Federal aid to Miami ghetto brings risks, opportunities

The federal government is attempting one of the most concentrated efforts ever to help lift inner-city ghetto residents out of stark poverty following the May race riots in Liberty city that left 18 persons dead and wreaked some $100 million in damage.

It is high-risk undertaking. The massive government assistance runs the risk of raising expectations of people living here and in other ghettos acrosss the country, expectations that may not be fulfilled. But the alternative of a less-than-all-out effort is fraught with even more potential danger.

These assessments are based on the Monitor's firsthand coverage of the riot in May and follow-up interviews in the riot-torn areas with black community leaders and other residents.

While some ghetto residents here undoubtedtly won't seize the new opportunities such aid is intended to provide, there are many more who are anxious to put in hard work to improve their lives. However, the community's self-help efforts to date have been limited, and some programs appear wasted by lack of cooperation among black leaders.

The high-risk, but great opportunity assessment is confirmed by Michael D. Wallach, White House coordinator here for riot revovery assistance.

His role is a first, he says, in federal govvernment response to a race riot. Hit task is "to ensure we're not involved in a knee-jerk reaction."

In other words, he says, the approximately $107 million in federal grants and loans committed to recovery of the riot-torn areas here is aimed at helping the communities make lasting improvements. The main objectives: improved housing, more black-owned businesses, job training for available jobs, and improved law enforcement.

But so far, the black community here is of the opinion that nothing much has happened since the riots other than cleaning up the burned-out buildings.

"From all indications, nothing has gotten here yet," says M. Athalie Range, a former Miami City commissioner who was the first black to hold that post.

She cites "lingering problems" in the criminal justice system and says, "The system is not working."

It was widespread rage among almost the entire black community at the acquittal of white police officers of charges of clubbing to death a black insurance salesman. Arthur McDuffie, that trigged the riot. The verdict followed other controversial cases in which blacks were seen as the victims of alleged police brutality at the hands of white officers.

Some of those cases are under federal review. One officer has been indicted on federal civil rights charges in the McDuffie case. But trial delays are having an "adverse" effect on the black community, Mrs. Range says. And no changes have been made in the frequent exclusion of blacks from juries, she contends.

But some changes have been made. Both the county and Miami police departments have adopted use of civilian review boards to monitor brutality and other charges against police. And both departments are stepping up minority hiring.

According to White House coordinator Wallach, federal assistance to the riot-hit communities here already has been flowing: Nearly 3,000 youths got summer jobs and 150 senior citizens permanent jobs paid for by the federal government; a loan pool has been set up to help black contrators; and some 200 Small Business Administration loans to black businessmen (at 5.5 or 8 percent interest) have been approved totaling some $15 million.

"Ain't nobody seen no money -- not at all," says 22-year-old Johnny Doctor, a resident of Liberty City, the section of Miami hardest hit by the May riots.

Mr. Doctor is married, has a daughter, is nearly broke -- and desperate for a job. He was laid off his last job after 25 days in jail for various driving offenses for which he is now on probation. Now he spends most days pedaling his bicycle built for two ("The Black Goose") to one company after another looking for work.

"I loose my sleep trying to figure out where it [money] is coming from the next day," he says. "I'm gonna find me a job."

But he is frustrated. Unemployment among black youths was close to 50 percent before the riot, according to the county. More blacks lost jobs as a result of riot damage to many stores.

During the riot, Doctor says, he rushed out of his apartment and grabbed a white man from a crowd of black attackers. He got the man into a truck that took him to safety, he says. (Though his particular account could not be verified, there were numerous instances during the riots of blacks saving the lives of threatened whites.)

"I've tried to do it the right way," he says, but it "ain't got me nowhere. And rent time is coming. I can't let my family starve."

Crime rates are high in Liberty City.

It is doubtful that any of the federal, state, county, or city aid just beginning to flow into the riot-hit areas will reach Johnny Docotr soon. But he is just the kind of person at whom the long-range aid programs are aimed.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.