Save the Toursits! Save the Economy!
In Clint Clark's neighborhood, they call it "jacking a tourist." The J-T for short. The media have branded the crime a "smash-and-grab." It boils down to the same thing: detaining a car full of tourists and then robbing them.
To fourteen-year-old Clark the J-T is an everyday occurrence, something friends and acquaintances discuss with the same offhand braggadocio that white suburban kids might use in boasting about a shoplifting spree at the mall. "They'll come around here wearing new shoes and shit, saying, 'Yeah, I just got me a 'book.' A pocketbook, they mean," Clark explains. "They'll tell you how they did it, too. They'll be like, 'I had to drag this bitch all the way out her car.'" A freshman at Edison High School, Clark heard the same stories from his sixteen-year-old brother, a smash-and-grabber who used to come home in the finest designer clothing before his arrest earlier this year.
Clark has heard all about the most recent J-T pulled in his Liberty City neighborhood. After all, endless reports on television and in the Miami Herald have detailed the slaying of Barbara Meller Jensen, a German tourist who was savagely beaten and run over by two black assailants April 2 near the 62nd Street exit off Interstate 95. Frantic live updates about the arrest of two suspects a week later kept the story churning.
The murder, witnessed by Jensen's mother and two children, was the sixth tourist killing in Florida since December and spurred Germany's Consul General in Miami, Klaus Sommer, to threaten a German tourist boycott. Fearful such a move would cripple the state's annual $28 billion tourism industry, Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, Governor Lawton Chiles, even U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno all issued appropriately grave sound bites. A special task force convened by the governor, along with local police, hastily devised a battery of plans to stop tourist-bashing, including new road signs, revamped license plates, and beefed-up police patrols.
Like a lot of the kids he knows, Clark laughed when he heard about these measures. "You could put a cop on every corner, and the boys who play would find a way around it. The problem ain't cops. The problem is here," says Clark, scanning the barren landscape at 6th Avenue and 62nd Street, near the site of Jensen's murder. "There's nothing to do. No jobs. No [recreational] centers. Everybody wants to help the tourists. What about us? What about this place?"
An aspiring architect who hopes to attend Morehouse College, Clark could have offered plenty of advice about how to curb the wilder boys on his home turf (and make no mistake, they are almost all young boys). He would have told the governor to fix the night lights at nearby Athalie Range Park, which have been broken since Hurricane Andrew. Or to renew funding for his recently scrapped summer school program. Or to hire more black police, since he and his friends don't trust white officers. But nobody asked Clint Clark for his advice.
Nor, in the last two weeks, as pundits and politicians have clucked over the latest media-generated crisis, have more than a few sparing words been spoken about the roots of the tragedy that befell Jensen. Rather than admit that years of neglect have transformed Dade's inner cities into crime factories fueled by boredom and hatred, political and civic leaders have rallied behind the notion that simply keeping tourists away from the ghettos will solve the problem. (Natives, it is implied, already know which areas to avoid).
"When are we going to recognize the inequities that have produced these kinds of hatred?" demands the Rev. Billy Baskin, pastor of Carol City's New Way Fellowship Baptist Church. "That young boys could feel enough hatred to kill someone they don't even know A there is a deep-seated evil here that we have to face." An evil, presumably, that will require more than banning "Y" and "Z" license plates.
"This act was a reflection of systemic evils that have been allowed to fester in our community: racial division, economic disparity, political shenanigans, the failure of our judiciary," Baskin asserts. "Those aren't excuses for this senseless act. There are no excuses for taking another's life. But we should at least get to the real explanations."
Baskin says he is distressed by the way local media -- which often set the agenda for politicians -- have framed the Jensen murder as a story about "protecting tourists and protecting our economy." And he is not alone.
"We've been complaining about crime in our community for years," says Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE). "They've robbed us clean. Broken into our homes and stolen everything we own to the point that they're now going after tourists because they have money. Where were the police and politicians when these criminals were robbing us?"
