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."
"If you look at the kinds of crimes we had in the 1920s and 1930s during Prohibition, and during the early 1950s with the advent of drug activity, you'll find that none of this has changed," says Miami P®MDNM¯olice Chief Perry Anderson. "It's still territorial. The violence is often in the form of threats and intimidation, with the goal of economic control. These killings are basically gangland killings. The only real difference I see is that now you have a more reckless style of violence. And there's no honor at all any more - for example, family members of the victim are not spared. You have a killer now who is colder, more cruel.
"The reason? Let's say I'm selling drugs. You have to believe I'll kill you if you invade my area, or appear as a witness against me in court. I've got to let you know that no matter where you are, I can come up and blow you away in front of 50 people. And I will. Can you imagine the sort of impression I've left on that community? Most people think these killings are the result of somebody selling somebody bad drugs. Well, that's not the case. It's almost always because you've become too large and you need to be done away with. You're threatening somebody through economic competition.
"These things have so much depth to them. For example, a clean kid is threatening. A clean kid, athletic type, good build, good-looking kid - he probably would be naturally anti-crime. So maybe he gets involved with one of the bad guys' girlfriends. Technically, he's an innocent bystander, but just by virtue of being on the same street or in the same neighborhood with these guys, he's part of a dynamic. If he isn't seduced into their way of life, he risks paying a serious price.
"You've got to keep this on the front burner," Anderson adds, "or people will think the problem has gone away. It's not going to go away. It's clearly getting worse. And if we think it's going to remain just black-on-black homicide, we're fooling ourselves. It's going to keep spreading until it engulfs everybody. Sure, the vast majority of these killings are committed by blacks, but you don't know what other kinds of crimes these people are committing before they get around to murder. Even the psychological impact on the outside society is profound. When I'm in civilian clothes walking down the street, I can hear people in their cars locking their doors: click, click, click, click,
Black men in America have historically been targets of violence. But in the 1980s, in a departure from decades of bloody tradition, direct physical violence came mainly from within the black community itself. Police Chief Anderson, a professional student of criminality, can describe the mechanics and motives of murder among young black men today, and trace some principal causes. But he and other successful, middle-age black men - despite having grown up in Dade's black ghettos - describe an eerie sense of isolation from an entire generation. A feeling of kinship is missing from their analysis of the problem. The ghetto and its youth have changed profoundly; the nuances of social context, the full flavor of a Zeitgeist inspired by spreading criminality is hard for them to grasp.
Opa-locka Mayor Robert Ingram, reaching into the past for something that will make the present comprehensible, likens today's youthful black killer to the archetypal "ghetto hustler" of the 1960s, described in the autobiography of activist Malcolm X. But the comparison between today's ghetto reality and that of three decades ago seems stale. The inability of the older generation to relate in intimate detail to the experience of the younger makes the flood of killings all the more unsettling to them. "There is so much more encouragement toward criminality in the black community than in the larger community," says Mayor Ingram, struggling to explain the new order at the street level. "As a consequence, this may well be the most dangerous, reckless, and lawless black generation in the history of the world."
Rap music - not literature, film, or newspaper accounts - has been the only medium to successfully communicate the emotional reality of a generation in danger. One of the most vivid portraits of the new black American drug subculture, and one of the most forceful condemnations of it, lies in the lyrics of Los Angeles rapper (and ex-con) Ice-T. The profane accuracy of those lyrics has proved unpalatable to radio stations across the nation. What's more, the very depth of descriptive and dramatic detail in the music makes the message easily mistakable for its opposite: a dark glorification of a violent, decade-old, money-based urban nihilism.
Whatever they say about the seductive appeal of a fast and dangerous youth, Ice-T's dark chronicles offer a casebook description of the circumstances of young black death in Greater Miami and most other major American cities during the latter half of the 1980s. "Drama," written in 1988, describes the entire life cycle of an urban killer moving through the defining experiences of street life: prison release, the return to drug commerce, armed revenge, feudal camaraderie, burglary, arrest, interrogation, arrogance, betrayal, jail, repentance, death:
Cruisin' for a bruisin', I'm takin' no crap.
Pipe bomb in my trunk, got a nine in my lap.
I'm layin' for a sprayin', tonight there's no playin', My posse's most strapped, tonight the crew's weighin'.
