More from Year of Dangerous Days, Chapters 19 and 20 (quotes are directly from the book, as is the storyline that we worked from).Saturday May 17, 1980, the 138th day of the new decade, dawned warm and clear. A typical Miami spring day. The heat of summer was looming. In Tampa, all of the police officers who killed Arthur McDuffie were acquitted in the early afternoon. As the unexpectedly early verdicts were being announced, the chiefs of the PSD (now Metro Dade PD) and City of Miami were standing with Janet Reno in African Square Park in Liberty City for a community event. At 2:30 pm beepers started going off. People went to pay phones and word began to spread- every cop on trial had been acquitted. There would be no justice for Arthur McDuffie. Six white jurors in Tampa had acquitted all the officers in just a few hours after a six-week trial- or in the words of Miami Herald reporter Joe Oglesby “in the time it took to eat supper.”
Reno got a terse message from George Yoss “No dice. Sorry Boss.”
Police officers evacuated Janet Reno as the brass made plans to mobilize. Black radio stations stopped the music as outraged DJs began to discuss the verdict. Bruce Springsteen sings “you can’t start a fire without a spark” in Dancing in the Dark. Dusk was falling on Miami. It would soon be dark, in more ways than the night.
Three Herald photographers were attacked in their car in Overtown blocks from the Herald Building on Biscayne Bay. The windows were shot out; the vehicle dented by concrete blocks and rocks. The Herald chief of security ran to a nearby supermarket and bought gallons of cooking oil to pour down the slope leading to the building to slow down a mob. On 62nd street, Michael Kulp a teenager and his brother Jeffrey were pulled from their car and beaten to death by a mob. Then shot. Then stabbed. Then repeatedly run over by a car as young black children watched.
Police cars on the streets were randomly shot at. Three thousand people- almost all black, marched towards the PSD headquarters (which is now the PDs building -how many of you 30 something judges knew that?) shouting “Justice Justice Justice”. Gunshots rang out. The crowd’s blood was up. Althea Range- Miami’s first black city commissioner, holding a bullhorn and shouting to keep the peace could not be heard, or was ignored: “She looked as slight as a sparrow in a storm.”
Rocks came through the windows of the HQ, “bullets snapped against the walls” and the lobby was breached despite the efforts of George Knox, the City of Miami's first Black City Attorney. PSD officer Lonnie Lawrence, born and raised in Miami, raced to the lobby and confronted the mob: “Brothers and sisters do not come into this building…or a lot of you will be dead…there are a lot of people armed and ready to take people out.” The crowd retreated. But it was not over.
A squad of riot officers arrived at the Justice Building just as the mob arrived. Rocks rained down on the officers from the overpass; cars exploded; Molotov cocktails were thrown; a sniper opened fire on the officers who took refuge behind a police car which then exploded hurling a major and his officers across the street. A SWAT team arrived, and the sniper stopped.
All the police could do was set up perimeters around Liberty City and Overtown. On the same street the Kulp brothers were killed, a 14-, 15- and 21-year-old were pulled from a car and beaten to death with rocks and hammers.
“By daybreak 213 fires had been reported in Liberty City alone.” When firefighters arrived, they were shot at and retreated. At the Norton Tire factory, which was the biggest employer in Liberty City, 100,000 tires burned, casting a thick, black smoke over most of Miami. Close to 500 people were treated in hospitals that night.
Then the violence flipped. White men in a truck shot a black 14-year-old boy in the head as he ran across the street. A black man trying to stop teenagers from throwing rocks at cars was shot in the back and killed by a white man whose windows in his truck were shattered by the rocks.
The civil-race war was on. “PSD received 22,000 calls in 48 hours.” Janet Reno, whose phone number was in the phone book and answered her phone at home, moved her mother out of their house because of the death threats she was receiving.
In one month, May 1980, the boatlift and the McDuffie verdict shattered all that Mayor Fere had spent years building. Miami was no longer the future business and banking center of the Americas; it was a warzone. The National Guard showed up to restore order. The image of the city was not a Cuban Banker giving an Anglo business a loan to build in Overtown. It was the Norton Tire company on fire; dead people in streets, and officers huddling behind cars as they were shot at, while cars slowly drove down the streets with stolen refrigerators and furniture strapped to their roofs.
Calls went out for Janet Reno to resign. As the mayor in Coral Gables was speaking, one of his assistant city attorneys was shot when the police he was riding with stopped to end the looting of a salvation army store. Three men in a car pulling away opened fire. Refugees in the Orange Bowl climbed to the top of the bleachers and watched their new town burn.
“White voters across Florida regarded the burst of immigration, cocaine bloodshed and riots …somehow the fault of Floridians to the south.”
Miami, bloodied, burned, ruptured and bleeding was alone. And it was going to get worse.
Next Up: English Only.