Miami rioting again raises issues of police conduct, persistent poverty

The rioting in a black Miami community Tuesday evening, less than two years after 18 persons were killed in riots in another black neighborhood there, has once again raised the issues of police conduct and persistent poverty.

As after the 1980 riots in the Miami's Liberty City area, several black leaders have said these issues are not limited to Miami.

''I think it is an isolated incident that could have occurred anywhere in the USA,'' said Robert Simms, executive director of the Dade County Community Relations Board (which includes Miami), after Tuesday's riot.

Sometimes conflicting assessments gathered in Monitor interviews after Tuesday riots in the Overtown section, which left at least one person dead and eight injured, indicate that the flash point was the shooting by a police officer of a young man in a game room.

But while police call the shooting an accident in which the young man was said to be armed and made a sudden move, Mr. Simms told the Monitor his investigators have located four persons who contend the young man was not armed.

Police-community relations are also a key element in the neighborhood. Some people praise the police; others criticize them strongly.

''The police overreact,'' says Sidney Cox, whose drugstore in Overtown is not far from the game room where the shooting occurred. ''They (police) feel like they are czars,'' he contends. Police should show ''a little more respect'' for people, he adds.

Dr. Cox, who is also president of the United Merchants Organization in the community, says he has helped sponsor dances for youth in the local park. Hundreds participated peacefully, he says, convincing him youth can be orderly. The game room, he says, was one of the few places for youth to be involved in legitimate activities in the evening.

But police maintain they must be on guard in high crime areas. A former US attorney in Miami, Atlee Wampler III, says his impression is that police and community relations have improved since the 1980 riots. He has heard this not only from police sources but from citizen groups, he says.

The poverty of the Overtown area is an issue. Unemployment in the 1.4 -square-mile community is now running between 40 to 65 percent among black teen-agers and about 30 percent among black adult males, says Joe Wilson, executive director of the Overtown Economic Development Corporation.

Overtown, he says, is close to wealthy parts of downtown Miami. But it is not a part of the city's wealth. The area sorely needs more jobs, better housing, and better school facilities and equipment, says Mr. Wilson.

There are some signs of progress. A shopping center is being constructed not far from the scene of the latest rioting. Community organizer Jackie Bell says she is aware of at least $10 million worth of private and government investment there in the past eight years, including businesses and redevelopment projects. But, adds Wilson:''There's so much to be done.''

No one knows just why several hundred blacks swarmed into the streets, looting stores, apparently firing guns and starting fires after word of the police shooting of the youth spread. Miss Bell speculates that it was a misdirected urge for ''excitement.'' Most residents, as in the Liberty City riots of 1980, did not take to the streets.

In the 1980 riots, which also involved Overtown, this reporter interviewed a group of blacks there during the first night of rioting. They expressed outrage over the acquittal of several white police officers in the beating death of a black man in Miami after a high-speed chase. That sense of anger against the police ''hasn't changed,'' says Community Relations Board director Simms.

''A lot of fine things have happened'' since then, he says. But the basic issue of extreme poverty ''surrounded by wealth'' remains, he adds.

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