Inside Miami’s Most Chaotic Year

Andrea Marks
·15 min read

Ten days before Christmas 1979, 33-year-old Arthur McDuffie, a Marine and a manager at a life insurance company, had already wrapped presents for his two young daughters, but he never got the chance to deliver them. In the early hours of December 17th, a group of cops beat McDuffie into a coma after a bizarre motorcycle chase through downtown Miami, with one officer cracking McDuffie’s skull with a Kel-Lite flashlight, a witness later testified. McDuffie died in the hospital four days later.

McDuffie’s killing would lead to the worst race riots in Florida’s history, leaving 18 people dead and many more injured. “The New York Times called them probably the worst race riots of the century,” says journalist, novelist, and Miami resident Nicholas Griffin. “We’ve since discovered that riots like Rosewood and Tulsa were probably bigger, but certainly the Miami riots were a total jolt back to the Sixties, if not the Twenties.”

Griffin opens his newest nonfiction book, The Year of Dangerous Days, with the killing of McDuffie, an unarmed black man, as the harbinger of the most turbulent year in the city’s history.

In 1980, America as a whole was far from peaceful. President Jimmy Carter was seeking re-election in the midst of a deep recession; gas prices had doubled over the previous two years; and interest rates had soared to 17 percent. Overseas, American hostages were being held at the embassy in Tehran, and the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan.

Miami, meanwhile, was under the leadership of its first Latino mayor, Maurice Ferré, but three distinct crises converged within months of one other, threatening to derail Ferré’s plans for progress: an influx of money and violence from the burgeoning cocaine trade, a mass immigration of Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s control, and civil unrest and demands for racial justice after the officers who killed McDuffie were acquitted. Many residents blamed Janet Reno, the state’s attorney general at the time, for the verdict, and for a failure to bring charges against other police officers who’d harmed black people in South Florida.

After five years of interviewing Miamians and poring over microfiche, Griffin released The Year of Dangerous Days over the summer. In it, he examines the relationships between the disastrous events that would challenge and eventually shape the direction of the city’s future in good ways — as the U.S. business capital of Latin America — and bad — as a racially segregated metropolis where the black community’s suffering continues. The investigation offers warnings for a nation still roiled by a drug epidemic, the struggle to manage immigration, and deeply entrenched systemic racism and police brutality.

[FIND THE BOOK]

What made 1980, as you describe it, a hinge year in Miami’s history?
Miami in 1980 is going to change in extraordinary ways, and it’s going to change in ways that reflect changes that are going to come to the rest of America. So it wasn’t just the hinge year for Miami, it was sort of the hinge year in recent American history.

The Seventies had been pretty cruel to Miami. And all of Miami’s tourist industry had been slowly dying and people were either flying over it to the Caribbean or they were going to Orlando to the Disney community. So Miami was desperately in need of a way to sort of rediscover its relevance.

The extraordinary thing about 1980 was all the problems that arose — the largest race riots of the century, the biggest spike of immigration in that century, and the coming drug epidemic — [began when] there was a pretty wise mayor in power, a guy called Maurice Ferré. The rest of the city’s founding fathers and power figures wanted to make Miami into a smaller version of a mixture of Atlanta, New Orleans, Jacksonville, and New York, but Ferré had a totally different vision: Miami had a singular opportunity in America to become the sort of portal or bridge that meshed North and South America, to be that in the same way that London was, where this was the way a lot of trade entered Europe. Miami could be that city for how Latin American trade entered America. And it could take a little piece either way as goods go either north or south.

I think there is big vision there. There’s no reason Miami should [have] become this unofficial capital of Latin America, except for the steps taken by that mayor. You know, that’s the Miami we will live in today.

The murder of Arthur McDuffie happened right at the end of 1979. How did that event go on to contribute to the tumult of 1980?
At the end of the Seventies, there was already a lot of frustration that there would be no justice for the black community in Miami. There’d been a host of issues between the black community and the police about cases that should have proceeded to court, but under Janet Reno as state attorney never had. And then you have this case of McDuffie being beaten to death by up to 15 cops in December 1979. After the attempted cover-up came to light, what had happened was so obvious. No one was denying that cops had murdered this man. But of course, the challenge for the prosecution was to show not that the police as a group had murdered him, but that a policeman as an individual was guilty. And that turned out to be a lot harder to prove in court. So then the riot that erupted [in May 1980, after the acquittal of four officers] was the worst race riot in Florida history.

