Exposing the Color Line

In the rear of a nondescript South Miami office building, a hidden door is set in a tiled floor. Grant Miller, who uses the place to publish a chain of weekly newspapers, pries it open for a visitor. "Let me show you something," he says. A dank odor issues from the yawning blackness. Rickety wooden stairs lead down to a cramped room where, legend has it, police long ago tossed black prisoners after beating them.

Miller contends the secret prison is a pertinent, and bitter, metaphor for recent events in his city.

He's right. It's as if the cellar door has suddenly been flung open in this small middle-class community near Red Road, just off U.S. 1. A series of racially and sexually charged incidents has scarred the city's psyche and thrust its citizens into a crisis of self-examination. This is how bad it's become: Offensive cartoons depicting blacks as chimpanzees were distributed during an election last year. Ten present or former employees have filed discrimination suits against the city, alleging sexual harassment and racial bias in hiring and firing. One female city hall employee is even accused of harassing male colleagues by suggestively lifting her skirt and performing "fellatiolike" gestures on a piece of pizza during lunch.

Sitting on top of this powder keg is the newly elected Cuban-American mayor, Julio Robaina. The 36-year-old BellSouth technician squeezed into office in February with the help of Herman Echevarria, a veteran campaigner in one of Dade's most politically charged cities, Hialeah. It won't be easy for Robaina to lead the city out of this moral morass. The mayor is accused in a confidential memo of calling black Police Chief Cokes Watson a "nigger," and Watson has sued the city, alleging discrimination. Robaina vehemently denies the accusation. The episode underscores just how nasty things have become at city hall.

South Miami seems an unlikely spot for accusations of overt racism. Such events are unexpected in this city of nearly 11,000 inhabitants, a city that was recently praised by civil rights groups as a mecca of progressive politics. It's a quaint, tree-shaded community that has puttered along in relative suburban quiet for most of its 70-year history. The area was first settled at the turn of the century when shopkeeper Wilson Larkins expanded his grocery store to include a post office. A stop on Henry Flagler's railroad, it was called, predictably, Larkins. Twenty-seven years later, aiming to take advantage of their proximity to Miami, the community's 85 voters renamed it South Miami. Unlike cities such as Miami Beach, Surfside, and Coral Gables, which excluded black residents, the city had a relatively large population of blacks from its inception, according to Dade historian Paul George. Laborers from two industries, railroad and farming, settled there. As in most Southern towns, segregation was endemic.

Almost from the start, the black community in South Miami was more prosperous than others in South Florida. Businessmen like Marshall Williamson, the first black man to buy land in the city, provided an economic cushion for other blacks by providing jobs and loans, George says. In 1963 South Miami became one of the first communities in Dade to appoint a black person to a city panel when a man named Bowman joined the planning and zoning board.

The city has been politely segregated for decades, with mostly blacks occupying the north side of U.S. 1 and others living to the south. According to the 1990 census, whites constitute slightly more than half the city's population, while Hispanics and blacks make up roughly a quarter each.

Starting in 1996, the city's leadership was transformed when voters elected the first openly gay mayor, then the first black mayor. Tom Cunningham, a florist by trade and a former Mr. Gay Alabama, made national news when he was elected. At the time, he was one of only about 100 openly gay elected officials in the country, according to press reports. When Cunningham died of AIDS in 1997, Anna Price, a black administrator with a Ph.D. who worked at the University of Miami, was elected to finish his term. Serving with her were two black commissioners, creating a black majority on the five-member commission for the first time. That meant residents had not voted by race, a sublime achievement in Dade County.

Yet controversy was brewing. About the same time Cunningham was sworn in, one of the police department's top-ranking female officers, Lt. Shirley Bradshaw, accused Chief Rafael Hernandez of sex discrimination. Along with three other women, she claimed Hernandez "inappropriately" touched her and made degrading comments.

Some say the roots of racism and sexism had always been there. Others believe the controversies arose because traditional South Miamians were threatened by a new, more diverse leadership taking power. "I truly believe this is the backlash to having a majority black commission," says Simon Codrington, a 34-year-old black industrial technologist heavily involved in local affairs and politics. In fact Codrington, who publicly decried the racist flyers that appeared during the election, received an anonymous letter last month suggesting he move away. He believes the letter is linked to his role publicizing the flyers.

There are other possible explanations. Anti-black sentiment could be fueled by a new plan to redirect tax money to a blighted and mostly black neighborhood. Then there's the enormous mall under construction on U.S. 1 that will likely bring millions of new tax dollars into city coffers. More money means more power in city hall, and competition for that power -- the theory goes -- exacerbates racial tension.

Racism denies those qualities that compose unique personalities and instead lumps a group of people into an indistinguishable mass. South Miami, however, is home to some very strong personalities. In 1996 two of them clashed over -- what else? -- racism.

