The Quiet Riot
All summer long the ghost of South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela has haunted Miami as surely as a bearded wraith named Fidel Castro has deviled the city for three decades. Like Cuban Miami's absentee archvillain, black Miami's imported superhero is now a touchstone and tuning fork for local reality, a lens required for viewing life at the end of America.
No matter that Mandela is home across the Atlantic after a quick visit here in June, or that Castro, from across the Florida Straits, thinks less about Miami than Miami thinks about him. Judged by the degree of passion they inspire, the two international figures might spawn a new religion for Miami - with Mandela the gatekeeper of an Overtown heaven and Castro lord of a Calle Ocho hell. But if Miami's exiled Cubans still view Castro as pure evil, they now see the deputy president of the African National Congress as a fallen angel.
Mandela's tumble from grace occurred the week before his arrival in Miami, on ABC's Nightline. Having emerged from a South African prison after 27 years in confinement, the aging former guerrilla leader refused to repudiate his old allies Fidel Castro, Yasir Arafat, and Moammar Gadhafi.
Overnight, Dade's Cuban-American mayors, including Miami's Xavier Suarez and Hialeah's Julio Martinez, signed a statement denouncing Mandela. And before Mandela arrived on June 27, Suarez and Miami City Commissioner Victor De Yurre withdrew their support for a proclamation honoring him. Mandela never received an official welcome from Miami, Miami Beach, or from the government of Metropolitan Dade County.
The local governments' response enraged Miami's black community. And that rage was deepened and complicated by the violent arrest of 62 Haitian demonstrators on July 5 at the Biscayne Plaza shopping center on the edge of Miami's Little Haiti. The demonstrators had been protesting the alleged mistreatment, a week before, of a Haitian customer at a Cuban-owned clothing store.
The lasting effect of Mandela's Miami visit is a well-organized boycott of Dade's tourism industry, which injects an estimated $5.7 billion into the local economy each year. Fifteen local, state, and national black groups have so far canceled meetings and conventions in the Greater Miami area, or said they are considering doing so. They include the National Bar Association, the National Medical Association, the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, the National Conference of Black Mayors, the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, and the National Association of Black Journalists. By various estimates, the boycott - chronicled nationally by the Wall Street Journal and USA Today - has already cost the county from five to twelve million dollars.
The organizers of the tourism boycott - Dade's Black Lawyers Association and representatives of fourteen local black groups - threaten to keep the pressure on until their four demands are met. The demands: a public apology by elected officials for their failure to welcome Mandela during his visit; a federal investigation of the July 5 arrests at the Biscayne Plaza shopping center; a review of U.S. immigration policy, which boycott organizers say favors nonblack immigrants; and substantial reforms in Dade's tourism industry to allow increased employment and business opportunities for blacks.
Since the boycott began on July 17, its inventor and spokesman, Miami trial lawyer H.T. Smith, has refused to negotiate with public officials or business leaders, saying Miami's or Dade County's politicians must meet the first demand before any talk of resolving the boycott can take place. Elected officials have refused. Though Smith's handling of the boycott has been criticized by some black leaders, their willingness to do so appears to be fading. On the other hand, Cuban business and political leaders show no signs of acquiescing to the demands of the boycott organizers. Instead of a new religion, the twin specters of Castro and Mandela have spawned a bitter dialectic for Miami's ethnic politics.
Though a comparative unknown among Miami's recognized black leaders, H.T. Smith has had little trouble mustering support for the boycott from the black community, a fact he attributes to the unusual developments of the past three months, and to his own background in local anti-apartheid efforts. More and more, the attention and the political power created by the boycott comes to rest squarely on Smith.
"It's kind of interesting when people tell me they haven't heard of H.T. Smith," says Johnnie McMillian, president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "I don't see it as this young man coming out of the blue. He in fact has been out here for a long time."
"We have decided to follow his lead," says the Rev. Victor Curry, pastor of the 2800-member Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Liberty City. "H.T. Smith knows exactly what he's doing. He may have not been as visible as some of the other leaders, but he has certainly been a dedicated and effective leader in the past."
In a recent interview, Smith talked with New Times about the growing economic-sanctions movement he calls a "quiet riot."