To robbery Wilcox might have added murder. According to figures compiled by the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office, of the 374 Dade homicides last year, 199 of the victims were black. (Blacks represent only nineteen percent of the county's population, but they accounted for 53 percent of those murdered.) And there has been no letup in the pace of black death this year. In the first three months of 1993 alone, 51 black men and three black women were slain, more than half of them under the age of 30, many in their teens.
Some of these murders involved drug disputes and other armed conflicts. But at least a few of those killed were, like Jensen, blameless victims. And yet none of these homicides has provoked the sort of outrage sparked by Jensen's death: the immediate cries of the national press and politicians, the $100,000 bounty offered by a car rental company, the million-dollar plans to erect new signs and dispatch more police. "We should be mourning the murder of any person equally, regardless of sex or race, and that's plainly not happening," says Johnnie McMillian, president of the Miami branch of the NAACP.
Reverend Baskin adds that he is most disturbed by the proposal to have police patrol the perimeter of high-crime (read: black) areas and to shepherd out tourists who appear to be lost. "What kind of message is that sending out?" the clergyman wonders. "That those left inside those areas are free to roam and do as they wish? What about those lawful citizens who live in these areas? What our leaders won't realize is that we are dealing with a wholesale loss of hope and compassion. You can't put a barricade around that."
The siege mentality has not been lost on those who live and work in Dade's sprawling ghettos. "We've all been victims of crime around here," says Ray Mandrell, part-owner of New Era Pharmacy, at NW 6th Avenue and 62nd Street. "My clerk just got her car robbed. What you got to do is give these boys some kind of program to get involved in. And not just sports, where they got a one-in-a-million chance of making it. We need something that teaches them a trade, making shoes or learning how to be an electrician. I'd rather pay a tax for that than for more cops." Mandrell, like other merchants in his neighborhood, can recite the predictable pattern of media coverage: Any time a prominent white person -- Dade County Manager Joaquin Avilo or newscaster Sally Fitz, for example -- is victimized, the crime in question becomes a cause celebre. "And if the crime happens in Liberty City," Mandrell observes, "that just throws a spotlight on this place."
The publicity, in turn, has the effect of further discouraging economic activity in Dade's inner city. It is an irony obvious even to fourteen-year-old Clint Clark: "They want to show tourists the beautiful Miami. What about the homeless people under the bridges? They ever show them that?"
Clark says anyone who commits a crime, particularly a heinous crime such as Jensen's murder, deserves harsh punishment. But he also demonstrates an understanding of the criminal mentality that has been all but absent amid the recent cacophony. "These kids who grab 'books, they bad. But they ain't all animals," he argues. "They need attention, like everybody else. And they don't get it from their mama or daddy. They probably don't get nothing. But here they are left to look at Air Nikes and all that A $150 shoes, shoes that make them feel like something. Where they going to get money? Even if they could get a job, they don't have the patience to deal with the manager. So they jack a tourist. What else is there to do around here?"
Reverend Baskin puts it succinctly: "If we want these boys to respect life, we've got to start respecting their lives."
Just 24 hours after Barbara Meller Jensen was murdered, a man named Bobby Banks was stabbed in the chest, reportedly after a botched drug deal. He was rushed from the Naranja Lakes area to a hospital, Community Health of South Dade. He was dead on arrival.
But most people know nothing about the Banks killing. It wasn't on the front page of USA Today. It didn't even make the local section of the Miami Herald. His family wasn't interviewed by Katie Couric on the Today show. And there were no press conferences by Lawton Chiles or Janet Reno. Police officials investigating the murder, the 109th this year, didn't appear on TV, promising the public that the crime would be solved within the week. Nor did local politicians pledge additional police protection in the area of the stabbing.
Bobby Banks was not a white, middle-class German tourist. He was a 30-year-old black man killed by another black man.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.