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The Year of Dangerous Days

Riots, Refugees, and Cocaine in Miami 1980



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About The Book

In the tradition of The Wire, the “utterly absorbing” (The New York Times) story of the cinematic transformation of Miami, one of America’s bustling cities—rife with a drug epidemic, a burgeoning refugee crisis, and police brutality—from journalist and award-winning author Nicholas Griffin.

Miami, Florida, famed for its blue skies and sandy beaches, is one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations, with nearly twenty-three million tourists visiting annually. But few people have any idea how this unofficial capital of Latin America came to be.

The Year of Dangerous Days is “an engrossing, peek-between-your-fingers history of an American city on the edge” (Kirkus Reviews). With a cast that includes iconic characters such as Jimmy Carter, Fidel Castro, and Janet Reno, this slice of history is brought to life through intertwining personal stories. At the core, there’s Edna Buchanan, a reporter for the Miami Herald who breaks the story on the wrongful murder of a black man and the shocking police cover-up; Captain Marshall Frank, the hardboiled homicide detective tasked with investigating the murder; and Mayor Maurice Ferré, the charismatic politician who watches the case, and the city, fall apart.

On a roller coaster of national politics and international diplomacy, these three figures cross paths as their city explores one of the worst race riots in American history as more than 120,000 Cuban refugees land south of Miami, and as drug cartels flood the city with cocaine and infiltrate all levels of law enforcement. In a battle of wills, Buchanan has to keep up with the 150 percent murder rate increase; Captain Frank has to scrub and rebuild his homicide bureau; and Mayor Ferré must find a way to reconstruct his smoldering city. Against all odds, they persevere, and a stronger, more vibrant, Miami begins to emerge. But the foundation of this new Miami—partially built on corruption and drug money—will have severe ramifications for the rest of the country.

Deeply researched, “well-written” (New York Journal of Books), and covering many timely issues including police brutality, immigration, and the drug crisis, The Year of Dangerous Days is both a clarion call and a dramatic rebirth story of one of America’s most iconic cities.


Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1

By 1979, there were several Miamis that barely lapped against one another, let alone integrated. The county itself was a strange beast, twenty-seven different municipalities with their own mayor, many with their own police departments. But Miami wasn’t divided by municipalities; it was separated into tribes.

There was Anglo Miami, which the city’s boosters were still hawking to white America: beaches, real estate, hotels, and entertainment. Tourists dominated the region. Dade had 1.6 million residents but 2.1 million international visitors a year. Anglo Miami was far from monolithic. There were southerners, migrants, and a large Jewish population that ran some of the most important businesses and institutions in Miami Beach.

Across the causeway in Little Havana and up the coast in Hialeah sat Latin Miami, created by the Cubans who’d fled Fidel Castro’s revolution twenty years before. Whenever there was violence south of the border, Latin America coughed up a new pocket of immigrants. Most recently that meant that the Cuban population in Dade was being watered down by Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and Colombians.

Then there was black Miami. It, too, had more divisions than cohesion. There was a strong Bahamian presence, plenty of Jamaicans. Both felt distinct from the African Americans who had moved south from Georgia, and those who were born and bred in Miami. The latest immigrants were only beginning to spill in: a large number of unwelcome Haitians. Arriving on rickety boats, fleeing both political persecution and economic despair, they were docking at a time when not one of Miami’s communities was in the mood to reach out and welcome them.

For all the nuances, if you were black, white, or Latin, you tended to know so little about the other tribes that you regarded them as rigid blocs. Who knew a Jamaican turned his nose up at a Georgia-born black, or that a Puerto Rican couldn’t stand another word from a Cuban, or that a Jew couldn’t walk through the door at the all-white country club at La Gorce? There was enough inequality to go around, but in this one thing, the black community got the most generous helping.

