Artists and activists stage pro-Palestinian protest in front of Art Basel Miami Beach

A group of local artists gathered at Art Basel Miami Beach Friday afternoon. They weren’t there to sell art.

Outside the art fair, the group unfurled a massive banner: “Let Palestine Live.”

About 100 people rallied in front of the Miami Beach Convention Center waving Palestinian flags and holding signs that read “Divest from death” to call for a permanent ceasefire in the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

The artists who organized the protest condemned Israel’s bombardment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and criticized Miami-Dade County government for investing $76 million in Israeli bonds. Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and kidnapping 240. In response, Israel has repeatedly bombed Gaza and recently invaded the area. Over 17,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed as international aid agencies warn of a worsening humanitarian disaster, Reuters reported.

Local artists protest against the war in Gaza outside of Art Basel Miami Beach.
Local artists protest against the war in Gaza outside of Art Basel Miami Beach.

Monica Uszerowicz, a local arts writer, artist and protest organizer, said the art world should reckon with its silence around global socio-political issues. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, “displacement and genocide are very deep issues to me,” she said.

“It felt really important to us, especially as local artists who are part of this community and represent it, to be vocal about our values, which is human life,” Uszerowicz said.

Jewish Voice for Peace South Florida, a local branch of a Jewish-led organization that advocates for Palestinian rights, and South Florida Coalition for Palestine, a coalition of local groups, were also in attendance.

At the same time, a group of 120 pilots on either side of the convention center protested against NetJets, a private jet charter company, for better pay and working conditions, said pilot union president Pedro Leroux. Pilots dressed in uniform held signs that read “Overworked. Underpaid.”

Netjets pilots picketing for better contracts in front of Art Basel Miami Beach.
Netjets pilots picketing for better contracts in front of Art Basel Miami Beach.

While the pro-Palestinian protest itself was non-violent, there were some tense moments between Miami Beach police and demonstrators.

Police arrested two protesters and charged one with resisting without violence and the other with resisting without violence and disorderly conduct, said Officer Christopher Bess. A video of the arrests taken by another protester show a young male demonstrator exchanging words with an officer who then immediately grabbed him. Several officers pushed him and a young woman against the building and arrested them.

Miami Beach Police keeping pro-Palestine protesters away from the Miami Beach Convention Center doors at a protest during Art Basel.
Miami Beach Police keeping pro-Palestine protesters away from the Miami Beach Convention Center doors at a protest during Art Basel.

Alan Levine, a civil rights attorney and JVP member, said the demonstrators who were arrested were 17 and 20.

“This has been an incredibly peaceful demonstration, and they’ve been incredibly cooperative with police,” Levine said. “Police were giving people a hard time without provocation.”

Heated arguments broke out as some passersby approached demonstrators. One woman filmed demonstrators on her phone and told them to, “Take it up with Hamas.” Another man yelled that the protesters were not Jewish and were “spreading terror.” Another man yelled “asesinos” at the group. Another quickly walked past the group and said, “Get a f----- life.” Some demonstrators yelled back and gave critics the middle finger. Other demonstrators did not engage.

Michael Firestone, 84, didn’t mind the protest at all. “I’m down with it,” he said.

Firestone, who is Jewish, lives in Canada but visits Miami in the winter. He said he was happy to see young people protesting because “a protest like this couldn’t have ever happened in my time.” He’s hopeful for a positive outcome for both Israelis and Palestinians, he said.

“I see what’s happening now, and I’m embarrassed for my heritage,” he said. “A Jew is different from a Zionist.”

Kris Z., who was visiting Miami from New York, saw the protest happening as she left the convention center. Kris, who declined to give her last name, said it was interesting to see two different protests outside of the same event. She said she was supportive of both groups of protesters and noted that police and passersby appeared to treat the pilot demonstrators with more deference than the pro-Palestinian group.

Pro-Palestine protesters outside of Art Basel Miami Beach.
Pro-Palestine protesters outside of Art Basel Miami Beach.

“When you’re at an art event, the personal is political,” she said. “Life is real. It’s happening constantly. It’s not going to take a break for an art fair.”

Kristen Soller, a local artist and protest organizer, said she has been extremely concerned about the number of casualties in Gaza. Art should not be depoliticized, and artists should not “let it be business as usual,” she said. Along with a ceasefire, Soller said she hopes for more humanitarian aid to be allowed into Gaza.

“Art is a reflection of our time. Artists are on the pulse of life. This affects us all,” Soller said. “We want the violence to end.”

Demonstrators voices boomed down Convention Center Drive as they chanted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “Ceasefire now.” During the protest, a demonstrator read a list of names of Palestinians who have been killed, followed by a short prayer in Arabic: “May God protect them.”

Among the individuals who spoke during the demonstration was Mar Sublaban, a Palestinian-American interdisciplinary artist born and raised in Miami. Lately, Sublaban said she has been worried about her family members who live in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

“Right now is the best time to do this,” Sublaban said. “All eyes are on Miami for Art Week.”

Sublaban said it feels great to be seen and heard. Artists have an important role to play in society, especially in difficult times, she said.

“In newspaper articles, you’re reading about numbers. It’s sterile. It’s cold and unfeeling,” she said. “But artists show you the truth of it, the emotions behind it, the soul behind human beings.”

During the protest, Sublaban read a poem she wrote:

“My people have loved and loved and loved again; For hundreds of years to have me stand where I am now. So I will love and love and love again; Against those who only aim to dim this light of love.”

This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.