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  • Fred Smith

The 1980 Miami Riots were the Blueprint for LA’s in ‘92

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

Police stand guard during the Miami Riots. (photo courtesy of The Miami Herald)

On December 21, 1979, at just after 1 AM, thirty-three-year-old Arthur McDuffie left his girlfriend’s apartment in Miami’s Liberty City on his Kawasaki Motorcycle.

While McDuffie’s intended destination that morning remains unknown, his fate is not.

The insurance salesman and former US Marine was beaten to death by four Miami-Dade Police officers following a high-speed chase that had, according to Police, exceeded 100 mph.

The officers responsible for McDuffie’s death--Ira Diggs, William Hanlon, Michael Watts, and Alex Marrero--were indicted on charges of manslaughter and fabricating physical evidence. Two other officers, Herbert Evans, Jr., and Ubaldo Del Toro, were charged with being accessories to the crimes.

On May 17, 1980, the officers were acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury.

That evening, the first rock was thrown at Northwest 62nd Street, igniting the deadliest riots in the US since the Watts riots of 1965.

For three days, predominantly black neighborhoods Liberty City, Overtown, and the Black Grove stewed in violent unrest.

Cars were overturned and burned. Stores were looted. Victims guilty only of being in the wrong place at the time were killed.

By the time the Miami riots concluded, 18 people had died. 350 had suffered injuries. More than 600 were arrested, and over $100 million in property damage had been accumulated.

A dozen years later on the opposite coast of the country, another speeding black man would be severely beaten by police officers whose acquittal would incite days of rioting in a major US city.

Unlike Arthur McDuffie, Rodney King would soon become a household name as the battered face of police brutality thanks to a grainy clip of video footage shot by a plumber named George Holiday

Anyone over the age of 40 knows this piece of footage as though they’d shot it themselves.

In the spring of 1991 until King’s trial one year later, the scene was plastered on every television screen in America--a viral video some 14 years before YouTube was born.

The video showed the world what the denizens of South Central Los Angeles knew all too well: blacks had for years been the targets of a prejudiced police force whose violent hand knew no limits.

Miami blacks had felt the same wrath for most of the 20th century.

A Century of Oppression

By 1910, just fourteen years after Miami had been officially founded, blacks totaled nearly 42% of the budding city’s population. Boundary conflicts were becoming increasingly common as blacks tried to move from Colored Town (today Overtown) north and northwest into a predominantly white area called Highland Park.

In 1911, the Miami Herald wrote, “The advance of the Negro population is like a plague and carries devastation with it to all surrounding prosperity.”

Attacks in the press did little to keep Miami blacks from staying on their side of an imaginary color line drawn by white residents around Colored Town. To enforce black restriction, Miami needed a dog with a much more vicious bite.

Chief Quigg’s Iron Hand

On March 1, 1928, a grand jury indicted three Miami police officers for beating to death a black man named Harry Kier who had allegedly insulted a white woman in a downtown hotel.

The grand jury’s denouncing of Miami police policies as “tortuous” was amplified by the Miami Herald. The paper’s public criticism led to the indictment of police chief, H. Leslie Quigg, who had ruled Miami’s black areas with an iron hand, racking up twelve counts of police brutality over the course of a decades-long career.

Quigg would eventually be acquitted of the Kier murder but later dismissed as police chief for being “wholly unfit for the office.”

His dismissal would prove to be little more than a time-out.

“They’ll Learn.”

Quigg would soon return to helm Miami’s Police force, resuming his brutal policies toward blacks. During the 1930s, he routinely hired dozens of whites from Georgia’s rural streets, bussed them to Miami where they were given badges and nightsticks (but no formal training) and sent into the streets to keep the peace however they saw fit.

Quigg’s successor, Walter Headley, continued his predecessor’s savage policies toward blacks.

Incensed over the crime rates in Miami’s black ghettos, Headley held a press conference on Christmas morning in 1967, vowing to get tough on crime by policing Miami’s black communities with double patrols armed with shotguns and attack dogs.

In a preemptive strike against the rioting that was breaking out across the country, Chief Headley declared, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts. They’ll learn,” Headley decreed, referring to blacks, “that they can’t get bailed out of the morgue.”

The Miami Riot of 1968

In August 1968, the Republican National Convention gathered in Miami Beach to nominate Richard Nixon as their party’s candidate.

At the same time, several black political groups including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Black Panthers organized political rallies of their own in the black community to discuss among other grievances the Dade County business community’s failure to provide jobs for black youths, despite an official promise to do so.

The largest of the rallies began on August 7th in a Liberty City community center. By the late evening, the crowd had ballooned to several hundred people and had overflowed to the streets. Around 7 pm, a white man in a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that read “George Wallace for President” attempted to cross 17th avenue by way of 62nd street.

He would never make it. The truck met a bombardment of rocks launched from the hands of what had become a frustrated mob. The panicked driver lost control of his vehicle and collided with an oncoming car.

