Black leaders work quietly to defuse racial tensions in Miami

In this palm tree-lined city with its abundance of ethnic restaurants, a port busy with cruise and cargo ships, and tourists from all over the world, a behind-the-scenes effort is under way to keep things peaceful.

What has community leaders worried is a sad story, still unfolding, that involves a popular young man and a police officer with little experience. They met, briefly and tragically, on Dec. 28, 1982, in a video-game room in Overtown, a predominantly black section of the city.

The Hispanic officer was called to the game room for some kind of disturbance. He approached the black youth and put a gun to his head. Attorneys for the officer, in a trial that may end this week, claim the officer's gun went off as the youth moved for a gun tucked in his clothing. This version is disputed by others.

Since 1980, five blacks here have been killed by police. There has been only one conviction in the resulting trials. But something else also concerns black and some other community leaders: Blacks have been repeatedly excluded as jurors in the trials. Blacks are one of the three main ethnic groups in Miami, along with Hispanic and whites.

The deaths, and the repeated omission of any black jurors, have led to a widespread perception in the black community here that justice is lacking. It is this perception that community leaders are responding to now - in the event another not-guilty verdict is handed down in this latest case.

Riots have occurred in black neighborhoods here in 1980 and '82, tied to police killings of blacks. In the May 1980 riot, 18 people were killed and poor black communities became poorer as many businesses were burned and never reopened.

White, black, and Hispanic officials and some grass-roots community leaders are calling for calm regardless of the verdict. And some are seeking state legislation to curb the use of the preemptory (or unexplained) challenges attorneys have used to exclude blacks from juries.

''I think we have a good chance of getting by without a disturbance,'' says Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh, chairman of the Dade County Community Relations Board. (Dade County includes Miami.)

But, he says, ''the systematic exclusion of blacks from the juries has happened too often. That's the biggest single issue. It's difficult to perceive that justice is being done.''

It is important to get young blacks and others to see that they have a stake in their neighborhood's well being, says George Ellis, a black local school official.

''The community must offer hope to people in this area - not for caviar and champagne, but for collard greens and cornbread,'' he says. ''Riots occur whenever people feel they are not a part and don't share in the decisionmaking process.''

Mr. Ellis sees little evidence that blacks resent Cuban-Americans here, despite the trial. But, he says, relations between the two groups could be improved by more contact. He suggests such simple things as ''playing checkers together, 'rapping' (talking) at the bus stop.''

Last week, community leaders held a breakfast meeting in a black neighborhood to discuss how to keep the calm. Across the street from the site is a two-story housing project for low-income families. William Mosley and two friends are walking through a courtyard where laundry, hung up to dry, is flapping in the wind.

How does he perceive the shooting in the video game room? ''That's murder,'' he says. ''It was a racial thing.'' What about the jury with no blacks? That ''can't be fair,'' he says.

And having been arrested himself at gunpoint, Mr. Mosley says he doubts the youth would have made any sudden move toward a gun - if he even had one. ''I didn't even breathe hard,'' he says of the time he was stopped at gunpoint by police.

Underlying the issues of jury selection and the deaths themselves is a continuing crisis in the black neighborhoods here: high joblessness, severe poverty, overcrowded apartments, drug abuse, and a widespread feeling among the citizens of not having a voice in what happens to them or their community.

Yet there has been some economic progress in the past several years - improved streets and sewers, construction of new public facilities, and new and renovated housing, according to Ellis. And there are people who, despite challenges, have obtained higher education and launched into various careers. Another riot would stall further progress, community leaders here say.

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