Julio Robaina won enough votes for commission to qualify as vice mayor that year. Stocky and well groomed, Robaina carries himself with the blunt energy of the working class, a heritage he proudly embraces. "I'm a middle-class working citizen who got into office because I didn't like what was happening to citizens," he likes to say. As a first-generation Cuban American, Robaina says he's no stranger to bigotry. "I've had doors slammed in my face quite a few times while out campaigning."

As a city commissioner, Robaina was a blur of activity, responding quickly to messages (he gives his beeper number out to anyone who calls), rushing to DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) graduations in the schools -- and fighting with city managers. In Robaina's first year, manager Eddie Cox quit after a verbal slugfest with him. Cox says the argument followed a great deal of haranguing by Robaina. (Robaina denies this, saying there was an unfortunate one-time incident).

But Robaina's disagreements with Cox (who is white), which had nothing to do with race, seems like a Sunday dance when compared to his battles with Cox's replacement, Dennis Whitt.

Whitt, a white 47-year-old who speaks with a twang left over from his Kentucky childhood, came to South Miami from Opa-locka in 1996 with a reputation as a firebrand unlikely to retreat from a fight. He was also known as someone who dealt fairly with all races. In the 1980s Whitt sued the town of Lake Park, in Palm Beach County, after commissioners tried to rescind the severance pay he had earned as manager. He won. He then served as police chief and public safety director in the tiny town of Virginia Gardens before becoming city manager in Opa-locka in 1989. Opa-locka is one of only a few predominantly black cities in South Florida. Whitt was eventually dismissed from that job after clashing with city commissioners.

"He believes in people's rights," says Grant Miller, whose South Miami News frequently criticizes Whitt about matters unrelated to race or gender. "He hired and promoted women and blacks from the start. I mean, he did great things." Former mayor Price goes a step further: "Dennis really uncovered some stuff. And he paid for it."

Once on the job, Whitt immediately inserted himself into several contentious police issues. One of his first accomplishments was to settle Shirley Bradshaw's lawsuit by agreeing to pay the women who claimed discrimination a total of $30,000. He also challenged a test for sergeant candidates, alleging it was designed to keep out minorities. Chief Hernandez defended the test; Whitt changed it anyway. Then he promoted three officers who passed the new exam. When Hernandez protested, Whitt fired him. (Hernandez sued the city in September, alleging Whitt dismissed him wrongfully. He says the city manager meddled in an internal police investigation).

Then Whitt made a move that could cost the city dearly. In April 1997 he appointed Cokes Watson as the new police chief. A 43-year-old former police lieutenant, Watson resigned from the force in 1995 rather than serve under Hernandez. To the local black community Watson was a hero, a star baseball and football player in high school who numbered among his best friends former Marlins star Andre Dawson.

The chance to run the department must have seemed to Watson like a dream come true. But it came with a warning.

A memo that Whitt wrote on April 10, 1997, has become the core of perhaps the city's most explosive lawsuit. In a one-page confidential missive, Whitt offered the job of police chief to Watson but also cautioned him that he might not have the support of elected officials: Mayor Robaina had already offered the position to Jose Fleites, a Miami police lieutenant.

Such an offer would be illegal. City law allows only the manager, not the mayor, to make job overtures. The measure, part of the city charter, is intended to keep politics out of city administration. "You must understand that I have had continuing political interference from Julio Robaina regarding almost every matter of administration, including the open police chief position," the memo states. "It has become his political trophy and he has apparently promised the post to others.

"The city charter notwithstanding, he has personally demanded that this position be filled by another 'Latin male.' He has hand-delivered the attached resume from City of Miami Captain Jose A. Fleites."

Then the bombshell. Whitt quoted a conversation he had with the mayor: "[Robaina] went further, to say he would support the cleaning up of the police department but that: 'This City is not ready for a "Nigger" Police Chief. Excuse me, "black" Chief. Ha! Ha! "Afro" -- whatever! All hell will break loose for you, Dennis. I'm just trying to help you understand this community.'"

Based partly on the memo, Watson claimed discrimination. In a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he alleges that Robaina "has created a hostile work environment for myself and other blacks, by making derogatory remarks about our race." Watson declined comment. His lawyer, Inger Garcia, says only: "My client just wants to do his job."

Robaina has no problems commenting on the memo: "This is outright crap, a flat-out lie. My generation never uses the n word." He also denies urging the selection of Fleites as police chief.

It may never be known whether Whitt or Robaina is telling the truth. But the dispute over the Whitt memo shows two things: Acrimony has reached bizarre levels at South Miami City Hall, and accusations of racism there can spring from any direction.

