Black Death

Unless the three-week-old Gulf war becomes bloody beyond precedent, one segment of Greater Miami's population may be safer manning the front lines of battle than at home on the streets of its own neighborhoods. Throughout the county, a young black man now stands a better chance of being killed between his 15th and 25th birthdays than did an American serviceman on a tour of duty in Vietnam. And to come of age today in Miami's Overtown and Liberty City or in the newly violent black ghettos of Florida City and West Perrine is to be at greater risk of being shot to death than was the average Vietnam-era Marine in combat.

Since 1984, when the Miami News first described a local "epidemic" of murder among young black men and the Miami Times pleaded on its editorial pages for recognition of the growing problem, the situation has worsened at an astonishing rate. A study published in December by the federal Centers for Disease Control shows that homicide rates among young black men in America rose by two-thirds from 1984 to 1989. A review by New Times of 331 Dade County killings through 1990 reveals that the national increase is borne out even more dramatically on the local level. Here, while the homicide rate for the general population held steady through the latter half of the decade, young black men are now murdered more than twice as often as they were in 1984. For Dade's young black males, the annual odds of death by homicide have increased from less than one in 1000 in 1984 to nearly one in 500 in 1990.

In terms of peril, the young years of Greater Miami's black men bear less and less resemblance to those of young white men, or to women of either race. In the past three years, the average annual homicide rate for young black men was six times higher than for young white men, nearly seven times higher than for young black women, and about 37 times higher than for young white women. If the incidence of murder among young black men was an epidemic in 1984, today it looks more like a plague.

The population in question is small. There are about 31,500 black men between the ages of 15 and 25 living in Dade today, making up 1.6 percent of the general population and 7.3 percent of the black population. Yet many black leaders believe the level of violence reflects a wholesale disintegration in the well-being of the entire black community - and, increasingly, a phenomenon that threatens the white world as well. "In 1988 I performed 46 funerals," says the Rev. Walter Richardson, pastor of the 1000-member Sweethome Missionary Baptist Church in West Perrine. "Twenty-three of those funerals - exactly half - were for juveniles or young men under the age of 25. One had AIDS, there were a couple of domestic killings, but by and large they were victims of violent crime. I look at these numbers and I see the symptoms of a deep pathology."

While the frequency of killings has more than doubled since the mid-1980s, individual cases show that the nature, circumstances, techniques, and geography of murder have also shifted. Primary homicides - crimes of passion among family members or close friends that account for 75 percent of all killings across the nation - now account for less than 50 percent of murders among young black men in Dade. Territorial murder, with economic motives anchored in the drug trade, is not just the newest, but also the most common kind.

The number of innocent bystanders killed has increased. Murders at home are now less common than murders on street corners, in parking lots, and in other open public places. Murder has gone increasingly mobile: vehicular ambush, drive-by shootings, and moving gun battles between cars accounted for nearly half the killings of young black men in 1990, compared to less than one-tenth in 1984.

During the past seven years, the per capita number of killings increased in two concentrated pockets of poverty in South Dade - western Florida City and Homestead, and West Perrine - and increased somewhat more slowly in urban Liberty City and Overtown. The murder rate for young black men in the North Dade community of Carol City also accelerated as the decade closed.

The January 21, 1990, death of Derrick Spencer Rolle, age 23, may have been the most representative killing of the year. Rolle's murder was ignored by local newspapers; it is described in one hurried, chilling paragraph on the cover sheet of morgue file 90-0224: "According to initial police investigation, deceased was driving his vehicle and had stopped at a red light on NW 12th Avenue & 67th Street. A second vehicle pulled up next to him and approximately three black males carrying guns exited the vehicle and began firing shots at deceased, striking him in the back area. Police responded to the scene and found him lying face up expired. There were approximately three different weapons fired at deceased: A nine millimeter, .22 caliber, and a shotgun (unknown caliber)."

The killing of a nineteen-year-old Miami-Dade Community College business student named Weldon McIntosh at a drug corner in Goulds was also typical. McIntosh's death, like many others, appears to be a by-product of the larger violence around him: "At about 11:25 a.m. the deceased was an innocent bystander at location where a black male was being beaten. The victim who was being beaten produced a gun and attempted to shoot his assailant. The deceased, who was standing in the area, was shot and was transported to C.H.I. [Community Health Incorporated] clinic and was later airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital, arriving there at 12:05 p.m. Despite extensive resuscitative efforts the deceased was pronounced [dead]in the emergency room at 12:20 p.m."

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