The truck driver was pulled to safety, fleeing the scene with the help of a group of black men who sheltered him in a nearby bar.

Shouts of “Get whitey!” echoed through the air as the mob overturned the truck and set it on fire, igniting the 1968 Miami Riot with the blaze.

The violence continued the following day when rioters stoned police, looted white-owned stores, and fire-bombed local markets. Miami Police, mistakingly thinking they were under sniper fire, killed three unarmed residents--the only deaths of the riot.

On August 8th, the Florida National Guard imposed a dusk to dawn curfew, enforced by 800 National Guard troops and 200 sheriff deputies.

In the end, heavy rains on August 9th proved to be most effective in calming the streets of violence.

The Rotten Meat Riot of 1970

On June 15, 1970, a group of blacks picketed a white-owned Pic-and-Pay store in Miami’s Brownville section next to Liberty City. Chief among the picketers complaints was their accusation that the store sold spoiled goods to the area’s poor blacks.

After three days of peaceful protest, violence erupted when sheriff’s deputies appeared at the store and allegedly fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Rocks were thrown at police cars. Two white motorists were pulled from their cars and beaten, their cars set ablaze. Molotov cocktails were heaved through store windows.

The unrest finally abated the following day with no deaths but plenty of arrests, including 18-year-old George Curtis, who was falsely accused of being a sniper and sentenced to five years in prison for assaulting police.

Prelude to the Miami Riot of 1980

Throughout the 1970s, Miami experienced no fewer than twelve mini-riots. The throughline in each was an exasperated black community that was tired of being targeted by police and treated like an underclass by the business community.

Historians and social critics have for years debated whether Miami’s upwardly mobile Cuban population vindicates the black community’s claim they’ve been systemically elbowed out of economic progress in favor of an immigrant population fleeing communist oppression.

In April 1980, a month before the Miami Riot would erupt, the first boat of Cuban refugees arrived as part of a mass emigration of Cubans to South Florida that would come to be known as the Mariel boatlift.

Nearly 8,000 Cuban asylum seekers arrived in Miami in April 1980. That number would spike to almost 87,000 the following month. By October, when the boatlift officially ended, more than 125,000 Cubans had arrived in Miami.

The first month of the boatlift proved to be most chaotic as the federal government led by then-president Jimmy Carter rushed to officially address the situation, which had previously been an open-door policy toward Cuban immigrants.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of asylum-seekers waited in makeshift camps hastily established in the Greater Miami area at decommissioned missile defense sites, the Orange Bowl, and various local churches. The stockpiling of Cubans awaiting an official stay-or-go-back decision made for an uneasy situation in Miami.

When rioting broke out following the acquittal of the officers responsible for Arthur McDuffie's death, it wasn’t unreasonable to consider the imminent flood of Cuban immigrants into the labor market as a contributing factor to black unrest.

Fallout from the Miami Riot of 1980

In the immediate wake of Miami’s 1980 riot, Richard McEwen, then the CEO of Burdines, struggled to convince his fellow white business leaders that ethnic division between Latinos, blacks, and whites was the biggest problem in Miami.

McEwen saw the white business community’s prevailing desire to integrate Latinos into white organizations and address separately the issues of black frustration and poverty as dangerous to Miami society as a whole.

He founded Greater Miami United as a non-profit group to promote ethnic understanding. The organization was never fully embraced by Miami’s white business elite and folded in the early 1990s after McEwen retired and several corporate supporters went bankrupt.

Arthur McDuffie’s Legacy

There’s a sign at the intersection between Northwest 62nd and 17th Avenue that reads “Arthur McDuffie Avenue.” Beyond that, the former US marine whose death led to the Miami Riots in 1980 has little in the way of a lasting legacy.

Outside of Miami, the name Arthur McDuffie draws blank stares that linger even after a quick Google search of his name. He could be considered the original Rodney King. The parallels are freakishly identical: both were young black motorists severely beaten by cops who were acquitted of all wrongdoing.

Both have riots named after them.

Unlike Rodney King, however, Arthur McDuffie didn’t survive his beating. He was never awarded $3.8 million in civil suit damages, never made public appearances on national TV. He was never interviewed by Oprah.

His beating wasn’t captured on videotape, either.

Maybe that’s why he didn’t become a household name.

Reference and suggested reading:

The Miami Riot of 1980: Crossing the Bounds by Bruce Porter and Marvin Dunn

This Land is Our Land: Immigrants and Power in Miami by Alex Stepick and Guillermo Grenier

Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising by Robert Gooding Williams

Black Miami in the 20th Century by Marvin Dunn

Miami: a Cultural History by Anthony P. Maingot


Fred Smith grew up in Miami in the 1990s. His debut novel,The Coolest Labels, is about a group of Miami teens trying to find their way after Hurricane Andrew devastates South Florida.

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