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From riots, a new Miami

Racial strife marred Miami's 1989 Super Bowl. But the pain helped spur change, residents say.

By STEPHEN F. HOLDER
Published February 2, 2007


MIAMI - Solomon Wilcots figured he would become part of history when he came to South Florida for Super Bowl XXIII. But he never expected the historic events to play out on Miami's inner-city streets.

The former Cincinnati Bengal reflected this week on his experience in January 1989 when riots, sparked by the police shooting of a black motorcyclist, rocked the city and made unwanted national headlines.

"We went to the movies one night to see Mississippi Burning, and I remember coming out and seeing all the smoke and fires nearby," said Wilcots, whose team hotel was a few steps from the heart of Overtown. "When I was asked about it, I said, 'I just came back from Mississippi Burning and I come out and find Miami burning.' "

Wednesday night, just days before Miami hosts its ninth Super Bowl, African-American culture was being celebrated through music and dance in a program at Miami-Dade County Auditorium. Rather than setting blazes or pelting police with bottles as in 1989, the black youths in this program drew standing ovations for their performances.

This time the Super Bowl teams, the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears, aren't being urged to stay clear of the inner city. Colts coach Tony Dungy and his family were sitting in the sixth row.

This is a different time. This is a different Miami.

"I think Miami finally realized that its future was as an international city, and things have changed for the better," said former Mayor Maurice Ferre. "These things don't happen overnight. It's taken 20 years, but it was worth it."

The 1980s were turbulent and tense times for one of America's best-known cities. Deadly riots early in the decade also sparked by police actions destroyed more than $100-million in property and created a seemingly insurmountable gulf between a community and its police.

The events of Jan. 16, 1989, just six days before Super Bowl XXIII, reinforced those feelings. Clement Lloyd was fatally shot in the head by Officer William Lozano while being pursued for a traffic violation. His passenger, Allen Blanchard, died a day later from injuries sustained in the subsequent crash.

Ugliness ensued.

There were three days of rock-throwing, fires and other violence in Liberty City and Overtown.

Nearly 400 arrests were made and some 1,000 police officers in riot gear flooded the streets in a huge show of force.

The Miami Heat's game against the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 17 was canceled after arriving fans were targeted by rioters. All of it was caught by television cameras and witnessed by reporters from all corners of the globe who were in town for the Super Bowl.

It ended with one person dead, nearly a dozen people shot and $1-million in property damaged. The glitz and glamor of the Super Bowl had become an unlikely backdrop for a different sort of drama.

"It was raw anger," said Marvin Dunn, a retired Florida International University professor and community activist. "There were enormous problems and people just weren't happy with the overall state of Miami. The city was in a crisis, and what do you know? Here comes the Super Bowl. It was a tremendous black eye to the city."

On Wednesday night, though, in that dark auditorium, happiness reigned supreme. Talented teenagers from the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City performed alongside professional artists, and center director Marshall L. Davis said proudly that some of the kids are from the very streets where the violence played out 18 years ago.

"There's a lot of good going on in the inner city," he said.

Just look. Urban renewal is all around. Palm trees are sprouting up in places once choked by weeds. Vacant lots are being transformed into places of business. There's upward mobility in the black community, with families putting down roots in the area's pricey suburbs.

The riots may have yielded some good, because they "refocused the attention of the power structure on the problems in the black community," Dunn said.

Still, some of the fixes have been superficial.

Poverty remains rampant in the African-American and immigrant communities, with Miami-Dade's 17.8 percent poverty rate the third-highest in Florida, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Also, the same urban development that is making Miami a destination city is driving out some of the poorest residents from the inner city. And in the heart of Overtown, the relationship between police and residents is still strained.

"It's the way the police (approach) you," said Clayton Jones, who lives in a rooming house near the scene of the Lloyd shooting. "When people are frustrated, things are going to happen. I don't think you burn down your own community, but come on. Something had to happen."

Fueling the resentment: Lozano, the Colombian-born police officer, had his manslaughter conviction overturned on appeal. He was acquitted in a new trial in 1993.

But even Jones concedes Overtown and other areas in the inner city have mellowed since then. Though still a concern, violent crime has fallen in four of the past five years, according to Miami-Dade police. Civil unrest is considered ancient history.

More than anything, Miami's image has been transformed from the lawless, drug-riddled city portrayed in the movie Scarface to today's identity: playground of the stars.

It is a city that remains imperfect, but then again, everyone has problems.

"I think about Miami the way I think about my mother," Dunn said. "She is not a perfect woman. But don't talk about my mama. I'll address that in private. It offends me when outsiders talk about Miami in a bad light. Those are people who don't know the real Miami."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3377.