The idea of a boycott was conceived several days before Mandela arrived in Miami. On behalf of the South Florida Coalition for a Free South Africa, you delivered a letter to Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, demanding that he and his fellow commissioners provide an official welcome for Mandela. You wrote that such a welcome would "at the very minimum include a key to the city and an official proclamation." You also warned that a failure to do so could result in "a black boycott akin to the one last year against the State of Arizona for its refusal to declare the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a national holiday." What was the response?
I called down to Mayor Suarez before Mandela's visit to ask him what type of welcome Mandela would get, whether there was a proclamation in the works, that sort of thing. Same thing with [Metro-Dade] Mayor Steve Clark. We warned them before Mandela arrived of the consequences, so it's not as though they were blindsided. To this date I have not received a response to either letter or either call. No call, no fax, no letter, or anything to say, "We disagree with you," or what. That's symptomatic of the disrespect my community gets.
Have you contacted Suarez or Clark since the boycott began?
I have not contacted Mayor Suarez or Mayor Clark. I don't intend to. Until they respond to my initial correspondence, and acknowledge I am a human being, I will not contact them.
How did the boycott begin?
After the Mandela fiasco, in my judgment, Miami was ready to explode. The least little thing could have caused it to go up. While we were wrangling around trying to come up with an appropriate response, we had the incident with the Haitians. We felt - when I say we, I mean lawyers, accountants, shirt-and-tie-wearing black folks - we felt it was very important that we find a nonviolent way to release this frustration, but be effective, too - not just provide some symbolic gesture like going down and standing in front of Mayor Suarez's office.
I had been, along with others, instrumental in bringing the National Bar Association convention to Miami in 1994. Having been contacted by a lawyer before Mandela's visit who said, "I don't feel welcome if Mandela isn't welcomed," and having been contacted by a member of the National Medical Association who said the same thing, the idea hit me. Fine. Let's move our convention out of Miami, because if Mandela's not welcome, we're not welcome.
Being the kind of person that I am, I believe in leading by example. When the [National Bar Association] host committee met, a lot of people said, "Let's go to some local organizations and ask them to organize this effort." Several of us said, "Look, let's put our money where our mouth is" - let's move first and then ask them to join us. Let's not go asking these people to step out, because they're going to say, "You lawyers, all you ever do is talk anyway. You all haven't done very much except stay in your highfalutin offices downtown and make a lot of money and drive your BMWs home to the suburbs."
We decided to lead by example. I mean, why did Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her seat on a bus start the civil-rights movement? I don't know. It was spontaneous civil rights combustion. This was spontaneous economic combustion.
Before we could even contact other organizations, they began calling us, saying, "Hey, we want to join the boycott too. We feel the same way you do." Omega Psi Phi fraternity canceled its 1991 international leadership conference. Right on the heels of that, the National Medical Association canceled. We then got a list of convention schedules through 1999 and sent out information to them about what was going on. The response was overwhelmingly supportive. We thought we would have to sell it. We didn't have to sell it. They said to us, "Hey! What do we have to do to join?"
Why was that? Had they seen coverage of Mandela's trip to Miami on television?
Right. People around the country were saying, "What in hell is wrong with your town?" Mandela met with [British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher, who had called him a terrorist. She was civilized and performed her duty. He met with the pope. He met with Bush, who doesn't like him but who carried out his duty. He was one of four people [in history] who addressed a joint session of Congress, and you saw the kind of welcome he got in other places. Other people were saying to us, "What's wrong with you black folks down there? You let your leaders do that to you and you don't do anything about it?" Then local black people got embarrassed and said, "Hey, yeah, we got to do something about this." It was an international embarrassment.
It was something that didn't need any debate or much background information, because everybody saw it happen. And then couple that with the fact that blacks have been boycotted for the past twenty years by the whole Southern tourist industry - and anybody who goes to the hotels can see it - and then the Haitian incident that was well publicized here, though it wasn't well publicized other places. We went to a television station and got the tapes, and we began sending out tapes to national black organizations so they could see the beatings. It was deja vu. A lot of us had gone through that in the 1960s, or so it seemed.
With those three unrebutted reasons for boycotting, everybody moved in. If we had said that the city administration is racist, well, you can't prove that. It's subjective. We're boycotting because, one, it was disgraceful the way they treated Mandela. "Right on," people said, "I saw it." Two, they've been boycotting blacks in the tourist industry for twenty years. People said, "Yeah, I went down to the Fontainebleau, I didn't see any black people working there." There's a recent study by the NAACP that supports that, and we also sent that out to the black organizations. And three, the disgraceful beating of Haitians. "Well, I didn't see that." Here's the tape. "Wow! I don't believe this!" It wasn't subjective - it was objective evidence supported by people other than us. And the response was phenomenal. I never could have dreamed it would catch on this fast.
