With three kids crammed into a small apartment in the boisterous Liberty Square housing project, rest didn't always come easily to Natasha Moore and Phillip Arthur. On Christmas Eve morning, the young couple wanted to sleep in. But just after 9 a.m., music began vibrating the tissue-thin wall separating them from their neighbor, Dorian Hinkson, a 51-year-old widower with a short, graying Afro.
So Arthur, a 24-year-old whose wide-set eyes, broad nose, and easy smile lent him a trustworthy, guileless air, got out of bed, walked outside, and pounded on Hinkson's door. "Turn it down!" he shouted.
Hinkson grabbed a brown-handled folding knife, swung the door open, and with one thrust, sunk the blade straight into Arthur's chest. By the time an ambulance screamed into the projects, Arthur had bled to death in Moore's arms as their children sobbed in the background.
Liberty Square Christmas Eve murder
The horrific holiday crime kneecapped Miami's oldest housing project — highlighting not only cops' inability to stem the violence but also an expensive and elaborate camera surveillance system's failure to help Arthur or prevent the dozen drive-by shootings that have recently peppered the project.
Even more tragically, Arthur's senseless death came at the hands of a man who is obviously mentally ill and should have received treatment long ago. Neighbors say they had complained repeatedly to housing officials about the alleged killer. No one responded, and like most other Liberty Square residents, Arthur and his family were powerless to move away.
"There's no protection for us. Police don't care, the tenant council don't care," says Yvette Norton, who has lived in a building facing Arthur's unit for almost five years. "It's just a bad situation, but none of us can get out of here."
Liberty Square hasn't always been a synonym for hopelessness and violence. When civic leaders petitioned President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 for federal funds, the project was hailed as a utopian solution to black poverty. At the time, most of Miami's blacks lived in a plumbing- and electricity-free ghetto near Overtown. When the first 200 units — neatly whitewashed and lined with palms — opened in 1937, chief backer John Gramling predicted they would "be one of the greatest blessings Miami ever had," according to a history of the units by local historian Paul George.
The dream had become a nightmare by the mid-'70s, when middle-class tenants were pushed out to make room for more needy newcomers. Soon a new nickname stuck for the houses: Pork 'n' Beans. (Disputes remain about the name's origin, which likely referred to either a common meal for residents or an orange paint job.) In 1980, the nation learned about the project's deterioration when vicious riots broke out following Arthur McDuffie's killing by Miami-Dade cops.
Phillip Arthur grew up far from Pork 'n' Beans, amid a big extended family in South Miami Heights, where he attended Ruth Owen Middle School and later graduated from Miami Killian Senior High. But after he and Moore began having children — son Phillip Jr. and daughters Anijah and Tanijah — the couple wanted to make their own life in Miami.
Arthur's family, like most Liberty Square tenants, had stayed for a couple years but wanted to leave. Today there's a waiting list of more than 1,000 names of residents asking to leave Pork 'n' Beans. But the young dad didn't just have the bad fortune of ending up in one of Miami's worst housing projects; he also got stuck in a single-story, blue-painted unit that shared a wall with Hinkson's home.
About five years ago, the unemployed native of St. Vincent lost his wife, neighbors say. And then his kids moved out. Hinkson, in turn, began struggling with serious mental illness — and with police.
In October 2005, he was arrested with two other men in Miami Beach after a woman spotted them looting her car outside the Fontainebleau Hotel and speeding off with three of her handbags. (The charges were never prosecuted.)
Then, in February 2008, Hinkson wandered up to a police stop near Liberty Square where two officers had found a gun in a car. When the cops told him to back away, Hinkson became enraged, shoving one officer, punching another, and yelling that he was a "third-degree black belt." He was convicted of felony battery on a police officer but served only 22 days in jail.
Soon after his release in March that year, Hinkson walked into a small grocery store just outside Liberty Square. He was carrying a two-by-four and swung it wildly at a clerk before repeatedly punching him in the face. When police arrested Hinkson outside, he told them: "I hate those fucking Arabs." (Again, the case wasn't prosecuted.)
Neighbors, meanwhile, tried to avoid Hinkson. He had taken to wandering around Liberty Square while mumbling to himself and yelling at passersby. Often he'd carry a long knife taped to the inside of his forearm, says Ericka, a teenager who lives nearby and declined to give her last name. Many residents complained to the tenant council, a group that screens complaints and advocates for residents. (Council members didn't respond to repeated messages seeking comment.)
"Everyone tried to stay away from him because he was crazy," Ericka says.
Still, until Christmas Eve, Hinkson and Arthur mostly got along, neighbors say. Arthur, who was working as a security guard, would sometimes play cards with Hinkson on the front porch, Norton says.
"I never would have seen that coming," she says. "We knew that man had mental issues, but that was a shock."
After the stabbing, paramedics rushed Arthur to the Ryder Trauma Center, but he was dead before reaching the ER. Police arrested Hinkson, and they say he quickly confessed, "I stabbed him in the heart. That's what I was aiming for. I'm a sharpshooter."
Arthur's murder was unusual for Pork 'n' Beans only in that it didn't involve a drive-by shooting. Even as police ramp up their presence in the project and the county spends thousands on a camera system, crime has spiked. At least 11 shootings have taken place inside Liberty Square since 2010, the Miami Herald recently reported, and more than a third of the city's murders last year happened in the surrounding neighborhood. A $270,000 surveillance system, meanwhile, which was supposed to offer cops Wi-Fi access to watch any corner in the project, has been broken for months.
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New Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa, as his first act on the job, upped patrols in Pork 'n' Beans. It didn't help Phillip Arthur, nor has it made residents feel safer. "The police just sit in front of the community center all day or harass residents," Norton complains. "And then when we complain about someone like [Hinkson], no one listens to us."
Solutions won't come easily to improve the project, nor will answers help Arthur's family. Last Saturday, more than a hundred mourners packed the Homestead Christian Center Ministries, a small church adorned with velvet curtains a few blocks west of Krome Avenue. They remembered a quiet father and placed flowers on his ivory-hued casket; his sisters, Clarenesha and Clarandra Cowart, sobbed as they read poems about their brother.
Toward the end of the service, his brother Mark wiped his eyes and walked to the altar with a wireless microphone. In a keening tenor, he sang a song likely to resonate with everyone still left in Pork 'n' Beans. "Why can't we just fly away?" he sang. "Why can't we all just fly away?"