And these were extremely violent protests, leaving 18 people dead. One part that stood out to me was the Kulp brothers, two white men who accidentally but horrifically crushed a young black girl with their car, only to be pulled out and brutally beaten to death themselves. Could you tell me a little bit about reporting on the details of the riots?
A lot of stuff, you could dig through newspaper archives and police reports. There was a tremendous amount of coverage in the days following the riots, both on television and in newspapers. And then, obviously, I’d been in contact with a lot of homicide officers for research for the book, so they had a lot of stories to tell as well. Those things were so horrifically violent that they were seared it into the memories of anyone who was there, or who helped recover the bodies. Or was on duty in the hospital that night.

You chose Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan as one of your main characters for telling this story. How did you choose her, and can you talk more about the role of the media at this time and how it compares to today?
I think it’s always true that if you choose journalists [as characters], you can cut across any demographic because as a journalist, you never know where in the city you’re going to be the next day. In the case of Edna Buchanan, I chose someone who was probably doing 500 percent more work than most journalists at the Miami Herald. She found herself in the middle of almost everything in 1980.

But what’s fascinating about Miami in 1980 is you have three very distinct communities and they are represented by three totally siloed forms of media. The black community has its own newspaper, the Spanish-speaking community had its own Spanish-language newspapers, and the Anglo community had the Miami Herald and the Miami News. And sometimes when you read those papers from the same day, it’s as if you’re reading about three entirely different cities. They each have their own concerns and priorities.

And even though it was bad then, I would say it’s much worse now. Then, you at least had this crazy choice of coverage. Now, you have almost no coverage. You have a Miami Herald that’s been in and out of bankruptcy [while] other newspapers have fallen by the wayside. There’s very little investigative journalism that goes on in Miami today. I think Miami has always attracted plenty of shady, shady folks, but now there is a much weaker light being shined on their activities.

So at the same time as the racial tensions are simmering under the surface after the McDuffie killing, the cocaine trade enters the Miami economy. What happens then?
The money contaminates the ecosystem before the bloodshed even arrives. The numbers are so staggering. The Federal Reserve would look across America and try and manage the regions by either pumping in or taking out roughly $100 million per region. And yet in South Florida, we suddenly had a $7 billion surplus. It was as if the whole industry had been invented overnight. Tourism was only $5.5 billion, so people were scratching their heads and looking at these numbers and thinking it just can’t be anything legal. And as cocaine dealers start splashing cash around, they corrupt about a third of the homicide department in the county, and that part [of the Miami police] basically starts working for cocaine dealers. So as soon as the bloodshed starts, there’s no one who’s really that interested in solving these crimes. [These divided loyalties among law enforcement] let Colombians have a much greater foothold than they might otherwise have had.

What did this bloodshed look like to the public at the time?
There were executions in places as obvious as airport arrival lounges and the chicest malls in Miami, or in the middle of the highway. It just didn’t matter. And the sort of firepower they would bring to the table had never been seen before. Cops in those days just had six-shooters, and these guys were driving with Mac-10 machine guns and just spraying parking lots. Many of the Colombian [cocaine traffickers] felt as if they were bulletproof because (A) they were only going to be in America sometimes for a few days to do executions; and (B) back in those days, with essentially no money-laundering laws, you could just drop off a couple of hundred thousand dollars with the best lawyer in town — and all these guys would wander around with the best defense counsel’s card in their back pockets.

And how does the influx of Cuban immigration pile onto this already extremely chaotic year?
So Miami is already going through this cocaine epidemic. And then it has this seething anger over unresolved racial conflicts. And then on top of it all, you get this extreme burst of immigration that isn’t directed toward America, it’s directed to one American city, Miami, which for Fidel Castro was sort of the dark mirror. It was the city that kept trying to embarrass Havana. I mean, by the start of the Eighties, Cuban Americans had built more businesses in Miami than Fidel Castro had in his whole country. So there’s always this tension. And then during the Mariel boatlift, Castro tries to ease tension in his country by releasing 125,000 Cubans and sending them all to Miami, in extremely unsafe conditions. What he also does is smuggle in his prison population, and of course that then leads to an anti-immigration reaction, especially among what we call the Anglo community down here. That has political consequences: Before then, Miami had been an officially bilingual city, but in the wake of the Mariel boatlift, there’s so much anti-immigration feeling that they revoke that at the next election.