But I can tell you that with regard to this particular economic-sanctions movement here in Miami, what came to me was that they have been boycotting us for twenty years. They say, "We need people to work." They boycott blacks. "We need vendors to supply towels and sheets and toilet paper." They boycott us. "We need lawyers, accountants, public-relations firms." They boycott us. "We're going to donate $100,000 to charity." They boycott us. "We're going to support a not-for-profit corporation with scholarships." They boycott us. "We're going to make an investment in a community, with a building or whatever." They boycotted us. The number-one industry in Dade County, a $5.7-billion-a-year industry, has boycotted an entire race of people.
Harold Teliaferro Smith was born in Overtown 43 years ago. After attending segregated schools in Miami and the South Dade suburb of Richmond Heights, he entered Florida A&M University in Tallahassee in 1964. Male students at the college were required to join the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. There was also a military deferment available for students who continued with the ROTC program beyond their first two years. Smith availed himself of the opportunity, "not because I wanted to be a soldier but because I didn't want to get my college education interrupted by having to go fight in Vietnam."
After graduating in the summer of 1968 with a degree in mathematics and physics, Smith was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. After a year stateside, he went to Vietnam as an intelligence officer. "The first 30 or 45 days I never slept. And I couldn't keep anything in my stomach. Being a mathematician, I was thinking about the probability of all three of us coming back alive," Smith says, referring to his two brothers, who had returned safely from combat. "It was a very frightening experience.
"My unit was 90 percent black," Smith recalls. "I would see them go out in the day and lose ten or fifteen men, come back and have leeches all over their bodies, doing this day in and day out, knowing that when they got back to America, they were just another nigger."
Smith says he returned from Southeast Asia "sane, serious, and directed." He also came home with an idea for his professional future, and it did not involve math or science. "While in Vietnam, where I was, most of the fighters were black, and I was the only black officer. At the time, the Uniform Code of Military Justice allowed a soldier accused of a crime to pick an officer to represent him, and he didn't have to be a lawyer. A lot of the men trusted me. I did the best I could, but I felt deficient. I got some good results and I got some bad results, but the whole experience pricked my thought processes about being a lawyer."
Back in Miami, Smith says he was surprised to find that the University of Miami had begun accepting black law students. He went to UM and asked for an application for the 1970 school year, but the class was already closed. He demanded to see the dean. The dean's secretary refused. Smith sat down in the lobby and refused to leave. After two hours, associate dean Thomas A. Thomas agreed to talk with him.
"I told him I was born in a segregated hospital, I was forced to go to a segregated middle school, I was forced to go to a segregated and inferior high school, I was forced to go to a segregated college. Then when war broke out, I was an equal American and they sent me to Vietnam. I said I intended to be in law school, in the first row in the first seat, right by the door. I said, `You might as well admit me right now or call the police and put me in jail. I have a good academic record, I can think, I'm a native Miamian. I've been told no too much.'"
Thomas allowed Smith to take classes until he passed the admissions test, which he did. In a letter written at the time, Thomas described the circumstances of Smith's matriculation as "unprecedented in the history of the university."
After law school, Smith spent four years as an assistant public defender for Dade County and a few months with the county attorney's office. In 1977 he opened his own practice in a quaint, two-story house near the Miami River on the southern edge of Overtown. Today most of his work is in criminal law, and most of his clients are black. He has discontinued his legal work for the University of Miami until the boycott is over, he says, because he's worried college donors might not give as readily to the school because of the position he has taken.
Beginning in 1984, Smith became involved in local campaigns to get Miami businesses to sever relations with South Africa. As chairman of the South Florida Coalition for a Free South Africa, he and other activists led picketing campaigns that prompted Miami's largest banks to halt sales of South African gold currency. Smith also helped persuade his alma mater to divest its holdings in corporations doing business with South Africa.
"Probably the biggest accomplishment has been Dade County," Smith says. "It passed as close to a model ordinance as possible and implemented it in good faith and as strictly as anybody we've dealt with. It was a big surprise. We waited for them to try to find some ways not to implement it, but in some cases they have interpreted it even stricter than we would have."
