Mood over Miami: racism, and 'a need to listen'

Why did Miami's black community erupt into violence over the weekend in a nighttime rampage of looting, burning, beatings, and killing that by Sunday had left at least nine persons dead and more than 100 injured?

Some of the answers could be found on the streets, where this reporter interviewed people among a very angry crowd of blacks -- mostly in their 20s and 30s -- while the violence was still occurring in some parts of the city. And other answers emerge from talking with black community leaders in the aftermath.

The flashpoint, the trigger behind the violence, is clear -- a "not guilty" verdict. It was handed down Saturday, May 17, by an all-white jury on 13 counts against four white Dade Metropolitan (which includes Miami) police in the death of a black insurance salesman.

The victim, Arthur McDuffie, was apprehended by police after he raced from them for eight minutes on a motorcycle last December. The police were charged with a beating that resulted in his death. They countered that he died as a result of injuries suffered when his motorcycle crashed.

The US Justice Department quickly announced plans to do its own investigation into the possible violation of the victim's civil rights.

Black community leaders were planning meetings Sunday to try to avoid further violence.

The McDuffie issue is not an isolated one.

There have been other incidents here of alleged police brutality, incidents involving black victims and white police. The same issue has festered in many cities across the United States. It was the single most important issue that propelled a black into the mayor's office in Birmingham, Ala., earlier this year. The Justice Department has filed suit against the Philadelphia police department, alleging a widespread pattern of police brutality there. And Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti says similar probes are forthcoming in a number of other cities.

Here in Miami, the Rev. Winston Rudolph told the Monitor after the violence was apparently winding down, "the issue is politics and justice." Many blacks, he said, have lost faith in a court system that they feel in dominated by conservative, sometimes racist, politics.

And blacks here feel hard pressed to find jobs and low-income housing, due partially to the influx in past years of many Cubans.

What is needed now, said Mr. Rudolph, is "a sitting down between blacks and whites. There has to be some listening on both sides."

It was in an attempt to do some firsthand listening that this reporter entered a black neighborhood just before midnight Saturday to interview persons who had been out on the streets protesting.

Accompanied by Al, a black man I had met on a street a few minutes earlier, I drove up to a corner where about a dozen blacks were standing about.

I must admit I hesitated getting out of the car, especially after someone shouted, "Hey, here's a reporter," and the crowd surged toward my car. (Several newsmen were injured in the weekend violence.)

But what the blacks wanted most was for someone to listen to them. For the next 30 minutes the crowd, including one man with a long wooden club resting on his shoulder, explained their views and concerns in emphatic, sincere terms.

"We are not for violence," a woman said. "But if it takes violence, we'll do it." Jay, who did not offer his last name, said the problem is one of brutality by white police against blacks, Latins, and even whites.

"They [whites] do not understand us, so they try to destroy us," said one tall man in a white shirt, jabbing a finger in the air as he talked. He was so visably frustrated he could not talk without shouting.

"We're not gonna wait no more," he said."You've got a nation built on racism. Attitude, attitude . . . print that," he demanded. "Everybody's gonna have to make an about-face."

The man with the club approached: "I told you like it was," he said, then turned and walked away.The rest of the crowd moved on, too, assembling for another march, shouting in the warm night, angry, frustrated.

The violence "could happen again" if things are not improved, warns the Rev. Mr. Rudolph.

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