In 1979, if you were black in Dade County, you most likely lived in one of three neighborhoods: Overtown, the Black Grove, or Liberty City. Liberty City was the youngest of the three, dating back to 1937, when President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the first large public housing project in the South. It was Roosevelt’s response to local campaigns for better sanitation. In the ’30s, Liberty City had what most houses in Overtown and the Black Grove did not: running water, modern kitchens, electricity. Overtown remained the center of black life in Miami until the arrival of I-95, the vast stretch of American highway that ran from Maine down the East Coast all the way to Miami. It stomped right through the middle of Miami’s most prominent black neighborhood in 1965, a ravenous millipede with a thousand concrete legs.

Had the 3,000-kilometer highway been halted just 5 kilometers to the north, black Miami might have had a different history. Instead the highway, touted as “slum clearance,” bulldozed through black Miami’s main drags. Gone was much of Overtown’s commercial heart, with its three movie theaters, its public pool, grocery store, and businesses. Goodbye to clubs that had hosted Ella Fitzgerald, to the Sir John Hotel, which had offered their finest suites to black entertainers banned from staying in whites-only Miami Beach. But more important, goodbye to a neighborhood where parents knew which house every child belonged to. Goodbye to the nighttime games of Moonlight Baby, where kids would use the bottle caps of Cola Nibs to mark the edge of their bodies on the pavement. Goodbye to unarmed black patrolmen walking black streets.

Overtown had its own all-black police station, with strict rules. Black officers couldn’t carry a weapon home, since “no one wanted to see a black man with a gun.” They could stop whites in Overtown but had no power of arrest over them. The closest affordable housing for Overtown’s displaced was in and around the Liberty City projects. Block by block it began to turn from white to black, until neighboring white homeowners built a wall to separate themselves from ever-blacker Liberty City. White housewives in colorful plaids and horn-rimmed glasses carried protest signs: “We want this Nigger moved” and “Nigger go to Washington.” Someone detonated a stick of dynamite in an empty apartment leased to blacks. Nothing worked, and by the end of the 1960s the first proud black owners inside Liberty City were joined by many of Overtown’s twenty thousand displaced. As white flight accelerated, house prices declined, local businesses faltered, and unemployment and crime began to rise. By 1968, Liberty City had assumed a new reputation. The CND—the Central-North District—had earned the nickname “Central Negro District” from both the city and the county police departments.

There was still beauty in Liberty City, still sunrises where the light would smart off the sides of pastel-painted houses, and the dew on the grass would glisten, and churches would fill, and the jitney buses would chug patiently, waiting for the elderly to board. Still schoolchildren in white shirts tightening backpacks to their shoulders and catching as much shade as possible on the way to the school gates. There was still beauty, but you had to squint to see it.

Eighty percent of South Florida homes had air-conditioning in 1980, but in stifling hot Liberty City, only one in five homes could afford it. It was a neighborhood without a center, few jobs to offer, seventy-two churches but just six banks, not one of which was black-owned. There were plenty of places to pray for a positive future but few institutions willing to risk investment in one. The fact that a teenager called Arthur McDuffie got out at all was unusual. The fact that he came back, found a good job, earned steadily, and raised a family was rarer still.

Frederica Jones had been Arthur McDuffie’s high school sweetheart at Booker T. Washington, one of Miami’s three segregated schools. They’d met while Frederica was walking home from the local store, where she’d bought a can of peas for her mother. She’d swung her groceries at her side, and McDuffie, who’d been watching her from across the street, fell into step beside her.

After a few moments of banter, McDuffie made a simple declaration. “I like you.” Then he asked for Frederica’s number. That night McDuffie called, and the two talked for an hour. At the end of the conversation McDuffie, two years Frederica’s senior, asked, “Would you go with me?”

“Yes!” she said.

They became inseparable. They were in the Booker T. Washington band together. McDuffie was the baritone horn and Frederica a majorette. She watched McDuffie win the local swim meets. When McDuffie graduated, he joined the Marine Corps, and for the next three years, they communicated through letters. Then, within two months of his honorable discharge, they married. Two children quickly followed. After which came problems, separation, and, in 1978, divorce. McDuffie had always had a reputation as a ladies’ man, and now he had a child with another woman to prove it.