At this stage of the boycott are you getting any support from white, Jewish, or Hispanic organizations? Are you seeking that support?
We have white support for the boycott outside Dade County. We have some whites inside Dade County who have privately said that they agree with the fact that Mandela's visit was not handled properly. They've admitted that there's pervasive discrimination in the hotel and tourism industry, they agree with the fact that the Haitians were not treated fairly and that they are not treated fairly by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
But to be quite honest with you, we don't expect, and we have not solicited, support from white groups or from white individuals, even those who may have joined with us in past battles. And that's for two reasons. One, I think it's important this time that blacks fight the bulk of the battle. Two, I think it's important psychologically that black people in Miami who have never won see that we can win a battle that we devised, that we planned, that we monitored, that we operate, that we strategized. It's ours.
The most immediate of your demands is for an apology for the reception Nelson Mandela received in Miami. What form does that apology have to take, and who should issue it?
Let me try to be as direct as I possibly can. The first part of the question is, who should an apology come from? If I spit in your face and my secretary apologizes, I don't think that would really satisfy you. If I spit in your face, even if an apology were enough, it would have to come from me, because I'm the one whose shameful conduct caused the need for an apology to arise. So the acknowledgement of wrongdoing must come from the wrongdoers, and that would either be the county commission, the mayor of the county, the city commission, or the mayor of the city.
The second part of the question is much more difficult to answer. The tone, the wording, the sincerity, who it comes from, how it's released, all of those facts and circumstances would have to be evaluated by the boycott organizers before we can make the determination as to whether or not it's sufficient.
Would you accept as an apology a resolution or an ex post facto proclamation?
You know, we may have to look at all the factors to determine whether it's sufficient. To prejudge it, I think, would be a serious mistake. The apology may be in terms of a $100 million commitment, in writing, to the community. If that's the apology, then I think a lot of people in the community would say, "Hey, they don't have to say the words `I'm sorry' 100 times. We'd rather have the $100 million, and they don't have to even speak to us again."
It may be in the form of naming a street - Seventh Avenue, from 46th Street as far north as can be - Nelson Mandela Avenue. I don't know what the community would say about that, or what the boycott organizers would say about that. I think that would be something we could at least have a debate over, as to whether that would be sufficient.
I want to give the elected officials as broad a range of possibilities to salve the deep wounds they have caused. I don't want to box them into a narrow corner: "You have got to say these words on this date at this place at this time to these people in this way for it to be resolved." I understand politics, a little. I understand the dynamics of this community. I want to give them as much leeway to get out of this as they had to get us into this.
T. Willard Fair, president of Miami's Urban League branch office, says the 80-year-old black organization has no plans to put its support behind the boycott, despite the fact that "it would be easy to go along with the tide." Smith's demand for an apology from elected officials is poor strategy, Fair says, and one bound to further divide Miami along bitter ethnic and racial lines. "It's like me beating my wife up to make her say she loves me. An apology that has to be demanded isn't worth the effort," Fair says. "For you to wait this long for me to make an apology, and then think that that apology is sincere, that's an insult to my intelligence.
"There are folks who were highly incensed at the way Mandela was snubbed," Fair adds. "There are others who didn't even know he was coming to town. Mr. Mandela himself has not said he is upset by the reception he received in this city. He has not said he will never return to Miami. He chose to make the statements he did knowing full well he was coming to a town where 500,000 people think Fidel Castro is the Devil.
"It is unfair to expect Mayor Suarez not to be a Cuban in a moment of crisis," Fair insists. "It's contrary to human nature. If Mr. Mandela said that the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan was his intimate friend, I wonder how many of us would have embraced him?
"There are some white people who simply will not respond to boycotts," Fair warns. "It makes them recoil, it repulses them. It's a hard-line approach, and it's an approach that in our experience puts you in a no-win situation. I've got a sneaking suspicion that this boycott will rise and then level off, and soon things will be back to business as usual."
Victor Curry, the pastor of Liberty City's Mount Carmel Baptist Church, disagrees. "I think for the most part there's pretty solid unity behind the boycott," he says. "Back in the 1950s, during the Montgomery bus boycotts, there were plenty of black people who wouldn't participate. There are those who have tried to divide us, but we will not be divided.
