Standing above the tiny coffin containing five-year-old Rickia Isaac's body, Mayor Alex Penelas searched for meaning in the tragedy of the child's death. "This is a day of grief," he declared during her funeral earlier this month. "We are all grieving." But that sorrow should not be directed toward Rickia, Penelas explained. "You see the good news is that Rickia is fine," he said. "She is with the Lord. Because of her innocence, because of her youth, because of her spirit, there is no doubt in my mind she is one of the Lord's angels today.
"Let me tell you who we need to be grieving about," he continued. "We need to be grieving about ourselves. Let us just pray to God we will be alive tomorrow. Let us make Rickia's death an opportunity. Let's all get together to stop the violence. It will only happen if we come together as a community."
Arguably the most important line in Penelas's eulogy was the call to recognize the destructive forces before us. "Let's stop ignoring what we are seeing in the community," he demanded. For the literal-minded Penelas, those words held a specific meaning about the prevalance of people carrying guns. If a neighbor has an illegal firearm, report them to the police, Penelas implored the 2000 people gathered at the Jordan Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City. Given that Rickia had been shot in the head by a gunman's stray bullet, and that a dozen other people in the area have been gunned down this year, his admonition seemed entirely appropriate.
Given their limited scope, however, Penelas's words fell as short as Rickia's life. There are other realities -- less tangible perhaps than a handgun, but no less deadly -- that can also no longer be ignored. Besides his denunciation of guns, Penelas needed to recognize the widening chasm between Dade's black and white communities, a rift that was evident even during Rickia's funeral. When the mayor finished speaking, he received warm, though not enthusiastic, applause. As he made his way out the back door of the church and into a waiting car, Minister Rasul Muhammad of the Nation of Islam took his turn at the lectern.
Pointing back toward his chair on the altar where he had listened to Penelas and others speak, Muhammad shook his head and said, "I sit in that seat with anger in my heart. I sit with anger because for many here this is just a performance." And with that, the crowd burst into applause and shouted its agreement.
Alex Penelas may well have delivered what many considered to be mere platitudes, but his intentions were no doubt sincere. The contrast between the reception he received versus that given to Muhammad is simply another indication of the level of mistrust that exists in Miami today between blacks and Cubans.
For the past three weeks there have been statements in the media -- from the New York Times to the Miami Herald -- that Dade County is headed toward a return of the racially charged violence that bracketed the Eighties like burning bookends. Depending on the color of your skin such reports are likely to be viewed as either irresponsible rhetoric or a prophetic warning.
What does seem apparent, however, is that for the past few years there has been a series of incidents that pound like a drumbeat in the African-American community. A cacophony of events, seemingly unrelated, that take on a magnified sense of importance as they rumble from Perrine to Destiny. It is a sound that the rest of Dade County has either ignored or been oblivious to, but one that has created an increasing sense of isolation for blacks.
"I think we are on a collision course," says attorney George Knox, a partner in the law firm of Adorno & Zeder. "I think there is a good deal of tension because people are trying to figure out ethnic partnerships. By that I mean the so-called downtown business community is trying to survive; it sees itself as under siege because of economic and political forces operating against it. African Americans are trying to demonstrate that we are important and need to be paid attention to. And Cubans are trying to learn how to use power, both economic and political power. And I think everyone is making mistakes along the way."
"For anyone to think that tensions are not high right now," says Marilyn Holifield, a partner in the law firm of Holland & Knight, "then they are unaware of the feelings that are created by instances -- in-your-face instances -- that are constantly occurring that tell us that we do not count."
The most obvious examples involve the direct competition between blacks and Cubans for positions of political power. In 1990, Octavio Visiedo was selected over Tee Greer for school superintendent. Three years later Armando Vidal was chosen over Cynthia Curry as county manager. In both cases, the black candidates, Greer and Curry, had more experience and had been next in line for the senior post before being passed over.
In the race last October for county mayor, Penelas beat out former county commission chairman Art Teele in an election that posted results strictly along racial lines. Ira Everett, the former general manager and talk show host on WMBM-AM (1490), argues Teele's loss sent an important message to blacks in Dade County. He contends that, when you compare the accomplishments of Teele and Penelas, the two men were not even close in qualifications. "But when it came to running, it became race, it became ethnic," Everett explains. "The message from Cubans is, 'We will only let you go as far as we want you to go. We are not ready for a strong mayor that is anything but Cuban. You may be the most qualified. You may be the best candidate. But this community rallies around its own.'"
It seems unfathomable now that those crucial positions -- school superintendent, county manager, and county mayor -- will ever be held by someone who isn't Cuban. Indeed, when Visiedo recently retired, he was replaced -- without a search -- by another Cuban American, Roger Cuevas.