Yet toward the end of 1979, the thirty-three-year-old McDuffie was back visiting the house he’d once shared with Frederica. He mowed the lawn, fixed the air conditioners, and trimmed the hedges of their neighbor, the last white family on the block. The warmth in the failed marriage seemed to be returning. The two spent the night of December 15, 1979, together, and McDuffie asked Frederica to join him on a trip to Hawaii—a vacation he’d just won at the office for his performance as the assistant manager at Coastal States Life Insurance.

The following day, Sunday, under bright 80-degree skies, Frederica, a nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital, drove McDuffie back to his home. She parked the car feeling like there was positive momentum. They’d talked of remarriage in front of their families. The deal was that if McDuffie could make “certain changes” in his life, then they could go ahead and make it official. As they sat in the car, McDuffie kissed his ex-wife goodbye and promised to be back at her place that evening to take care of their children before her shift. Normally, Frederica worked only afternoons, but the hospital was short-staffed over the Christmas period and she’d agreed to work that night at 11:00.

Shortly after 2:00 p.m., McDuffie walked into 1157 NW 111th Street, the home he now shared with his younger sister, Dorothy, a legal clerk. It was a modest building, painted green. Inside there was a record collection and books of music. McDuffie played five instruments, all horns. There was an entire white wall “covered with plaques and certificates of achievement,” including his “Most Outstanding” award from his Marine Corps platoon. He wasn’t a war hero, hadn’t fought in Vietnam, but McDuffie had been faithful to the corps, a military policeman who had done his job impeccably.

A dutiful father, McDuffie had already wrapped Christmas presents for his two daughters and hidden them in a closet in his bedroom. His nine-year-old would get a wagon, a jack-in-the-box, and clothes. His oldest would get a watch, a tape recorder, a radio, and a pair of roller skates.

He’d saved for months, but it hadn’t been an easy year to make money. Under President Jimmy Carter, the country, most especially the South, had been battered. Unemployment was stubbornly high, and it looked like the president was being swept downstream by the economy. For all Carter’s preaching of forbearance, the reality was that interest rates were up to 17 percent. In thirty years, inflation had never run higher. Gas prices had doubled in two years. Even hamburger meat was two dollars a pound.

Despite all this, Carter was about to enter an election year in comparatively good standing. Whatever America thought of his ability to steer the country, he retained the people’s sympathy, with an approval rating of 61 percent. Six weeks before, the Iranian revolution had become very real to the distant United States. The sixty-two hostages captured in the American embassy in Tehran had helped generate a sudden sense of solidarity in the United States. Between that and the following month’s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, there was an understanding that Carter had a tricky hand to play. He would promise a strong and quick response to both situations. By the end of the year Carter led his presumptive challenger, Ronald Reagan, by an enormous 24-point margin.

Still, the mood was summed up best by the Miami Herald in 1979. It was a year the average American wallet had “barely survived.” The unseen benefit, according to the paper, was that Miamians like McDuffie lived in Florida. They weren’t being hammered on heating oil like the rest of the country.

By Miami standards, the evening of December 16 counted as cold, expected to dip below 70 degrees and then drop below 60 the following day. Miamians traditionally overreacted, digging out winter coats and scarves for a rare outing. McDuffie selected blue jeans, a navy shirt over a baby-blue undershirt, and a black motorcycle jacket. He searched his house for a hat to wear under his helmet. At 5:00 p.m., he closed the door behind him.

