hiding place when the cops gave chase. For hours we wandered the halls lined with tiny wooden benches and green-dyed, smooth granite floors, and we took breaks in a manicured sinkhole of exposed limestone, crawling out to take naps on the fresh cut grass. On weekends we snuck into school concerts that were only meant for students, and I can remember the rush of jumping the fence to the campus pool at midnight to take a leap off the high-board, then running barefoot, pants in hand, back to my brother’s car before the cops responded to the silent alarm.

The cops detested us skateboarders, the ones who would not take “no” for an answer, the ones who saw things so clearly it pained them to realize they had crossed the threshold and could never come back. One day a Coral Gables cop severely beat our friend Justin when he was stopped at the school for trespassing, and even in my young mind I understood perfectly what happened when my aunt handed a raw videotape of the beating to the police department, a tape that was mistakenly “lost” in evidence. We trespassed so much at the University of Miami that on occasions when hiding in the bushes from police didn’t do the trick, the cops threatened to steal our skateboards next time, and wrote up citations that claimed we were banned for life. One officer did not get the memo, and when he caught us trespassing he demanded to call my mother to inform her of my delinquency, not realizing it was April 1st, and from a payphone on the other side of US1 I called her and screamed “April Fools” and she cursed me.

I tell you all of this because we were young but we understood the thing fully. In the State of Florida if you go back far enough on the legal deed for property, you will find that the land was originally deeded to the King of Spain. This was stolen land, a fictitious legal claim to property, but after all what is the law but a dubious fairy tale for rational, domineering people? And what did the rational conquerors do with the legal right to the land but splice it, dice it, sell it off to the highest bidder who in turn did the same, and in the end they left us with nothing but fences, private security guards and locked doors. In the end they left us with nothing but the ultimate act of freedom: trespassing.


For a city that likes to think of itself as global in character, Miami is lacking. There is no Union Square of New York City or San Francisco, no Boston Common, no Grant Park of Chicago. Not a glimpse of the plazas and squares that seem to lurk on every other corner of Europe and Latin America, no Zócalo of Mexico City, no Tahrir Square of Cairo, no Gezi Park of Istanbul, a place for which the citizens went to war with the government to protect it from development in 2013, a war the people won.

The parks are nominally owned by the public, but even these are highly regulated and policed. The City of Miami charter requires all parks to be closed at sunset, and bands of city officials chain the doors shut each evening. Lights are placed throughout the park system at considerable cost for the purpose of surveilling the homeless population, should they get the radical notion that they have a right to public land after official hours. Even within the confines of the nine-to-five day, the restrictions are oppressive and counterintuitive; in the cultural capital of the state that brands itself as the “Fishing Capital of the World,” it is illegal to fish in city parks.

In 1999 the county government leased publicly owned land to the Miami Heat and promised to build a public waterside park behind the new arena, a promise that has still not been fulfilled. The publicly owned municipal golf course — one of the largest albeit imperfect green spaces in the city — is in the process of being given over to developers in a 99-year lease. Signals coming from city hall indicate Virginia Key, the single largest green space in city limits, could be next, while University of Miami football boosters mount a campaign to convert the massive and suburban Tropical Park into a complex featuring a sports stadium and hotels.

Miami is nothing if not a frenzy of development, a glossy sales pitch of the American dream and progress. Yet even good dreams have their losers, and the loser is us, the people. It’s no wonder some of the last words publicly uttered by late Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, who in many ways conceived the modern city, were those of regret, that he handed too much of Miami away.

It’s hard to imagine things playing out another way in a state that has no income tax, in a city that strives to live up to its upscale marketing. The principal way local governments in Florida make money is through property taxes, but publicly owned land does not generate the needed tax revenues. The obvious answer is to sell or lease off the public land, in order to increase those tax revenues; increasing revenues, after all, is the unstated objective of all government.

In a city with no spaces to gather, communal events are a curious thing. When the Marlins or the Heat win a championship, crowds stream onto the streets and the police sanction the behavior. For years, whenever rumors of Fidel Castro’s death spun their way through the city, it was not uncommon for Calle Ocho to simply shut down by popular demand. When those rumors came true in 2016, city and police officials blessed the outpouring of emotion by closing off entire streets in broad sections of town for spontaneous gatherings.

But sanctioning this kind of communal event is ultimately a political decision. When the government itself is being protested there are no such courtesies. Anti-free trade protests in 2003 saw hundreds of protesters arrested, many of them preemptively; the city paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle the resulting lawsuits. The heavy-handed police response to the 10,000 protesters created what came to be known as the “Miami Model” of policing protests, an approach that radicalized many who witnessed it firsthand. To support the vision, the city passed a temporary ordinance making it illegal for seven or more people to gather in public. At its core the Miami Model essentially criminalizes freedom of speech in certain areas and unleashes state violence upon those who have other ideas. All the more easier to do when people have no place where they affirmatively have a right to be. For the police and the city, the 2003 experiment was a success because no property was damaged, despite the fact that virtually all criminal charges against protesters were later dropped. The victim, in the end, was our right to voice dissent.