"It's one of those issues that has galvanized the community," Curry adds. "I've never in my life seen the African community - Jamaicans, Haitians, West Indians, and American blacks - come together like this. We have preachers standing in the pulpit telling their parishioners not to host their family reunions here. And the great thing about it is, it's not playing into the hands of those who expect us to take to the streets and fight and burn and then get arrested. The approach now is very different, and right now it has the powers that be a little baffled."
During Mandela's visit to Miami, you were the only person the South African leader embraced - physically hugged. Some people, blacks and whites, suggest that your demand for an apology has a personal dimension to it that they don't share. They say, "Mandela has gone back to South Africa, and we're still here." They say it may not be appropriate to put so much emphasis on a nonmaterial demand such as an apology.
First of all, let me say with regard to the boycott organizers, that every decision that is made is made by a vote. My vote has no more weight than anybody else's vote. I can assure you that there are people who are involved in organizing the boycott who are much more firm and much more demanding of an apology than I am. Number two, the arguments that have been made by the boycott organizers concerning an apology deal with the issue of dignity and respect.
The masses of black people are telling us - are telling the Miami Times, are telling WEDR or WMBM - that they have gone too far in disrespecting our leader, Nelson Mandela, and they must apologize. I would be willing, and I feel the boycott organizers would be willing, to put it to a poll of the people. I feel very, very confident that it would be in the neighborhood of eight-to-one demanding an apology for Mandela. When dignity and respect are on the line, they're nonnegotiable.
There may be the kind of criticism you're talking about from blacks as well as from whites, for two reasons. One, because some people sincerely feel that way. It's just a disagreement. "Mandela hugged H.T., he didn't touch anybody else, so H.T.'s doing this for this reason." But secondly, there are people out there who are saying this because they want to use it as a divisive tactic to defuse me as a spokesperson, to divide the boycott movement and then conquer it. I'm sure that some of this is coming from Merrett Stierheim and the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, because Stierheim has said several times in the media that he's going to use peer pressure to try to get the boycott defused.
Weren't you worried, or aren't you still worried, that someone's going to feel left out?
There's always that potential. The boycott took off much faster than we could anticipate. We had a schedule of our own, but what started happening is that the idea was so appealing to organizations that they began contacting us. Before we knew it, five, six, seven conventions had pulled out, and ten, twelve, twenty local organizations were canceling local affairs.
Yes, we're going to have some bruised feelings, but we have a policy of inclusion. We're bringing people in as fast as their organizations can pass resolutions supporting the boycott and they can agree to some representation. There are some people who will feel we are stealing their thunder; we're not including them. But you also have to realize that everybody can't be at the table. Everybody can't be a policymaker.
People are going to say we're grandstanding. People will say we're exclusive or elitist, people are going to say, "You never did a damn thing before, where are you coming from now?" People will say they've paid their dues and we haven't. People will say this is the wrong entity to handle it.
From the July 17 onset of the tourism boycott elected officials have been sidestepping the prickly issues presented by the sanction movement. When Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez didn't return phone calls from the Miami Herald in August, a reporter caught up with him outside the Omni Hotel. What did the mayor think city commissioners should do about the boycott? "What's the Herald doing?" Suarez retorted. Did the mayor think the boycott would fizzle? "What do the editor and the publisher of the Herald think?" Suarez snapped.
A more recent piece of cryptography from the mayor's office took the form of a letter to the editor of the Herald. Suarez's missive - in response to a September 8 editorial that described Miami's leader as "disturbingly quiet, stymied and ineffectual" - began with a quotation from Psalms and ended with a three-paragraph blur of rhetorical questions that seemed to attack the Herald for "haphazard coverage," sensationalism, and "failings in the area of minority empowerment."
Mayor Suarez did speak to New Times about his city's efforts in the field of minority inclusion, but he dodged questions about whether, or how, he planned to respond to the demands of boycott organizers. "I am not giving any quotes on Mandela," Suarez said. "If and when I have anything to say of a unifying nature, I will say it. I think [the boycott] is something important. But I won't comment on it. I won't disclose what I am doing about it."
Metro Mayor Steve Clark has avoided Suarez-style epistles, choosing instead to issue canned quotes through John McDermott, his aide-de-camp. The latest: "H.T. Smith is a friend of mine and an outstanding professional person, and he has a right to his own opinions." But what does the mayor think of Smith's demand for a public apology to the black community from Metro commissioners? McDermott refers questioners to a welcoming address Clark delivered to 10,000 Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters who met in Miami Beach in July, in which the mayor said it was "unfortunate" that the handling of Mandela's visit had engendered ill will.