Dust is burnin', the steerin' wheel's turnin', I'm out a week, I'm already earnin'.
Suckers crossed, tonight it's their loss, Payback time, boy, life's the cost.
Gauges out the window, one lay across the roof, They all die if those suckers ain't bulletproof!
I'm rollin', death tollin', of course the car's stolen,
But I'm blind to what's wrong, all I want is what's golden.
A fool in a fight, too dumb to know right,
Fuckin' blue lights - read 'em their rights!
Copped an alias, bailed out in an hour or less,
I keep a bank for that, don't know about the rest.
Copped another piece, hit the dark streets,
Rollin' once again, fuck the damn police!
Called up my friend Joe, a roof job pro, 459 on his mind car stereos.
He said the spot was sleep, he cased the joint a week, 3:00 a.m. on the dot inside we creep,
Got Alpines, Fishers, JVCs, Motorola phones, Sony color TVs, Had the ride packed up till we heard,
Fuckin' blue lights - read 'em their rights!
4:00 in the mornin', lights in my face,
That's the time, you know the place.
Cuffed in the room with the two-way glass,
Detects in effect cold-doggin' my ass!
`What's your date of birth?' `What's your real name?'
I stuck to my alias, I know the game.
If they don't know who you are, then they don't know what you've done.
`You're just makin' this harder on yourself, son!'
I know this shit by heart, I'm too clever,
`Have you ever been arrested?'
D.A. reject all over his face,
You see - no confession, no case!
Then my boy started illin', talkin' and tellin'.
Son of a bitch - he was a snitch!
Under I went, I caught a case and a half,
He dropped the mallet, then the judge laughed.
Now I'm in the penzo, chillin' like a real pro,
I can't move until the man says go!
A puppet of the game, an institutional thing,
I wouldn't be here if I fed my brain.
Got knowledge from schoolbooks, instead of street crooks,
Now all I get is penitentiary hard looks!
The joint is like an oven of caged heat,
You're just a number, another piece of tough meat.
Killers and robbers are all you greet,
Act soft, you will get beat!
On death row they got their own hot seat,
For those who feel that they are truly elite.
The last thing you see's a priest!
The lights dim - your life ends!
Much about Dade's murder statistics comes as no particular surprise. Young black men killed in the last half of the 1980s usually died at the hands of other young black men. Stabbings and strangulations were rare; about nineteen times out of twenty, victims met their death at the wrong end of a handgun, rifle, or shotgun.
More generally the new numbers simply confirm and update a nightmarish phenomenon already familiar to many people, a fact they've grown tired of hearing about. A bitterness has set in among blacks who have tried to solve the larger riddle of the murder rate, or at least keep the problem in the public eye - while each year the numbers get worse and worse. Paradoxically the murder rate among young black men declined steadily throughout the first four years of the 1980s, along with homicide figures for the population at large.
"Everybody knows about this, but it doesn't go away," says Ingram, the Opa-locka mayor. "Every year Ebony comes out with another black-on-black crime issue. The whole magazine is dedicated to it. But this phenomenon has not been dealt with in a way that's shocking. Nobody's outraged, and they should be. At this point, the problem is almost institutionalized - and there's a lot of money being made from it. Everyone from the film producer to the reporter to the sociology professor is profiting from it. And in a way, the killer himself is paid for his crime. Out here it's hard to live a good life. What do I do if I get sick? In prison I get free medical care, plus three meals a day, and an excellent library."
At the national level, epidemiologists in the intentional-injury unit of the federal Centers for Disease Control, who have been studying homicide in the U.S. for a decade, suggest in their December 1990 study that the main contributors to murder among young black males in America are "immediate access to firearms, alcohol and substance abuse, drug trafficking, poverty, racial discrimination, and cultural acceptance of violent behavior."
In Dade black leaders add to that list causes as various as the glamorization of crime in the entertainment media, the leniency of the court system, a dearth of wholesome role models, poor self-esteem among young black men due to unhappy childhoods in unstable families, illiteracy and undereducation, the abysmal maintenance of public housing, the advent of gang activity during the later 1980s, and cuts in federal public-assistance programs by successive Republican administrations. Any discussion of the exploding homicide rate among young black men, and the newest chief contributing factor, Dade's drug trade, quickly becomes a discussion of underlying causes, the larger social ills of the black community.
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.'"
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.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.