Years later, during the historic nationwide protests following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, protesters once more took to the streets, blocking major roads and bringing traffic to a standstill on I-95. More than 40 protesters were arrested amid a few cases of property damage; again, most later had their criminal charges dropped. The state government responded to the blocked roads by making it a felony to block roads during a protest. If publicly owned streets were an escape valve for protest in a city designed to minimize public space, the escape valve has now been criminalized. Without space, we are pushed into the realm of trespass, among newer, more creative crimes that have been invented by, and are enforced at the discretion of, the government.


But discretion is a curious thing. Few were surprised when local governments cordoned off roads for solidarity protests that emerged when Cuba saw unprecedented anti-government protests in the summer of 2021. Authorities turned a blind eye to blocked highways, a double standard broadcast by helicopter-mounted cameras. The blatant felony violations were never pursued. The target of those protests was acceptable — it aimed at an authoritarian communist government abroad, not at city hall, not at the White House, or god forbid, not at the police headquarters.

In the most basic sense, freedom is the ability to tell the government “fuck you” on your own terms. The state’s own scheme to keep the upper hand in the power dynamics is the farce of requiring protesters to get permits that regulate how, where and at what time dissidents can openly speak their minds. To force protesters to pay permit fees so police can provide “security” amounts to lining the pockets of the very people you mean to protest. If the crowds are saying “fuck you” to the cops, the cops in turn are saying right back: “fuck you, pay me.” Don’t pay them and the police could well show up anyways and throw you in jail.

When we protest in Miami, it is without a home base, a place for the people to call their own. We are at the mercy of politics and entrenched political structures in a city that is shrinking around us. The inevitable meeting place for routine protests is a slab of concrete in front of some public monument or another. Many times it’s the slip of sidewalk in front of the Freedom Tower, or a few blocks away on the strip of sidewalk in front of the Torch of Friendship. The Torch sits in the shadow of Bayside Marketplace, itself a commercial giveaway on land that was once the civic center of the city. The main library used to sit on the bay nearby, adjoined to Bayfront Park, a place once known as “Miami’s Front Porch” used for political rallies and picnics. Now, the only chance protesters have of using that same space would require thousands of dollars in permits, while Bayfront Park is regularly fenced off and closed for months at a time when it is rented to music festivals. The money talks.

The sum total of this is the sight that befell us the moment the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal abortion rights in the summer of 2022. Lacking anywhere else to go, the county mayor and protesters gathered on a slab of sidewalk in front of a Wynwood parking garage. Protesters marched along narrow sidewalks, trying their best to be heard and be seen, but not to overstep the bounds of acceptable political protest in a hostile urban environment. There can be no movement if there is no space to move.


The year 2006 is as foggy in my mind as a hotboxed car but I remember the day perfectly. We were sitting on a fast food stained couch in Tallahassee where I was visiting friends. We were unsure of what to do with ourselves. Outside the insects buzzed in the way they do in Southern woods, a cacophonous noise you learn to treat as silence. In past visits, we had done some mountain biking on rickety old childhood bikes, our knees clanking against the handlebars on sharp turns. We would go on a bike ride, we decided. This time not too far from the house.

As we did before every activity in those careless college days, the Dutchmaster cigar was split and gutted, the herb broken apart, and sticky fingers rolled the blunt. Only a few rolling hills stood between us and Lake Jackson, and the battered bikes cracked and popped through the gears as we trotted them there.

When you go to a lake you have never been to before, a lot is left up to the imagination about what you will find. Generally, you expect to find water. This was my rough feeling as we pulled up to what looked like a giant crater in the earth, set in a landscape that looked more like jagged terrain of the Rocky Mountains than the customary soft Florida hills. The water was gone. The shores of what had once been the lake were a sandy loam mixed with layers of deposited sediment. Pockets of grass sprouted here and there, and we took the nascent lawn as an invitation to continue forward. The voice of my friend repeated “what the fuck” behind me as we coasted down the soft slope towards the bottom, a place that roared before us before we could set our eyes on the beast.


On the edge of a cliff we hopped off the bikes and peered into the soul of the earth. A giant gash had opened up at the bottom of the lake, a sinkhole, and into it the remaining water rushed in violent, raucous rapids. It looked like the stream flowed straight into Hades. I imagined riding a kayak through the rapids and being swallowed whole by the planet itself. The world opened its mouth to us, and what we saw in the back of its throat was a blackness that knew no limits. We were transfixed. We smoked the blunt, feet dangling off the cliff as we stared down at the scene in wonder. The theme of the conversation: “What the hell is this?”