In the City of Miami, when Commissioner Miller Dawkins was convicted of federal corruption charges, another black, Richard Dunn, was appointed by the city commission. But Dunn's tenure lasted only a few weeks, until a special election was held and he was defeated by Humberto Hernandez. As a result, the Miami City Commission is now comprised of four Cubans and one Anglo. For the first time in nearly three decades, there is no black representation at city hall.
"I think the average [Cuban] immigrant in this community does not appreciate the civil rights movement; they do not fully appreciate what blacks went through in this country with whites," claims Everett. "In Dade County blacks are under a whole different kind of oppression. [With Cubans] you have a group of people who fled here, they ran here, and they took over -- that's the perception. They have the numbers, they control the votes and so they are going to do things their way."
At Miami-Dade Community College, when Robert McCabe announced that he was stepping down in 1995 as president of the country's largest community college system, it set off another firestorm of ethnic politicking, culminating in the selection of Cuban American Eduardo Padron.
Another phenomenon is the wave of predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods across the county that have chosen to incorporate. This marks a dangerous trend because, as affluent enclaves such as Pinecrest and Aventura break off (taking with them their tax rolls), it makes it harder for county officials to provide the level of services necessary in poorer neighborhoods.
And what happened the first time a middle-class black neighborhood, Destiny, tried to incorporate? The measure was defeated at the polls, thanks to the efforts of Wayne Huizenga, who poured thousands of dollars into an anti-Destiny ad campaign. Joe Robbie Stadium, which Huizenga owns, would have been inside Destiny's city limits. Huizenga was reportedly afraid of the increased control area residents would have had over issues such as stadium parking.
Not all of the issues affecting the black community are as striking. Some are more symbolic. When the City of Miami closed the pool at Charles Hadley Park earlier this year as a way to save money, it struck a nerve. (The pool was one of the only swimming facilities in the black community.) So did the decision last March by six county commissioners, including Penelas, to walk off the dais when former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young arrived in the commission chambers to receive a proclamation. The snub of Young rekindled memories of the treatment Nelson Mandela received when he visited Miami in 1990.
When the county's Community Relations Board began organizing a conference for later this year on ethnic and racial equality, members of the black community seemed particularly peeved that all three of the people selected to be the ceremonial leaders of the conference were Cuban. And when Penelas flew to New York with a delegation of nearly two dozen people to impress Wall Street that Dade County is a serious place to do business, not a single black was invited. "People wonder what we have going on down here when we don't have blacks in the entourage," Knox sighs.
Even the Miami Heat's demand for a new arena on the east side of Biscayne Boulevard, as opposed to renovating the current arena just west of the thoroughfare, represented more than a move of a few city blocks. It marked the end to any pretense that the Overtown/Park West section of town would be revitalized. It also completed the Heat's desertion of Overtown, one of the poorest black neighborhoods in the country. When the team first came to Miami, the owners pledged to build a youth center in Overtown. That promise was never kept.
Couple these solely parochial incidents -- and dozens more like them -- with the more universal problems of racism, poverty, joblessness, and the increased anxiety over welfare reform, and you begin to hear the drumbeat a little more clearly. Further fueling that sense of helplessness this year has been the unrelenting rampage of black-on-black crime, epitomized by the shooting of Rickia Isaac as she was walking home from the annual Martin Luther King Day parade.
"When Rickia was shot, her death represented more than just the passing of a five-year-old girl," offers County Commissioner Barbara Carey. "It represented how our community has turned to a point now where we are destroying each other. It's genocide. We are going to have to change that in our community or we are going to destroy each other. We are not going to have to wait for Hispanics to destroy us, or for Anglos to destroy us, we are killing ourselves off. We are not letting our children grow up."
The latest issue to capture the concern of blacks was the decision earlier this month by the county commission to award space in the Caleb Center to Oceanmart Bank instead of Peoples National Bank of Commerce, the only black-owned lending institution in South Florida. During three remarkable hours of debate, commissioners Betty Ferguson, Dennis Moss, and James Burke tried to impress upon their Anglo and Hispanic colleagues that awarding the contract to Oceanmart would be a grave mistake.
The Caleb Center is in the middle of Liberty City, the heart of Dade's black community, they argued. To keep the area's one black bank out would be an insult. Those commissioners who supported awarding the contract to Oceanmart said they believed they had no choice. It was a straightforward bid, and since Oceanmart proposed giving Dade County more rent for the site than Peoples, their hands were tied. It would be wrong, they argued, to give special consideration to Peoples Bank.
In the days and weeks following the commission's decision, the anger and frustration in the black community continued to grow.
"What about HABDI?" asked Holifield. "What about HABDI?" asked Everett. "What about HABDI?" asked Carey, who missed the bank debate because she was home ill.
In nearly every interview for this story following the vote on Peoples Bank, the subject of the development of Homestead Air Force Base was raised. If the county commission couldn't provide special treatment for Peoples Bank, then why were they able to give a no-bid, sweetheart deal to the company known as HABDI? The answer, they said, was obvious: HABDI was led by politically connected Cubans, including Carlos Herrera, former president and now chairman of the Latin Builders Association.
