Skip to main content

MEMBERS ONLY: Remembering the 1980 Miami Riots, 35 Years Later

In May of 1980, for days on end, Miami burned. This is the story of the incident that started one of the deadliest and most devastating racial riots in U.S. history. It's a story that's all too familiar.
Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 3.06.54 PM

35 years later, the scars on the outside of Miami have mostly healed.

When you think of a hellish summer in the city, when it felt like the apocalypse had arrived and the world was being torn asunder, you usually think of New York City in 1977. That was the Summer of Sam, when a serial killer terrorized its grim streets, and the summer of the great blackout, when parts of uptown Manhattan burned, providing the only light for miles. New York City in '77 was the city of Scorsese and The Warriors, the city that felt like a Dante Alighieri fever dream come to life. But 1,500 miles to the south, at the bottom of the country in a place that was supposed to be paradise, it would take three more years for the next brutal American summer to capture the attention of the globe and make our national consciousness bleed.

The summer of 1980 in Miami actually began in the winter of 1979, with the death of a black motorcyclist named Arthur McDuffie. McDuffie was a 33-year-old who had broken a few very minor laws in his day, most nothing more than accumulated traffic violations, but it was the fact that those violations had culminated in a suspended license that likely led him to attempt to escape police when they tried to pull him over on the morning of December 17th. He led Metro-Dade cops on a high-speed chase through a residential neighborhood, which only ended when, according to those police, he tried to make a sharp turn and lost control of the motorcycle he was riding. They say he took a shot at fleeing the scene on foot but regardless of who you believe, it's a fact that he didn't get far. McDuffie was quickly "subdued" by the arresting officers. He died four days later, the coroner reporting that his skull had been cracked again and again.

The four arresting officers were indicted on manslaughter charges as well as tampering with and outright fabricating physical evidence -- the state said they tried to make it look like McDuffie had been hit by a car -- and the trial was moved out of Miami to Tampa in the interest of fairness. The jury picked was all-male and all-white -- and future U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was the lead prosecutor. Some cops turned on others in exchange for immunity, with one testifying that the group had pummeled McDuffie with their Nightsticks and Maglites until he wasn't moving anymore and another stating under oath that McDuffie had slowed down and was shouting that he wanted to give up when the attack on him began. In the end, all of the officers involved in the death of Arthur MacDuffie were acquitted. By May 17th, 1980, every single one of them had walked away a free man.

That was all it took for Miami to explode.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 3.11.09 PM

In the hours following the jury's decision, a massive protest erupted at Miami's Metro Justice Building. That protest quickly turned into a riot. Two largely black and underprivileged areas near Miami's downtown -- Overtown and Liberty City -- began burning. There was looting and violence in the streets, reports of targeted weapons fire that kept an outgunned police force largely at bay. Over the next maybe 72-hours, Florida Governor Bob Graham would order nearly 3,500 National Guard troops into the city, but still the days of violence and chaos dragged on, the oppressive summer heat and humidity combining with the fire and the rage to make it feel like a literal hell on earth. Police blocked off parts of the city, warning drivers that they couldn't guarantee their safety. Roadblocks were everywhere. Snipers set up camp on the high overpasses of I-95 and fired into the residential and business areas below. Legendary Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan would eventually tell a story about the Herald staff being trapped inside the paper's building downtown and pouring cooking oil from the commissary down the exposed ramp in the loading bay to keep anyone from being able to climb up it.

When it was all over, 18 people were dead, hundreds more were badly hurt and well over 500 people were arrested. The damage was upwards of $100 million.

I was ten years old at the time. My dad was a Metro-Dade police officer. A good cop. I lived in fear he would never come home.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 3.11.37 PM

Making matters worse for Miami that summer were the nearly 125,000 new arrivals the city was trying to accommodate, the result of a mass exodus from Castro's Cuba. There were so many people who came to Miami in the Mariel boatlift that both the navy and the army had to assist with the influx and processing. Under those same downtown overpasses where snipers would sometimes set up nests, thousands of Cuban refugees were living in hastily constructed tent cities, surrounded by barbed-wire fences. They themselves would eventually riot to protest their conditions and because they demanded their freedom. Miami, a city that had up until that period been known largely as a vacation paradise, was suddenly a surrealist nightmare.

The riot of 1980 was the worst but by no means the last racial uprising Miami would see over the next decade and a half. Just two years later Overtown would again burn after City of Miami police officer Luis Alvarez shot an unarmed black man named Neville Johnson in a video arcade. He ultimately walked. In January of 1989, violence erupted again when City of Miami cop William Lozano shot at and killed two unarmed black men riding a motorcycle. Lozano was eventually convicted, which heightened the city's racial and ethnic tensions in a way nothing quite had before. Miami's large and powerful Cuban-American community considered the conviction unjust and nothing more than appeasement, a concession to threats of more black violence. The Hispanic Officers Association of Miami called the decision "a sad, sad day for the people of this city."

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 3.12.06 PM

This May will mark 35 years since the Miami riots of 1980. It would be good to be able to say that in the intervening years and decades the systemic issues and law enforcement culture that led to that explosion of violence had evaporated. It would be good to say that, but no one can. All you have to do is look to Baltimore to see how little things have changed. There were urban racial uprisings before Miami and there have been plenty since, in Crown Heights, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Ferguson and of course Baltimore, just to name a few, all examples of people driven to destruction because they believed they had no other recourse. It's easy to stand outside and ask why someone would destroy his or her own neighborhood, but when that neighborhood is oppressed and kept in the throes of poverty or, maybe worse, forgotten altogether except by law enforcement, how much value can you really attach to it? No one else seems to care -- why should you?

It's shocking -- genuinely shocking -- to think that a half-century after the civil rights movement in this country and three-and-a-half decades after Miami, there's still a crisis afflicting the underprivileged and people of color in America in the form of how they're often treated by police. Cops deal with a lot and psychologically may be inclined to see their empathy become calloused, but there's never any excuse for treating those they're supposed to serve as nothing more than targets. In a truly free country you can't pull people over just because they're black. You can't shoot a man in the back just because he's done something to piss you off. A traffic offense -- or even a whole series of them -- doesn't bring with it an automatic death sentence. It's true that not breaking the law is the best way to avoid the police, but not only is that not always the case in America for a substantial portion of the population, it's an easy statement made in the hope of providing a simple way of closing the case on a very complex problem.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 3.11.26 PM

That problem hasn't gone away yet and likely isn't going away anytime soon. Until it's addressed effectively and authoritatively -- until equal opportunity and equal justice become more than simply bromides we reflexively proclaim to make ourselves feel better -- the inevitable equal-and-opposite reactions are going to continue to flare up. This will keep happening over and over again.

35 years later, the scars on the outside of Miami have mostly healed, but the wound is still very deep and wide open across the country.