We were unaware of it at the time, but Lake Jackson had a long history of mysteriously and spontaneously draining itself into the Florida Aquifer, before changing its mind and reemerging from the depths shortly afterwards. Since 1900, scientists have observed the phenomenon at least eleven different times. For our purposes the most important of these events happened when the lake pulled its disappearance act in 1909, an event that would change the very ground we sat upon.

Back in 1825, just four years after the United States pushed out Spain, and Florida became a territory, a man named James Dickerson bought land on the shores of Lake Jackson from the federal government. The original surveys of his purchase jutted out into the lake but had no particular endpoint. Under typical North American property law, this meant that Dickerson owned the land up to the “high water mark” of the lake, the high point of water during the regular ebbs and flows of the ecosystem. The quirk of the thing is that, since the lake would disappear every ten years or so, Dickerson’s descendants wanted to extend their claim. Since no outer boundary was drawn, they claimed to own the land at the bottom of the lake from within the staked boundaries.

In years when the water level went down, local residents planted corn on the fertile soil next to the shoreline. Cattle grazed in the grasses that we walked upon nearly a century later. At some point the water would fill back up, and for a long time the issue of ownership was never an issue at all. But when the descendants of the Dickerson family began to press it, an absurd kind of land boom seized the community: whoever claimed ownership of the lake bottom could put up fences, draw lines, leverage the extra square footage to take out a loan from a bank, perhaps shoot a trespasser.

The issue came before the Florida Supreme Court and the justices were tasked with an existential question: who owned the lake bottom? The Dickersons, the locals, or all of us? Under Florida law, rivers and lakes that are navigable by boat are considered “sovereign” properties of the state. These properties are collectively owned on behalf of the residents, for public use and public benefit. Any sale of the land beneath a lake, river or beach would need to pass the strictest scrutiny imaginable, and it would have to be firmly in the public interest, not a private interest. It virtually never happens.

The Florida Supreme Court looked at the facts of the case and read reports about Lake Jackson. Yes, it was an extremely shallow lake, except for a few deep spots. But the waters were collectively used by fishermen; cattle waded from one side to the other along a known safe route; and more importantly, residents used the shallow lake for transportation aboard small skiffs. The court concluded: “The fact that the lake goes dry is unimportant if in its ordinary state it is in fact navigable.” Much to the Dickersons’ disappointment, the decision held that since Lake Jackson was a navigable lake, the rights to the land beneath it were “in common with the public.” No city or county parks department owned the uncovered terrain, no federal bureaucratic agency “managed” access to it. The land is simply ours, free and clear. As such, the claim that the government had sold the land off to a settler in 1825 was nonsense. The court ruled that the government would have had no right to sell it in the first place.


As we stared down into the abyss of what used to be and would someday again become Lake Jackson, my friend and I sat on the edge of a revolutionary idea: we owned the land we trotted upon as a birthright, a land so precious and sacred to our collective society that not even the government could sell or gift it away. For a fleeting moment, we recovered a commons.


The sun has not set yet but the drumming has started and the police are in place. Two nondescript blobs of dark uniform, eyes hidden behind shades. The men lean on the golf cart and watch the crowds arrive from every direction as they wait for the full moon to rise, moments after the sun is scheduled to disappear. Since time immemorial in Miami, this has been the ritual: the people gather every full moon to throw a party on the sand, and the cops come to shut it down. The City of Miami Beach has refused to accommodate this gathering, and every month some version of the same scene repeats itself.

Circles of friends spread across the sand, some pass cups of maté between them, others cups of wine. The smell is a pervasive odor of marijuana and palo santo, with hints of sunscreen from those who came to swim and then decided to stick around for the drum circle, the main attraction. A pair of teenage girls pretend to make out and laugh after the trick picture has been taken. Children do cartwheels in the center of the largest circle of drums, surrounded by bongos, timbales, maracas and tambourines. The band has no leader, and it has many leaders. The timbalero looks the others in the eyes, they let off a series of grunts between them and the rhythm changes. The men smile wide. A crowd has taken over the pastel orange and purple lifeguard tower, their legs dangling through the wooden railing as party lights flash across their faces.


A new friend hands me a bottle of rum, no cup, no chaser. I take a swig and without noticing it at first, begin to bang the beat of the drums on my knees. The butter yellow moon makes its first appearance over the horizon. The two cops turn on the golf cart lights and roll past the crowd, no one paying them mind. We are breaking the law. Officers park the golf cart on the far corner of the party and a one-legged man with dreadlocks lights up a joint and hops towards the lifeguard house, towards his friends.


Women in bikinis are in a trance. We are in a trance. There is order here, but on its own terms. Behind us is a nature preserve of grass meant to save the beach sand from erosion; people respect the boundary even as they pee into it from the perimeter.