"They're being silent publicly, but behind the scenes they aren't being silent at all," says local NAACP president Johnnie McMillian. Suarez has tried several times to meet with her in recent weeks to talk about the boycott, McMillian says, one time under the pretext of discussing the S&L crisis.
McMillian says sources in city hall leaked her a copy of a September 13 letter Suarez sent to national NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks, in which the mayor complained of McMillian's refusal to meet with him and criticized her "indictment" of riot police involved in the July 5 protest in Little Haiti. "It is entirely fair for a large segment of any community to withhold their welcome of a foreign dignitary until said dignitary clarifies statements which lend aid and comfort to their oppressor," wrote Suarez to Hooks. "No occasion was ever offered for any official to meet Mandela, extend official greetings, or engage in any private discussion with him." (For Suarez to complain to Hooks was curious, at the very least. More than a month before the mayor wrote him, the national NAACP leader had addressed black Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity members assembled in Miami Beach, saying that he wouldn't be coming back to Dade County anytime soon.)
"Under other conditions I would have been in his office the same day," says McMillian of her refusal to meet with Mayor Suarez. "But it would be presumptuous of me even to give the appearance that I am speaking for the boycott organizers. It is crystal clear who the spokesman for the boycott is, and that's H.T. Smith. Suarez knows that."
Those who have given the appearance of speaking for the boycott have promptly had their attitudes corrected by Smith himself. When the Miami Times reported in August that Black Lawyers Association members Jesse McCrary, Jr., and George Knox had met with business leaders and with Merrett Stierheim, chief of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, to discuss bringing the boycott to an end, Smith quickly issued a statement saying that "the only persons authorized to speak on behalf of the organizers of the boycott are H.T. Smith and Marilyn Holifield."
McCrary, who served as secretary of state under Florida Gov. Reubin Askew and who was the first black to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a Southern state, says the Miami Times report was inaccurate. "I stand behind H.T. Smith 10,000 percent. I am an avid supporter of the movement. I have never met with Stierheim on these matters, nor will I," McCrary declares. "Personally, I think that the public officials are being asinine and have been throughout this whole thing. They are playing petty politics. The events of this summer should have infuriated anybody. It would appear that elected officials would at least have the forum to lead, and leadership is their avowed duty.
"The thing that puzzles me," says McCrary, referring to Miami's recent history of race riots, "is that if this town was burning, everyone would be out front saying, `Let's find a solution,' and, `What caused this?' But at this point no one in elected office wants to come forth and be a leader in this thing. Miami isn't going to burn this time. Dade County is going to bleed. Merrett Stierheim and anyone else who tries to derail this movement will find themselves with serious opposition."
Even within Dade's Black Lawyers Association, there are members who appear to favor a softer line than the one you have taken. How much pressure are you under to keep control of the leadership of the boycott movement? Do you fear the movement is being hijacked?
We're only worried about the perception to the public at large that it's being hijacked. We have such a strong core of organizers and such a strong core of support in the community that I feel very strongly that it can't be hijacked.
However, when you have something happening this big and this fast, and it's this important to the community, even among the people sitting at the table you're going to have disagreement. You've got to allow people to voice their true opinions. Believe me, I have been voted down many times by the boycott organizers.
One of the reasons the organizers were so insistent that there be only one or two spokespeople is that now masses of people know - whites, Cubans, Jews, blacks, upper class, middle class, lower class - that unless [attorney] Marilyn Holifield or H.T. Smith says it, it doesn't count. You don't see anybody else now even claiming to speak for the boycott. It's that kind of discipline and that kind of commitment that will keep us on the right track and keep this movement from being hijacked.
How do you interpret or explain this silence on the part of city and county elected officials? Do you perceive it as arrogance, or is it merely a structural inability to act? Is this situation in reality an insoluble one?
It's a combination of things - it's definitely not insoluble. One, the September 4 primary. A lot of people felt that if they were to say anything or do anything prior to the election, it could cause problems for candidates they endorse; the media could take it and run with it. Secondly, there were a lot of people on vacation, so a lot of people who could move this thing onto the front burner were not around. Thirdly, some politicians believed that anything they say is going to hurt them in one community or another and so they were going to try to be silent.
