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Hardemon was taken downtown. And given another object lesson in the importance of knowing the right people: "Turns out the detective who interviewed us was my friend's uncle's partner." Three degrees of separation. Hardemon was sprung. "The cop said, 'Get the fuck out of here,' and we did," he recounts, allowing himself a sly smirk.
Still, he says, the experience changed him. "I realized there were probably all these people in jail who had maybe only ever made one mistake. I went back to Atlanta and started listening to Martin Luther King, Jr. on tape. I went to a desegregation rally with Hosea Williams [a leading civil-rights advocate]. I joined Williams's People's Church of Love."
So it was that Hardemon became born-again, as an activist. "I'd been hanging out with hustlers," he admits. "I'd never been confronted with the civil-rights movement. I came back to Miami with a commitment to serve my people."
Hardemon's baptism by fire came on May 17, 1980, when a Tampa jury acquitted four Miami police officers in the December 1979 beating death of 33-year-old black insurance agent Arthur McDuffie. Members of Miami's black community, devastated and angered by the verdict, took to the streets. The ensuing three-day riot left 18 people dead, 400 injured, and caused an estimated $100 million in damage. Liberty City, the locus of the protests, was particularly hard hit.
"The McDuffie rebellion -- I don't say 'riot'; riot is what white people do when their sports team wins a national championship -- was a historic moment for black Miami," Hardemon recalls today. "One of the main things I remember was the elders telling young people to attack the system. People who before would have been like, 'Boy, put down that rock! What's wrong with you?' were like, 'Okay, right on.'" Hardemon flashes a Black Power salute, then falls back into his chair. "I was very active during McDuffie. Active denouncing the system, demonstrating in the street. But I didn't kill anyone."
Instead he became more radicalized, organizing rallies and street protests in his hometown. "Police brutality, the Mandela boycott. I was at the grassroots for all that," Hardemon says, with more than a little pride.
His activism got him noticed. Hardemon claims he was approached about running for a Miami-Dade County Commission seat in 1991, but turned down the offer. "That was back when we had countywide elections and I didn't think I could compete," he shrugs. Two years later, that all changed. Or, as Hardemon puts it: "We got fuckin' district elections. I said, 'I can run in this district'"; District 2 stretches primarily from NW 7th to 37th avenues, between 62nd and 135th streets.
Run he did, on a platform that seemed, at times, equal parts Al Sharpton and Al Schweitzer. Among his planks: a proposal to post signs around the Liberty City area declaring black men an endangered species, as part of a campaign to raise consciousness about the scourge of black-on-black crime. "I never had so much fun in all my life. I came in third in the primary, behind [New Birth Baptist Church Bishop] Victor Curry and Jimmy Burke."
Eliminated from the runoff, Hardemon nevertheless realized he could still impact the race by endorsing one of the two leading candidates. The choice, to Hardemon, seemed obvious. At least initially. "I saw Burke [a ten-year veteran of the Florida House of Representatives] as an insider, so I told Victor, even before the election, that I'd endorse him if I lost," he recalls. After the primary, though, Hardemon found Curry's camp difficult to negotiate with. "Victor's people gave me their ass to kiss. They didn't think they needed me. I felt disrespected. So I endorsed Jimmy Burke, and he won."
Some would say Hardemon sold out. Others, that he sold well. In exchange for his support, Burke made him his chief of staff, an appointment for which Hardemon is still grateful. "He could have put me in the district office, given me a car, told me to stay the fuck out of his way," explains Hardemon, summing up the standard compensation package for political flunkies, "but he brought me downtown with him instead."
In retrospect, of course, Hardemon might have been better off in the district office, away from Burke's inner circle and the temptations that can befall the right-hand man to the county commission finance chair, the position to which Burke was appointed. But don't expect Hardemon to agree. Indeed, the ex-chief of staff bristles at the insinuation he or his former boss were particularly susceptible to payola. "Look, Jimmy Burke didn't own a house, didn't own a car. If he had been as corrupt as people want to portray him, he would have had something to show for it."
Burke by 1996 may or may not have had much to show for his almost three years in office, but the government certainly did. Specifically, evidence showing the county commissioner accepting money from Howard Gary to grease a $180 million bond refinancing deal for black San Francisco bonds writer Calvin Grigsby. On the surface it looked like a typical hustle: Gary, a former Miami City manager and black pioneer in local government, was out to get his own cut of the deal between Burke and Grigsby, who had previously competed with Gary for county business. A hustle it was, but of a different sort: In reality, as part of a plea bargain arrangement engineered after he was caught on tape in early 1996 offering two million dollars in bribes to another official in an unrelated deal, Gary agreed to wear a wire himself, to set up Jimmy Burke and Billy Hardemon for the feds.