Born to Lose

Created after the 1980 riots, the Metro Miami Action Plan was supposed to level the playing field for blacks. What happened?

Yap's factory, which produces tofu, sprouts, and packaged vegetables, is tucked behind a fence topped by barbed wire. A security guard stands watch at the gate to prevent any recurrence of robberies like the kind that took place in 1995. Yet despite crime and bureaucratic hurdles, Yap plans to expand into a site next door, an expansion that could produce 40 to 50 new jobs. "MMAP really helped me out," he says.

There are two different versions of why MMAP was created. Both seem to have elements of the truth. The first is that MMAP is the product of one of the worst crises to strike Miami: the 1980 riots. The acquittal of four white policeman of manslaughter charges for the beating death of a black insurance salesman named Arthur McDuffie enraged a disaffected and frustrated inner city. After three days of destruction and violence that left eighteen people dead and the National Guard patrolling the streets, a stunned county leadership emerged from its command post in desperate need of solutions to calm a worried populace. In response community leaders came together across ethnic lines, from both the public and private sector, and created MMAP.

The other story is not quite so altruistic. In 1982 another outbreak of violence in Overtown focused blame on then-Mayor Steve Clark; critics claimed his administration had abandoned the black community and, despite the riots, had done little to alleviate the conditions of poverty that fueled the upheavals. Clark, facing re-election, spearheaded three months of community meetings in search of a large enough bone to hand over to his angry constituents. In this scenario MMAP was always more about political expediency than actual results.

"It was all show," Fair believes. "That is the nature of ethnic politics. You must have something to offer the various members of the electorate and [Clark] had nothing to [offer] to the black community."

Whatever the reason, months of meetings cohosted by Richard McEwen, then-chairman of Burdines, led to an unprecedented gathering of more than 800 business executives, black activists, politicians, and school officials in the summer of 1983. "How can we rescue the black community from poverty, anger, and disaffection? That's what they wanted to do," remembers Marvin Dunn, a professor at Florida International University who has written extensively on the riots. "Something that would involve the power structure of the community."

By many accounts the two-day meeting was a watershed. "Any number of conferees, blacks and whites alike, said they had never felt so encouraged as by the attendance, the candid exchanges of views, and the breadth of concern," the Miami Herald editorialized.

The group adopted 176 recommendations for "actions" to be taken on behalf of the black community. The actions were divided into broad categories: education and job training; economic development and employment; sensitizing the criminal justice system; and housing. Most of the proposals were amorphous and unenforceable, more for the purposes of advocacy than action. For instance in one such action MMAP would encourage businesses to hire more black employees. A few were more pointed, like a call for stricter code enforcement and restraint training for police recruits. In a lunge for the high ground that also conveniently sidestepped the thorny issue of accountability, the framers titled the plan "a community's commitment to itself."

In the first year, the county ponied up $300,000 to establish an eleven-person MMAP bureaucracy to shepherd the action items to completion. It made the organization a minidepartment and staffed it with county employees. The City of Miami also contributed by assigning two of its staff members as well. But the government's commitment was not matched by the private sector.

"Everybody showed up in the beginning," Dunn recalls. "Then after the first few meetings, CEOs and others in top positions began to send their assistants to the meetings. Eventually they stopped coming altogether. By the end of the first year, [it] had become just a shadow of its original self."

By the second year of operation, MMAP could point to some small accomplishments. At that point its mission was still largely to advocate for programs and initiatives that other agencies would enact. With the help of then-State Sen. Carrie Meek, MMAP convinced state legislators to set aside money from a tax on commercial real estate for housing in low-income neighborhoods. The organization took partial credit for a variety of changes and initiatives. The Dade County School Board hired more black administrators. Tax credits were passed to encourage investment in blighted areas of the county. The police got cultural-sensitivity training.

By the end of the first year, when it became apparent that Miami's business community had slinked off, questions surfaced about whether MMAP could ever live up to its promise. Its role as an advocacy group without clout spelled trouble.

"Anybody in his right mind knew that MMAP as it was originally constituted, given the funds allocated, was not going to meet its mission," Fair notes.

By 1986 MMAP's funding from the county hit $2.8 million. That was also the year that Merrett Stierheim, present at MMAP's creation and a major proponent of the organization, stepped down as county manager, a post to which he would return in 1998. About $500,000 of the money that year went to administrative costs. The rest was parceled out as grants to different community groups and programs MMAP's board of directors deemed in line with its mission. MMAP had moved beyond simple advocacy to include underwriting organizations and programs.

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