by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

MIAMI — You expect, now and then, to run smack into your conscience. You just don’t expect it to happen at the Super Bowl. A game. A gunshot. And today we must ask ourselves what America is all about.

This was a week of confrontation. Funny, because this is usually a week for escape, the biggest of parties, the fluffiest of stories, articles about football players dancing and talking crazy and living it up while awaiting the Big Game. It was to be a salsa celebration in this sun-baked city, a chance to put on the glitz for the NFL and several hundred million of its closest friends.

And instead, tragedy. People died, just a few miles from the headquarters hotel, unnatural deaths, deaths by bullet. In sections called Overtown and Liberty City, people were beaten, robbed, stoned, cars were burned and stores looted, there were police cars at every highway exit, nobody in, nobody out, it was a riot, a racial explosion, but it took place during Super Bowl week, a party that, for some reason, seemingly must go on.

So it was that in the morning we boarded the buses for the team news conferences, prune danishes and coffee in silver pitchers and cliched quotes about “respecting the opponent” — and by afternoon the blood was flowing in the streets. So it was that concerts featuring Frank, Sammy and Liza, and parties in places like the Vizcaya Palace and Gardens were held in splendor —

while police raced through Overtown in full riot gear, helmets and tear gas and rifles.

What do you cover in an event like this? Assigned to write about sports, do you close your eyes to reality? There were thousands of reporters in Miami for today’s game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals, and from the moment the horror began — the moment a black man named Clement Lloyd was shot to death by an Hispanic police officer named William Lozano — the buzz was always: “Are you going out there? In the thick of it? Or are you sticking with football?”
‘A man’s been killed here’

What a question. Didn’t it seem that somehow the game should have been put on hold until this was taken care of — until the cries of the poor blacks in the poverty-ridden sections were heard? Of course it did. And yet, the truth is, other Super Bowls have been held while poverty and frustration boiled in nearby streets. New Orleans. Tampa. Detroit. Los Angeles. Name one that hasn’t. What made this unique was that suddenly the problem splashed out of the water and bit the nation’s biggest sports celebration right in the behind.

“Lemme ask you somethin’,” a black youth said to me Tuesday as we stood along Northeast 20th Street, a few hundred yards from the burnt skeleton of an auto parts store. “Don’t you think that game means nothing now? A man’s been killed here. What’s that game gonna mean to us here?”

I could give no answer. We laugh at the image of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. And yet Friday night, nearly 3,000 of us attended an NFL party that featured unlimited shrimp, lobster, steak tartare, salsa bands, rock ‘n’ roll groups — while on the highways, the police cars still flashed their blue lights, cutting off the exits to the danger zone. Fiddling while she burns? How far off are we really?

I don’t know how other all the other reporters reacted to this. I know it bothered many. It bothered me. I had stayed safely inside the hotel the night of the initial violence, when Lloyd’s dead body lay bare in the street, and the gathering black crowd began to tremble, then shake, then explode. Instead of running out and reporting — as I would were it a star receiver’s injury, or a quarterback mooning a helicopter — I watched the news on a TV in the Hyatt Regency lobby. The violent pictures mixed with cocktail music from the lounge. I felt somehow weak and ashamed.

The next morning, the buses rolled out to Joe Robbie Stadium, for a giant news conference with the Super Bowl teams. Players laughed. Reporters swarmed them. Ickey Woods, the Cincinnati fullback, did a his Ickey Shuffle dance for the cameras. Besides a few brief “sorry it happened” and “what can we do’s?” you would never know anything was wrong.

And just hours later, in Overtown, a group of black youths was throwing stones at passing cars. Finally, one car that was pelted slowed down, stopped, and out stepped a white man wielding a gun. He fired wildly into the crowd, four shots, five shots, six shots, seven shots, he hit a teenager in the leg, then got back in his car and hit the gas. It was 2 p.m. The sun was bright and tropical.

Blood in the afternoon.

He drove away.

I was on those streets by then. I had dragged myself there, scared, unsure, but feeling somehow that I needed to see this. And I had wandered clumsily into the shooting.

“Didn’t anybody catch the guy?” I asked, incredulous.

“Nope,” said a young black woman named Selma.

“He just drove out of Overtown?”

“Who was gonna stop him?” she said. A mixture of images

Here are the scenes that linger from the week of fun and gun: Joe Montana, the 49ers quarterback, jogging through the hotel lobby, with people turning their heads as he passed; Woods and his Bengals teammates, waving and doing The Shuffle at mid-court of the Miami Heat game Thursday; 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, greeting his team dressed as a bellhop; Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams, who also serves as a Cincinnati city councilman, holding reporters spellbound with his daily thoughts.

And these images as well: Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez walking down a dark Overtown street, his hands up, pleading with the seething crowd to stop the violence; half a dozen jeering youths, running madly from a vandalized meat truck, their arms filled with stolen food; the hospital spokesperson who announced that Allan Blanchard, who had been riding the motorcycle with Lloyd when the policeman shot him, and who had flown off and smashed into a windshield, had died of his wounds; a black man in dreadlocks pleading to a TV camera: “Don’t you understand? In a city like Miami, there should be no Overtown. That is the problem.”

How do you balance these images? Which tell the real story of this week? Both. Here was pomp and unfortunate circumstance. A multimillion-dollar celebration in the shadow of a black community that has suffered police harassment and has watched other ethnic groups leapfrog them on Miami’s socio-economic ladder.

“You know, I want you to come back here in three days, when all this dies down,” a man named Colanel told me during my time in Overtown. He wore a cap and an open shirt and had lived there all his life. “If you come back then, you’ll see how it is here normally, and why this kind of stuff happens over and over.”

And perhaps he was right. “It was the worst thing that could have happened,” the writers wrote, and yet, in a way, it was sadly perfect. Had this happened next week, how much would America have noticed? Where else can the plight of the poor draw such good light as in the shadow of a party? Head-spinning hypocrisy

And today they play the football game. The violence has subsided. The asphalt has cooled. The halftime show will go on as planned, Billy Joel will sing the national anthem, two teams will battle it out, and in the end, when one of them wins, a player will gaze into a humming camera, and declare, “I’m going to Disney World!”

And if that doesn’t spin your head with hypocrisy, I don’t know what will.

This was a week for conscience, for realizing that life is more than a football game and a good crowd to have a beer with. This was a week for tears, the death of defenseless people, of schoolchildren in Stockton, Calif., of motorcycle riders in Overtown. This was a week for hope, a new president installed, promising visions of a “kinder and gentler America.” This was a week for reflections, our own reflections. America had to look in the mirror and see herself in all her triumph and failure.

And we play the game today, with balloons and music and a three-dimensional halftime. But somewhere in the decaying streets near the hotel sits the man in the cap, knowing, full well, that we’re not coming back. Who listens to the helpless when the party is over? That, more than anything, is the haunting question of the week. CUTLINE: Edith Eddy, center, Allan Blanchard’s mother, gets support Saturday during funeral services for her son. Blanchard was the passenger on a motorcycle that crashed after a Miami police officer shot the driver.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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