"You explain to me, how is it possible that HABDI can just sail through and be awarded this contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars, where the stakes are incredibly high," asks Holifield, "and all we were talking about was a tiny space in the Caleb Center for a black-owned bank and we were told nothing could be done?"
Carey cited another example: the Performing Arts Center. Several weeks ago, County Manager Armando Vidal designated Church & Tower to act as the construction manager for the project, responsible for overseeing that the work is done according to specifications. In choosing Church & Tower for the $4.5 million contract, Vidal skipped over two other firms who had finished with a higher ranking from the county's evaluation committee.
Yet Church & Tower had someone neither of the other firms had: its owner, Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation.
"We do this all the time," Carey asserts. "If you don't follow the process in every single case, then don't tell me when it comes to me that you have to follow the process. Don't tell me that we have to take the best bid when it hurts blacks."
The problem, Carey claims, stems from a failure on the part of Hispanics to understand black history. Anglos, she contends, are more sensitive to the concerns raised by African Americans. "They understand what we went through and in some instances they might be more willing to give a little bit so we might be able to share some of the power. But the Hispanic community won't do that, because they are coming into this power and it is new to them. And so they don't give up and they don't back off and there is no flexibility with them. And that causes a problem."
Though resentful, Carey and others also admit envying the gains made by Cuban Americans. "The Cuban community understands capitalism in this capitalistic society," Carey says. "They have gone about getting the power and ensuring their economic growth. They've done that and they've done that well. And that's what we need to do if we want to have any strength or have any respect in this community. People don't respect you in this world unless you have some form of power."
"Let us learn from what the Cuban population has done," Everett agrees. "They set up businesses. They shop in those businesses. Go through Little Havana, you can find four, five, six shoe stores all together, but they can survive because there is enough business. The same with other types of stores. Their love for one another allows those businesses to prevail. Our love for one another is not there. There is a sense of self-hate in our community, a sense of fear and antagonism. Black businesses would love to get the support and loyalty of the black population that the Cubans give Cuban businesses. So there is a lesson to be learned."
Is Dade County headed toward violence?
"Miami is probably becoming one of the most backward, primitive cities in the United States as it relates to black people in positions of power," suggests Muhammad, interviewed at his mosque a week after the funeral. "Where is there a black man in power in Miami? The more exclusive Miami becomes in terms of politics, in terms of economic power, in terms of the distribution of wealth, and the less inclusive it becomes of a dying black community, then you have in reality the seeds of riots. If you walk the streets of Miami -- and this is from an 'outsider' who is still new, I've been here just eighteen months -- the tension that you feel from the street is so high it is waiting for an excuse to explode.
"There are many who are optimistic who say, 'Nah, Miami is not going to have another riot, Miami is not going to go through what happened in the Eighties.' Oh yeah," Muhammad scoffs. "There is a reason why peace is a product of justice. When there is no justice being served in the needs and the aspirations of a community, there is no peace and there becomes civil unrest. That is a natural thing."
Not exactly, says Professor Marvin Dunn, the acting director of the African New World Studies program at Florida International University. Dunn has studied the causes behind the four major riots that struck Miami from 1982 to 1989. "I don't know of an instance in Miami's history where blacks have rioted because of a loss of political power," asserts Dunn. Riots don't evolve so much as they are ignited by a specific incident, often involving a violent or fatal clash between a black and members of the police department. "It is a totally unpredictable phenomenon," he adds.
Black leaders counter that, though it might take a specific incident to spark a riot, it is the anger and frustration inside the black community that will provide the kindling.
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Heightening concern are recent law and order initiatives. Both Penelas (through Operation Clean Sweep) and Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw (with his random DUI checkpoints designed to ferret out illegal handguns) have not only dramatically increased police presence in the black community but have placed it on a much more aggressive and confrontational footing.
In situations such as this, the black community often sends out conflicting messages to the police. "Nobody wants an end to the violence and criminals taken off the street more than people in the black community," Dunn states. But at the same time, he says, a large segment of the community is also distrustful of the police. And therein lies the danger.
Proof of that hazard was found in the first few days of Clean Sweep, when a group of teens were confronted in the parking lot of a bowling alley and, according to black leaders, wrongly harassed. "It was a slap to the community," says Everett. "To use these kids this way is not law enforcement, it's grandstanding. It was a media stunt. It has contributed to the anger, the frustration with Dade County politics. Whenever you need a whipping boy, it is the black community you come through. Whenever you need to make a stand about something, you step on this community."
For his part, Dunn isn't convinced that all of the concern over increased tension between blacks and Cubans is justified. "There are problems," he acknowledges, "but I don't have the sense that this is a particularly troubled time." But, he adds, if leaders in the black community continue to foster that impression, then, "after a while it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.