We anticipated as a result of the way blacks have been dealt with in the past - the business leaders just ignoring us, and the political leaders taking us for granted - that there will be a 90- to 120-day conspiracy of silence. Because usually people have broken or given up and not sustained an effort. We don't expect anything to happen until 90 days from July 17. We think then business leaders will look at the bottom line and say, "Damn this, I'm not going to lose another $25 million in direct losses, suffer more bad publicity nationally and internationally, and allow predominantly white organizations to become cool about getting involved in coming to Miami," because, except for the Ku Klux Klan, they all have black members. And that's what's beginning to happen.
We have dedicated ourselves to pursue this thing into the year 2000 if necessary. I think as it becomes evident that our resolve is firm, they will see they have to face the issue. And they will face the issue.
If elected officials have been silent during the black boycott, Miami's business leaders have not. While calling the boycott irresponsible and "a knee-jerk reaction," representatives of both the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau have acknowleged the serious impact the sanctions have already had on Dade's economy and reputation.
In a Miami Herald article published August 7, convention bureau chief Stierheim said the boycott "could cost the county millions and would affect everyone from those in the hotel, restaurant, and airline industries to independent barbers, florists, and vendors." Chamber of commerce president Bill Cullom, in his August 16 report to members, called the boycott "one of the most serious things to happen in Miami in my nine years at the Chamber. A solution must be worked out in the very near future."
"Right now, we're competing with many, many other cities across the country to bring a major league baseball team to Miami," says Garth Reeves, publisher of the black-oriented Miami Times and a member of the Chamber. "I know they're going to throw it up in our faces. This thing is a damn black eye. Anyone over at the Chamber will tell you this shit is getting serious. We need to warn the heavyweights in this town that this could be devastating."
Reeves, who supports the boycott, adds, "I think it's a damn shame the way corporate and political leaders are sitting around doing nothing. They're not going to win this thing by staying quiet. H.T. Smith has got the upper hand now. If I were in his position, I wouldn't take my foot off their necks. Blacks own so little and get such a minuscule amount from the hotel industry. This boycott is not hurting blacks a bit.
"Politicians don't like to apologize," Reeves notes. "But they will have to do something, or they will suffer at the polls next time. On the other hand, I can't see them issuing an apology. Ever since the Cuban vote got this heavy in this town, it scares the shit out of everyone."
If it were up to some of the economic targets of the boycott, an apology might already have been issued. Or perhaps not. Three weeks ago the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce sent to selected members a draft statement that amounted to an apology. The Chamber hoped to collect 200 signatures to the open letter, then run it as a full-page advertisement in the Miami Herald and the Miami Times.
But the effort collapsed. Chamber representatives could only get about 30 signatures. Chamber sources say the list of those who refused to sign included local United Way campaign vice chairman Carlos de la Cruz, Barnett Bank president Carlos Arboleya, and Republic National Bank board chairman Luis Botifoll. A watered-down version was recirculated, but again failed to win adequate support.
"I didn't agree with the terms, the way it was written," says Republic chairman Luis Botifoll of the original letter. "I don't think the boycott is realistic. Mr. Mandela made a very unfortunate statement that hurt a large part of our community. I think the black people here should make an apology to the Cuban community. Since Mandela doesn't want to apologize, then they should apologize. If they will apologize for that, we will apologize for our reaction. It's a two-way street."
"There are those who would paint this as a Mandela issue," counters Johnnie McMillian, the local NAACP president. "Mandela's visit was simply the last
This past year, NAACP volunteers disguised as tourists and maids visited 125 hotels and restaurants in the Miami area and found blacks employed at only 41 of them. The undercover researchers said they experienced "overt race discrimination" at seventeen of the establishments. They claim that three of Dade's four largest country clubs, described as "racially segregated," refused to respond to requests for membership information.
In a September 7 letter urging NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks to put the organization's full and formal support behind the boycott, McMillian wrote, "Miami probably has the worst record of race relations of any major city in the country.... Only a massive withdrawal of convention dollars can persuade government and white business officials in Dade County to at least move from the Eighteenth to the Nineteenth Century...."
"I see this as a national impetus for blacks throughout the country to review how they are spending their dollars," McMillian says. "It's a very important issue for the whole country, and a very, very bold step on the part of H.T. and the Black Lawyers Association. Blacks elsewhere will be looking for the resolution here."
How do you explain the failure of black elected officials such as Miller Dawkins and Barbara Carey to take an active role in the boycott?