His own car, a 1969 green Grand Prix, wasn’t parked in its usual spot in his driveway. A friend had borrowed it. So he climbed on an orange-and-black 1973 Kawasaki 2100, “a more or less permanent loan” from his cousin. McDuffie turned the key, revved the engine, and drove the motorcycle south to Fifty-Ninth Street, to his friend Lynwood Blackmon’s house. He pulled up at the front door, feet still astride the bike, and talked to Blackmon’s seven- and eight-year-old daughters. He explained to them that he couldn’t help their father tune their car as he’d promised. His tools were in the back of the borrowed Grand Prix. Next he drove to his older brother’s house, his most common stop, and found him washing his car in his driveway. McDuffie grinned, revved the engine, spat up dirt over the clean car, and sped away before his brother could grab him. He raced to the far end of the street, turned, and braked hard.

“You better slow that bike down,” shouted his brother. McDuffie nodded, grinned, and pulled away.

Sometimes on weekends McDuffie moonlighted as a truck driver, making deliveries to Miami Beach. Sometimes he gave up his time to help jobless youngsters, teaching them how to paint houses. Just two years before, he’d painted the Range Funeral Home, where his body would arrive in exactly a week. On this particular Sunday evening, he was going to see Carolyn Battle, the twenty-six-year-old assistant that McDuffie had hired at Coastal Insurance. She was pretty, independent, and stylish, with a preference for dresses and wearing her hair in an Afro. He’d brought a helmet for her.

McDuffie shouldn’t have been driving at all. His license had been suspended months before, and he’d paid his thirty-five-dollar traffic fine with a check that had bounced. He’d told a coworker that he was worried about getting stopped again, but there were no alternatives for driving back and forth to work. Public transport was pitiful in Miami, and Liberty City—barely serviced—was reliant on independent jitney operators who rarely worked weekends. Not having a car was a self-quarantine.

McDuffie collected Carolyn Battle. They drove fifteen minutes south, to the edge of Miami International Airport, where they watched planes arcing out over the ocean or dropping into landing patterns above the Everglades. Tiring of the airport, McDuffie drove Battle across MacArthur Causeway to Miami Beach. When McDuffie was a child, dusk would have found an exodus heading the other way: black Americans subject to a sunset curfew. But on December 16, on the three lanes that ran east over the bright blue shallows, McDuffie showed off, hitting eighty miles an hour. They walked in the sand, stopped for Pepsi, and then at 9:00 p.m. headed back to Battle’s apartment at 3160 NW Forty-Sixth Street, just five blocks from the Airport Expressway.

At one in the morning, McDuffie slept in Battle’s bed while she watched television on her couch. At 1:30 she woke him up. “Jesus,” said McDuffie, reaching for his watch. He was far too late to show up at his ex-wife’s house. Frederica would have taken the kids over to a babysitter two hours ago. How was he going to make that up to her? Had he blown it? McDuffie gathered his watch, his wedding ring, his medallion. Still dressed in his blue jeans, two blue shirts, and boots, he put on his knitted cap under his white helmet, tied his knapsack to the back of the Kawasaki, and headed north toward home.

Was it a wheelie, a rolled stop sign, a hand lifted from a handlebar to give the finger that caught the sergeant’s attention? The officer would later offer all three explanations of why he’d first noticed the Kawasaki pass by him. It was 1:51 a.m. The sergeant got on the radio, described McDuffie’s white helmet and the tag number of the motorbike, and flipped on his red light and siren. On a cool night, with the rider in jeans, jacket, and helmet, he couldn’t have known if he was black, Latin, or white.

McDuffie appeared to glance in his mirror and then sped through a red light on NW Sixty-First Street. As the sergeant followed in his white-and-green county squad car, McDuffie blew through another red light and swept around corners, not even slowing for the stop signs. He’d picked a very quiet night for these traffic infractions. Within sixty seconds of the beginning of the chase, McDuffie was being followed by every available unit within Central District.

About The Author

Photograph © Tomás Griffin

Nicholas Griffin is a journalist and author of four novels and three works of nonfiction. His writing has appeared in The Times (London), the Financial Times, and Foreign Policy, among other publications. His book Ping-Pong Diplomacy was shortlisted for the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. He lives in Miami with his wife and two children.

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