For lack of better infrastructure, this is our public square. We own it by right, precisely because no one owns it in particular.


The right to own has a symbiotic relationship with the right to exclude. The right to exclude and declare trespass, likewise, has a symbiotic relationship with the legal fictions that have over time become matters of common sense: the right to erect barricades, put up fences, draw lines in the sand. The beach is the physical place where these accepted fictions look themselves in the mirror and find confrontation. Our presence on this contested ground is a threat to the status quo. If we have taken the beach, we might look further inland and get ideas.


In recent years this common oasis has come under threat. A 2018 Florida law allowed beaches in vast swaths of Walton County in North Florida to be effectively privatized, reversing more than a century of “customary” usage of the beaches by the public. Instead of a presumption that the public has a right to access the beach, the law opened the door for each owner of beachfront property to be able to claim an exemption from “customary” usage. Owners of beachfront properties in North Florida, Sarasota and other places have begun posting “No Trespassing” signs on the sand, fencing off property lines and calling police on beachgoers. Technically the public still owns and has a right to access the beach below the “mean high water line,” but legions of private security guards and uninformed police that see protecting private property as the highest good make exercising this right a risky proposition. The implications of this change are enormous: about 60 percent of the state’s coastline is privately owned. If left unchecked, areas with beachfront private homes and condos will over time squeeze us out of our birthright by blocking public pathways to the sand. A few miles north of tonight’s drum circle, the entirety of the beach in the wealthy town of Golden Beach had essentially been privatized when homeowners did exactly that, even before the 2018 law went into effect. There is a “public” park that has beach access, but in order to use it you have to show proof that you live in the town. “No Trespassing” signs abound.


The tricky thing with drawing a firm line between public and private property on a beachfront is the obvious: the coastline is forever being reshaped by nature. But with sea-level rise, nature is actually on our side. The hurricanes, in a sense, are on our side. When the federal government releases its new estimates on exactly where the “mean high water line” is for the entire coastal U.S. in 2025, it’s all but certain private beachfront properties will shrink and public beaches will expand. In the face of this natural threat to their investments, those who claim ownership of public beaches seek to redraw “customary” rights in their own favor.


The sand that plays host to our drum circle is in fact publicly owned, but that alone cannot save us from the police. As we wait for the guillotine to drop, the crowd revels in an act of jubilant resistance. Some occupiers of the lifeguard hut have now reached the roof, from which they launch pink and green roman candles into the dark sky. We whoop, laugh and ingest the scene, spinning 360 degrees. Gray-haired hippies with tie-dye shirts, children roaming freely, college students chatting on blankets as first dates test the dark waters, brushing skin against skin to see where it might lead.


At 10:11pm an officer throws on the sirens and flips the lights on a police truck. The beat of the drums picks up pace, driving towards a crescendo as applause overpowers the wail of the siren. The truck parks close to the circle as another one appears further down the sand. Someone tosses something I can’t quite make out in the direction of the cops. A contingent of people immediately flee the circle and the music stops. From the red and blue-tinted darkness I hear a cry of “We ain’t going nowhere!” The anonymous officer in the first truck shines a light on the guardhouse. “Let’s go!” he shouts.


Those of us who have been here before know the principal limitation of the officers is numeric: they are far outnumbered. We scatter across the sands in every direction. A group of girls take off their tops and swim into the black water, laughing and hugging in the waves just off shore. An officer, walking now, shines his flashlight on them. “Hey you guys in the water gotta get out. Pa’ fuera!”

The police are outnumbered but their speakers are loud enough to interrupt. Four vehicles search the sand and an officer announces through a loudspeaker “This is the final warning” for at least the fifth time. As if on cue, black figures in the darkness begin to flock north, away from the lights and the noise.


As soon as we get far enough to escape the ring of the sirens, another sound fills the void. A distant thump thump draws us closer, only this time there’s a DJ with speakers leading the pack. The crowd arrives at the new location one by one, carrying drums and blankets. Within a few minutes a circle has re-formed, playing this time along to a Brazilian electro samba beat.


Highlighting the fact that all the legal lines of division — of ownership — ultimately derive from fiction, the crowd has collectively made an ingenious decision. By shifting the party a few blocks north, we have left the city of Miami Beach and entered the city of Surfside. The fiction works in our favor; we are now another police department’s problem. A Miami Beach police truck drives to the line that divides the two cities, and outside steps an officer on a reconnaissance mission as his buddies continue to clear out the original site. As he watches us from the other side of the invisible line, the deep vibrations dance through the moonlit breeze in every direction, blending with the roar of the waves and the smoke from the blunts, and we look back at him knowing he can hear every note, and that deep down, he understands exactly what we are saying.

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