The whole situation shows why the at-large election system has got to go. Under that system, a black candidate can never be elected by black constituents. It is impossible for them to passionately advocate on behalf of blacks where the interest of another community is at odds with it.
Barbara Carey did a magnificent job getting the black set-aside program started. But other communities were not head-to-head in their opposition to it. You can be a very effective black leader here, except when the Jewish and Latin communities say, "Wait a minute, we disagree with that." It's a problem. The white community doesn't have to have an all-white commission, because if the black elected officials don't look out for the white community on critical issues, they'll get rid of 'em.
A lot of black people are upset with Miller Dawkins and Barbara Carey. I am not. I'm a realist. I understand that Miller Dawkins on the Mandela issue would be kicked out of office if he took a position with regard to it. Now, having said that, I think many people would have gone and gotten kicked out. They would have said, "Hey, they're just going to have to fire me over this one." There are some issues that are so fundamental that in my judgment you have to be willing to say, "Well you all can have the job if you're going to try to make me do this."
Isn't this precisely one of those issues, for Barbara Carey, for Miller Dawkins? Shouldn't they have been willing to put it on the line?
Many, many black people say so. In my mind the jury is still out. I'm really trying to search my conscience.
At the moment you appear to many to be acting in the role of a popular black leader. Do you see yourself as a new leader for black Miami?
Do you plan to run for elected office in the near future?
Absolutely not. Absolutely not. First of all, it's just not something I want to do. Second of all, I'm a person who holds very strong to my convictions, and politics is the art of compromise. There are certain things about self-respect and dignity and fairness that I'm just not good at compromising. Thirdly, in the past I've made a lot of enemies. So even if I wanted to, there are many people who would feel I should not be in elected office. Most importantly, I have no desire to be in public office. I feel I can be much more effective in the few little things I can do well, outside. There are insiders and outsiders, and I'm clearly an outsider.
When you do something like this you have to be prepared to be hated, and most people have a need to be liked. I don't have a need to be liked. And I understand that I'm going to be hated. But I believe I'm working toward what's right.
You've described the boycott movement as a "quiet riot." How do you place this boycott in the historical context of the past decade, during which Miami has seen four race riots? Is this a new antidote or alternative to rioting, or could it be something that, if it fails decisively, might start another riot?
One thing we've learned in the past ten years is that riots don't work. We know for a fact that leaving riots and going on to boycotts, leaving rioting behind us, is the right thing to do. We know that boycotts have worked before, so we'll try it.
I would hope that elected officials and political leaders and the masses of people in the community would see that we're trying to provide a nonviolent way of venting the hurt and the humiliation that the masses of people have felt. The reason I call it an economic riot is because I want the average person on the street, who may even have participated in the riots, to feel like, "Hey, we've got something going now that will work. We've found a way to get some respect and get a piece of what we deserve."
Will you add a more visible component to this boycott? Do you plan marches around the Eden Roc? Picketing at City Hall?
We haven't gone to that phase yet. We have hundreds of T-shirts, bumper stickers, posters, that sort of thing. We were trying to wait until after the election to go into this phase. And quietly we've been hoping that business leaders and political leaders would understand that we're serious and do what is necessary so that we can work this thing out before it gets much more serious. We don't want to devastate our own economy. But if forced to continue the boycott, then we don't have any alternative.
There are three phases of the boycott: One, national black conventions, which has been phenomenally successful. Two, local black individuals and organizations. And three, reaching out toward other organizations. Some of them have already contacted us. We've been holding them off, because once that starts, it's going to be very, very hard to stop. We've had two labor groups and one women's group contact us saying they want to join. We've said, "Please don't. Don't make any announcement, don't do anything right now." Because once that starts, it's going to be irreversible. The damage will take ten years to repair. We don't want to do that. We want to use the least amount of pressure, the least amount of persuasion, the least amount of economic-sanction activity to get the job done.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.
- ISIS-Sympathizing Uber Driver Who Wanted to Kill Miamians Is Sentenced to Ten Years in...
Sun., Aug. 2, 1:05pm
Tue., Aug. 4, 6:35pm
Wed., Aug. 5, 6:35pm
Thu., Aug. 6, 6:35pm
- Harlem Suarez Planned to Blow Up Key West Beach in ISIS-Inspired Attack
- Miami Is the Most Expensive City in America for Millennials to Rent