Black Death

Walter Richardson, the West Perrine pastor, adds another dimension unique to Greater Miami's blacks: "This is one of the few counties in the nation where we don't necessarily have to be on the bottom. We could have had somebody below us. But other minorities have come in and done well, they're achieving. The city manager is Cuban. The county manager is Cuban. So where's your hope for the black male? All the black guys who are in power have to stay second in command. It kind of destroys your hope. Let's face it, people outside the black community should be worried about these homicide rates, but they won't be. They'll think: the less of them we have, the less we have to worry about. Of what value is the black male? Shoot him. He's not worth anything."

After the most recent riots in Overtown and Liberty City, Dr. Joye Carter wrote to the Journal of the National Medical Association to describe her shock upon moving from Washington, D.C., to Miami in 1988. "My position as the only black medical examiner in Dade County has afforded me more than ample opportunity to witness the impoverishment of the black community here," Carter wrote. "I was introduced to the term `Liberty City Natural' by my colleagues. This phrase was coined as a euphemism for the large number of homicides occurring in the Liberty City neighborhoods."

After detailing the frightful housing, lack of electricity and running water, and depressing atmosphere of Miami's two principal black ghettos, Carter summed up: "In my opinion, the situation exists because of the extremely high poverty level among Miami blacks. The majority of Dade County blacks have no means of achieving the American dream." Carter has returned to Washington, D.C., having completed a one-year fellowship in the Metro-Dade Medical Examiner's Office.

One question suggested by the graphs that accompany this story is whether the homicide rate for Dade's young black men will simply continue to rise, perhaps doubling again in the next half-decade. "I think they will, unless the black community takes this problem and deals with it from the perspective of changing our own apathy," says Chief Anderson, who proposes that a cash-reward system be established in Miami for citizens who act as spur-of-the-moment confidential informants and help police arrest more drug dealers. "I think a lot of peer pressure is called for. There will have to be a commitment on crime, even though it may even cause death for some people. Look, the sort of criminal who is thriving in the black community couldn't thrive in Coral Gables or Bayshore. Sooner or later the people would call the police so much, aggravate this person so much, he would go somewhere else or disappear altogether. We have a lot of calls, but that kind of commitment is still lacking.

"We could talk about this forever," says Anderson, gesturing distantly toward the window of his Overtown office. "What's the difference between property values in the black community and property values outside the black community? Look at McDonald in Coconut Grove. On the east side are houses that are worth $40,000, $50,000, $60,000 more than they are on the west side. Many of the homes are actually the same. So what's the difference? If you're a black citizen, you have to concern yourself with that, and other things that are so significant to the society at large. You have to get to the point where you say, `At all costs, these people must go. The killers must go, the drug sellers must go. There is no safe haven for you on 51st Street.'"

Part 3

Walter Richardson, who often preaches a similar message from the pulpit of the Sweethome Missionary Baptist Church, notes that there may be some reason for optimism hidden in the generally appalling Dade homicide figures. After the peak year of 1988, which saw a record rate of 217 killings per 100,000 young black men, the numbers have declined slightly in 1989 and 1990, from 187 to 184 murders per 100,000.

Of course, Richardson's tiny dose of hopefulness might be inspired by his personal fortunes. Two years ago, he believes, his name was added to a `hit list' that included West Perrine shopkeeper Lee Arthur Lawrence, Sr., assassinated in 1989 after years of outspoken opposition to drug dealers. During a Metro-Dade police operation in West Perrine this August, Richardson says officers learned that his name had been dropped from the list.

"For the moment, they're withholding judgment," Richardson says. "It may mean we've started turning the tide against them. Or it may just mean they're waiting to see what we do." Richardson, a conscientious objector in Vietnam and an opponent of the Gulf war, has carried a handgun strapped to his ankle for the past two years. These days he sometimes leaves it at home.

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