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5/15/05 - Miami Herald

THE McDUFFIE RIOTS 25 YEARS LATER

IN MAY 1980, MIAMI ERUPTED IN ANGER AND GRIEF WHEN FOUR WHITE POLICE OFFICERS WERE ACQUITTED IN THE KILLING OF BLACK INSURANCE AGENT ARTHUR McDUFFIE

BY AMY DRISCOLL

The Miami intersection that marked the end of Jeffrey Kulp's life and the beginning of the city's worst riots doesn't warrant a second glance today.

The Liberty Square housing project is still there, low-slung buildings with neat metal fences that betray nothing of the human toll exacted in 1980. Up the road, the looted Pantry Pride supermarket is an empty shell, gone. So are many of the small businesses that used to line 62nd Street.

Only a sign at 62nd and Northwest 17th Avenue that proclaims ''Arthur Lee McDuffie Avenue'' offers an outward clue to the ferocity that erupted along there 25 years ago, sweeping through the city's black communities with a rage that would cripple Miami for years, even decades.

Four white police officers were acquitted by an all-white jury in the death of McDuffie, a black Miami insurance agent. McDuffie, a former Marine, had been fatally beaten while handcuffed after a police chase by a group of white police officers, who then tried to cover it up as an accident. The verdict, coming as the black community's relationship with law enforcement reached an all-time low, sent people pouring into the streets. A three-day rampage of fury and grief followed, escalating with frightening speed in Liberty City, the Black Grove, Overtown and Brownsville, killing 18 people, costing 3,000 jobs and causing $100 million in damage.

Kulp, 22, was one of the first victims, a white man stumbling into the disturbance. He was beaten, shot, stabbed and run over by another motorist after a car driven by his brother veered out of control and hit a young black girl on 62nd Street.

''You had very, very angry people on the streets during those years,'' said Robert Simms, director of the Community Relations Board in 1980. 'By the time McDuffie happened, the precedent was set: `When politicians start messing with us, let's get it on.' The verdict was seen as an injustice. And so the riots in 1980 were on.''

VIOLENCE SPREAD

Even with 25 years of perspective, the magnitude is still stunning. Cars burned with victims inside, and black plumes of smoke could be seen 15 miles away. A curfew covered 52 square miles, with lawlessness reaching all the way to the Metro Justice Building downtown, where a rally turned into more rioting. Police cars were torched, the National Guard was called in, and an entire country watched the hellish panorama that was the Miami skyline.

Years of rebuilding efforts would bring about only faltering change in the areas worst hit. Poverty continues at much the same level: 38 percent of the residents of Model City -- an area that overlaps Liberty City -- lived in poverty in 1980, and 20 years later the rate was 44 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

MOVING OUT

Population loss also drained the areas most affected by the riots. Model City's population of 45,000 dropped to about 33,000 five years ago. Overtown showed similar flight: A population of about 11,000 was down to fewer than 9,000 by 2000.

For years, Agnes Thomas, owner of Thomas Produce Market on 62nd Street, has been one of the hopeful holdouts, still trying to lure customers to the open-air market with piles of glistening greens, mounds of oranges, crates of melons.

She and her husband, Reginald, bought the market in 1979, months before the riots, and she has been trying to keep it open since her husband died last year. But business isn't good.

''The families are all gone,'' she said. ``Since the riots, they tore down the apartment buildings and left empty lots. Used to be I'd have to keep my eyes open; kids would be running in and out. Not anymore.''

CHANGES EVIDENT

It used to be that there was a dry cleaner next door, several gas stations on the corners, mom-and-pop stores within walking distance.

''You could walk to buy shoes,'' Thomas said. ``Now, even the filling stations are closed up.''

From her seat behind the counter, she can see across the street, where some of the earliest unrest broke out.

''I was right here when it happened,'' she said. ``I stayed inside until my husband told me to go home. But he stayed to watch the place. I remember it like it was yesterday.''

Even though her two sons run the business these days, the 85-year-old owner says she has decided to put the market up for sale.

''It's a shame,'' she said. ``My husband wanted to hold on until the area came up again. But it just doesn't seem to be getting any better.''

IMPROVEMENTS SEEN

While the economic assessment may be bleak, according to many, strides have been made in other areas. Policing has improved, most agree, with training to bridge cultural differences, and more black police officers have been hired and promoted.

Georgia Ayers, a born-and-raised Miamian at the forefront of police community-relations training since 1965, when she complained about police sending their dogs after blacks, said the training has helped. But maybe not enough. Decades of programs held out as solutions for the worst-hit areas nearly always seem to trail off without accomplishing much, she said.

''Could I see it happening again sometime?'' She didn't ponder the question for long. ``It wouldn't be all that surprising to me.''