MIAMI — He was wearing one of those toy beepers, and when he reached down and pulled the bullet from his flesh, the beeper went off and made a funny noise — beedledeedleeep! — a noise that said, “Hey, I’m just a kid, what’s going on here?”
He was a black youth shot by a white man, a moment of madness, a moment of horror, and heaven help this city now, for the fire this time will surely continue. “I’m going to get him,” the youth screamed, upon seeing his wound.
“Y’all come back tonight at 6 o’clock if you want to help me get him!” he yelled at the crowd around him.
It was the middle of the day in the middle of the week in the middle of Miami, a city that bakes golden outside and sizzles angrily within. The trouble had begun the night before in Overtown, a poor black section in the shadow of the Super Bowl headquarter hotels: A black man on a motorcycle had been shot dead by a white police officer. His friend and passenger on the bike was hurled into a car window and died the next afternoon. They were on their way to a celebration for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday — King, who had lived and died trying to stop this kind of violence — and this was just too much. Anger erupted. A car was set ablaze. Guns were fired. Glass was smashed. Stores were looted.
Color was suddenly a battle line. Black here. White there. This was supposed to be a week of celebration for Miami — fun, food, football, Super Bowl XXIII. Instead, on Tuesday afternoon along Northwest 20th Street near 3rd Avenue, half a dozen black youths were throwing rocks at passing vehicles. One of the vehicles stopped. Out stepped the white driver.
“He’s got a gun!” someone screamed.
They ran. He opened fire. Someone said five shots. Police said seven. One of the bullets hit the teenager with the beeper. Got him in the leg. The man returned to his car and drove away.
Word spread. People emerged. Now it seemed as if the whole neighborhood was on the street, blacks in front of their homes, mostly young, dressed in shorts, T-shirts, on skateboards and bicycles, while the white police officers, white reporters and white cameramen stood 20 feet away, on the grass median in the street, looking around, no one sure what to do. A radio blared, a funky drum beat underscoring the tension.
“AAY! AAY! YOU CRACKERS! Y’ALL LIKE BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN?” screamed one black youth with green Adidas sneakers and a yellow shirt.
“Yo. Look at the fat camera dude.”
“The fat boys is back!”
“YO! TWO BELLIES! COME ON OVER HERE!”
It was embarrassing, tense, frightening. A SWAT team officer shifted his rifle from one shoulder to the other. A colleague lowered the visor on his helmet. The radio continued on and on.
What happened? What are we doing here? This was supposed to be a football week, filled with the neon hype of America’s most celebrated sporting event. Super Bowl? San Francisco vs. Cincinnati? Remember? But reality does not bow to publicity, reality does not stop for fumbles and touchdowns. And the reality, according to people here, is that this neighborhood has been a tinderbox for some time; racial tension, charges of police harassment, and the anger over Miami’s generous handling of Nicaraguan refugees, while its black citizens flounder in poverty.
Monday night, the cork blew. And on Tuesday, even as Super Bowl tourists lay by the swimming pool, soaking in the 85- degree heat, just blocks away, the blacks who don’t get tickets to the big game were yelling about justice and promising action.
“The people here want to be heard!” said Darrell Roberts, 21, who sat on a green bicycle watching police try to calm the jeering crowd. “We can’t go to court, no one listens to us. These people just want some attention. They’re saying, ‘You can’t kill one of us without paying for it.”‘
All around him, his neighbors nodded, they mumbled their agreement. The death of Clement Lloyd, the man on the motorcycle, was the spark that set off the explosion. And suddenly there was tear gas, burning cars, the looting of a convenience store, the torching of an auto parts shop — all contagious violence borne of frustration and anger. Where is the sense? They are burning their own neighborhood.
And yet it continued Tuesday. “It’s been terrible here,” said Selma Wade, 20, who lives in the Rainbow Village complex, and who saw the teenager shot Tuesday. “It’s all because of prejudice. I don’t agree with those boys throwing rocks at the cars, but it all started with the police killing that man. Why’d they kill him? They could have shot him in the arm or something, right? And the cop who shot him? They just suspended him. What’s that? That’s like a vacation.”
She turned to look down the street. A police car swirled to the curb and a German shepherd barked fiercely through the back window. The youths banded together.
“AAY! AAY! MY DOG CAN KNOCK THAT DOG, MAN!”
“My dog’ll kill that dog.”
“YO, MAN! YOU CAN’T SCARE US WITH NO DOG.”
“Why they keep sending white cops down here? Don’t they know that’s causing the trouble?”
“Right. How come they do?”
“AAY! AAY! YOUR DOG AIN’T SO TOUGH, MAN. MY DOG’LL KNOCK YOUR DOG.”
The sounds of violence. The sounds of Miami. Earlier in the day, in the orange and turquoise of Joe Robbie Stadium, football players had met with the media. They mugged for cameras. They talked of defenses and passing games. And yet suddenly, it seemed so trivial. Many players voiced concern over the nighttime violence, including Eddie Brown, the Bengals wide receiver, who grew up in Miami, and can still remember the time he went to the movies and emerged into a hailstorm of bottles, rocks and fire.
Yes, it is hard for outside media to know who’s right and who’s wrong in this conflict. And were it not for the Super Bowl, the initial violence would have received less attention. But now, with a worldwide stage and cameras everywhere, it is hard to tell the cause from the effect. And so we saw a scheduled pro basketball game between the Miami Heat and the Phoenix Suns canceled due to fear of violence. We saw the mayor of Miami pleading for tranquility. We saw a meat truck attacked and looted by black youths. We saw a photographer’s car set on fire, and a white man beaten until his head bled. We saw helicopters and sirens and flashing lights. And we saw a teenager, full of anger, shot in the leg as his toy beeper sounded.
This was supposed to be a Super week. But on the streets of Overtown, no one was concerned much with football. “That game don’t mean a damn thing now that a man lost his life,” said Kenneth Colanel, who wore headphones over his ears and a print shirt open to the chest.
“I want you to come back here in three days. You’ll see the way we’re treated by these white police. You’ll see why people around here are so mad.”
Tragic. Terrible. No one wins in a situation like this. Emotion boils and people pray for sanity. It is how far we have come and how far we have to go. The height of indulgence and the depth of raw human anger. It is Super Bowl Week. Miami, America.
“The boys in blue going to have hell on their hands tonight,” said Colanel.
The city braces; we hold our breath.