The Hialeah Gardens "Darkie" Problem

Official city policy: Black people not welcome here

By 1998 neighbors of the Thunder Wheels rink were complaining that the popularity of Soul Night, held on Fridays, was causing problems. Three residents of the Royal Palm condominiums next door testified that Soul Night patrons parked in spaces reserved for residents and that the crowds gathered outside became so large they blocked traffic and were loud and unruly. On November 7, 1998, residents called police to complain about the occupied parking spaces. Police summoned tow trucks. Thunder Wheels alerted its patrons. Police, upset neighbors, and angry patrons mingled outside. A gunshot was heard. Four different police agencies arrived on the scene. In the end no one was arrested and there was no conclusive evidence a gun had been fired.

Martin testified that he responded to the neighbors' concerns by hiring off-duty police not only for Thunder Wheels but for the condominium complex. But by then, he said, the city's efforts to shut him down were in full swing.

After the November incident, former mayoral aide Rosa Levy testified, she heard Mayor Oliveros order the city's chief code-enforcement officer, Orlando Diez, to find a way to close the rink. "She told [Diez] she wanted blacks out of her city. They could go to Carol City, Opa-locka, Liberty City, but not Hialeah Gardens," Levy said. "She kept sending [Diez] back and she keeps asking him when is he going to close them down?" Robert Godwin, special assistant to the mayor at the time, corroborated Levy's testimony.

Current Hialeah Gardens Police Chief Keith Joy and former Mayor Gilda Oliveros in happier times
Current Hialeah Gardens Police Chief Keith Joy and former Mayor Gilda Oliveros in happier times

Martin and his Friday-night manager Maete Sotolongo testified that Diez arrived nearly every Friday, walking through the crowd and out onto the roller-rink floor against the flow of skaters. But Diez never issued Thunder Wheels a citation. (Attorney Walker, representing the city, argued there was no proof Diez was there every Friday night, and the fact that no citations were issued proved the city was not harassing Martin.)

Oliveros also allegedly ordered the police chief to harass the business, though Chief Joy denied targeting Thunder Wheels. At one point, however, the chief prohibited his officers from working off-duty security at Thunder Wheels. Joy claimed the rink was not safe. But that assertion was undercut when Det. Julio Menendez testified that a paralegal in the mayor's office, Manuel Carrera, told him the cops would not be allowed to work at Thunder Wheels again "until we take care of the molleto problem." Last week on the witness stand Carrera admitted using the term but claimed he didn't know what it meant. When pressed by Feiler, Carrera offered that he thought it might mean mulattos.

Detective Menendez complained in a memo to Oliveros, who promptly suspended Carrera for a couple of days. The city's lawyer argued that this disciplinary action negated all the assertions the mayor was racist. Levy, however, countered that when the mayor delivered the punishment, she told Carrera she had to do it to cover her butt.

Thunder Wheels' owner and workers testified that throughout 1999 the police would position their patrol cars in the rink's parking lot, emergency lights flashing, and routinely detain patrons. "They stopped people, they cuffed them and uncuffed them. It was a show," Martin recounted. "Sometimes they'd spend 45 minutes on just two or three kids."

On December 5, 1999, Oliveros was arrested and later convicted on four felony charges, including soliciting hit men to kill her former husband. (Ex-aide Robert Godwin's testimony was instrumental in that criminal case.)

Fatima Morejon took over as interim mayor. Medardo Martin said his problems eased up a little at that time. But with the election of a new mayor, Yioset De La Cruz, a 29-year-old law-school student, the harassment increased again. Martin testified that code-enforcement chief Diez warned him in March 2001 that within weeks the city was going to shut down Thunder Wheels. "Mr. Orlando Diez calls me up and says he's going to serve me with a cease-and-desist order," Martin recalled. "He said, 'We're going to close your business. I want you to understand this is not personal. It's not even my idea. The mayor and the chief of police instructed me to shut you down. Those are my orders.'"

Rather than wait for that embarrassment, Martin voluntarily closed the rink on March 28, 2001. He later shut down his other rinks as well.

At the conclusion of the three-day trial, the jurors began their deliberations. About an hour later they were back in the courtroom with a unanimous decision: The city had indeed violated Martin's civil rights and the monetary damages he sought were justified and should be paid.

The speed with which jurors reached agreement spoke volumes about the perceived veracity of Hialeah Gardens officials, including Keith Joy, who remains police chief. As Feiler put it in his closing remarks: "White man speak with forked tongue."

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