Complaints about South Miami don't end with race. They sometimes come from unexpected corners. For example, the complaints about Mercedes Asher contained in Watson's lawsuit against the city. Asher was a part-time assistant in the city clerk's office. According to Watson, Robaina directed the young woman to cause trouble. By flirting outrageously, she was supposed to set up Watson, Whitt, and others on sexual harassment charges, the police chief and three former city officials claim. Asher, through her attorney Michael Feiler, denies the accusations.

In an affidavit related to the lawsuit, City Clerk Ronetta Taylor describes Asher as fixated on sex. Taylor describes one raucous lunchtime scene: "Ms. Asher had ordered in pizza for lunch. I was sitting at my desk when she busted into my office all upset and asked me to talk with Kelvin [a maintenance worker at city hall] because he was going to tell his wife that she was being provocative with him.... I asked her to explain and she said that all she was doing was eating pizza and licking her fingers."

Taylor asked Kelvin what was going on: "Kelvin said that while eating his lunch, Ms. Asher came and [sat] opposite him and started eating pizza in a provocative way. She started pushing and pulling the pizza in and out of her mouth and licking her fingers as if simulating oral sex. Kelvin said that he'd asked her to stop her behavior because it was making him sick."

Taylor says that Asher later "blurted out" that she and then-Development Office director William Pratt had "seduced" each other. Asher "had flashed [Pratt] several times while I was out of the office," the city clerk reported. "He said that it got so bad that he would not come into my office if I was not present." Taylor said Pratt also described Asher pulling "up her dress to show him her underwear.... Ms. Asher even told him that on certain days she did not wear underwear to work."

In a later affidavit, Asher stated that she and Whitt had an affair. Whitt steadfastly denies this and counters that Asher made such aggressive sexual advances toward him that several times he asked for a police escort. Whitt also accuses Asher of being an agent for the mayor.

Asher no longer works at city hall. Feiler, her lawyer, says she is preparing to file a sex discrimination lawsuit against the city.

Election time drew the racism at city hall into the open. Soon after Robaina launched his mayoral campaign against Price in February, the ugly flyers started to appear. Some were faxed anonymously to city hall. Others were put in people's mailboxes. All attacked Price.

At first, Price says, she thought they were just vicious political cartoons. The first one she remembers was a picture of the Three Stooges with the three black commissioners' names listed beneath. But then they became more clearly racial: a cartoon of three chimpanzees with the three commissioners' names over them, a cartoon of Price standing beside a broken railroad track with the caption "Don't pay this price for a dark experiment," a sketch of Price walking Watson as if he were a dog. The most egregious was a two-page screed titled "The Real Black History," which repeatedly used the word "nigro" and called blacks "leeches."

The origin of the flyers is a mystery. Price won't conjecture. Robaina denies involvement. "These did not come from our camp," he asserts. In fact, the mayor says, he was subjected to bigoted politicking when a phone survey asked voters if they were worried about "Hialeah-style" politics. Because Hialeah is heavily Cuban American and has a history of federal indictments for corruption, the implication was anti-Hispanic, he says. But even Robaina admits the phone calls were less offensive than the flyers.

Price says she tried to remain dignified. "There was no way I was going to respond," she says. When the approximately 2000 votes were counted, in a city of 6000 registered voters, Price lost by a little more than 200.

The contest between Robaina and Price was historic on several counts. Not only did it include divisive attacks, but it was probably the most expensive campaign ever run in South Miami. The Price camp raised about $26,000, more than five times the amount mayoral candidates had spent in the past. The Robaina camp raised about $19,000. Also surprising were the high-powered handlers each hired. Price employed veteran public relations man Ric Katz; Robaina signed up Herman Echevarria, who had recently lost a bid for mayor of Hialeah.

Many observers believe South Miami lost its innocence during the election.

Whitt has left city hall. Price is gone too. So are Hernandez, Asher, and many of the people at the center of the controversies. About the only one left is Chief Watson -- and many wonder how long he can hang on.

The city recently brought in an interim manager, Charles Scur, a 46-year-old adjunct professor at Florida International University. Rumors circulated that he would be asked to fire Watson. Many local blacks, already alarmed by the flyers and the gradual thinning of black officials, showed up at a commission meeting to protest the move.

David Bethel, the only black commissioner left on the dais, voted against Scur. With more people than usual at the meeting, police stood guard. Notes publisher Miller (who is white): "I've never seen three uniformed cops attend meetings before. When 50 whites gather at a meeting they're considered 'concerned citizens.' When 50 blacks gather, they're considered 'disruptive.'"

Meanwhile, Scur assures all who ask that he has no intention of firing Watson. And Robaina also contends that he has no quarrel with the chief. He claims Whitt deluded everyone.

"The lawsuit will probably be settled very amicably, once he understands it was all a ploy," Robaina says confidently. Unfortunately he hasn't been able to tell the chief this. "Apparently he's been told he can't meet with me.


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