How did the Cuban American community move forward from this? Clearly Miami today is not an English-only city.
Cuban Americans had come to this country and they’d built businesses; they’d created wealth, not only for themselves, but for the community; they’d rescued huge parts of Miami, including downtown Miami, which was really moribund by the end of the Seventies. Having this official bilingual state revoked was like a slap in the face for the community. And you only have to look at the voting rolls to know how it affected Cuban Americans. At the beginning of the year, they’re really not that interested in American politics. They’re really only interested in getting rid of Fidel Castro, and they enroll to vote at 17 percent. But by the end of the year, you had this huge push of voter registration and this huge engagement in the American political system because they realized that no one was going to fight their battles for them. In fact, if anything, they were now being denigrated as, you know, a weight on the community, which was just a false narrative. So they enrolled to vote in much larger numbers, and by the next year, the mayor is faced with not one, not two, but six Cuban American challengers for his position.

Do you see parallels between the 1980 lack of intergovernmental handling of this unfolding refugee crisis and the immigration crisis we’re facing as a nation today?
It’s immigration during an election year, so it’s always gonna be a hot potato. And the irony is that you’ve just had a new immigration act that year that turned out to be totally useless. So for Jimmy Carter, the Mariel boatlift combined with the Iran hostage crisis, were like two very slow and very public bleeds. And they were humiliating for him. And so the best thing he did, the best thing he tried to do in Miami, was to ignore its existence during 1980, even when he came down to try and bring some sense of calm in the wake of the riots and the boatlift. He actually offered Miami almost nothing. And then, of course, he did not win the election. So certainly we see parts of history repeating.

So I guess coming through all this, what was Miami after 1980 and how did that year put Miami on the path that led into where it is today?
Miami went from having a Latin American flavor to really becoming Latin American in the wake of 1980. In the end, people voted with their feet. A lot of Anglos headed north and out of the county, and Cuban Americans really took over that city within the next two to three years. And the other bizarre thing that happened was that in the wake of the Eighties, so much cocaine money had poured through that it was very difficult to determine what was good and what was bad money. But either way, it helped build Miami’s skyline. I’d also say that there are few cities as diverse in America. But there are also few cities where that diversification is entirely siloed in the way that it is in Miami.

I guess it seems to me like the black community has lost the most in all of this. What happened to Black Miami after 1980?
I mean, Black Miami was essentially policed at night by the dregs of the county police. It was seen as a place to punish officers, to put them in an area that had the highest number of burglaries, the most knife crime, and the most explosive police relations with the place. They decide to stick cops there who had the most use-of-force citations, and it led to this boiling point that I think is well summed up between the McDuffie death and the McDuffie riots. And this is the old story that when the riots started, which neighborhood was burned down? It was the black neighborhood. And then how much federal funding came to help to rebuild that neighborhood? Very, very little. And then how many insurers decided they’d like to rush in and reinsure buildings that had just been burned down in a riot? Very, very few. So even today, if you drive around Miami, the places that are marked by the least progress and the greatest unemployment numbers are all the areas that were burned in 1980. Progress has come to almost all of Miami. But nowadays, places like the traditionally black neighborhood of Overtown are considered the hole in the doughnut.

Pretty discouraging. What do you hope for the future of Miami?
Now that we live in this city of extraordinary diversification, I’d hope that there would at least be more places to come together than there are at the moment. The city is still very racially siloed. It hasn’t moved on in the ways you would have hoped it would from 1980. There are reasons for optimism. There’s a lot more good money moving around Miami. There’s a lot of folks trying to do the right thing. We no longer lean on tourism as heavily as we used to. All these things are good things, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

What about the nation as a whole? As we’re looking at 1980 Miami from our own tumultuous year, 2020, what is there to learn?
I think it’s very easy to look at the troubled cities in America in any given year and to think, well, that really doesn’t have anything to do with the city I’m living in. But had more attention been paid to what was going on in Miami in 1980, I think we could have really gotten a jump on so many of our problems. I’m talking about the re-emergence of race and justice. I’m talking about how to deal with immigration on a mass scale. And I’m talking about this scourge of drugs. What would have happened if the law-enforcement community had been given money at a federal level to deal with the cocaine epidemic at its birth?

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