Eighty percent of South Florida homes had air-conditioning in 1980, but in stifling hot Liberty City, only one in five homes could afford it. It was a neighborhood without a center, few jobs to offer, seventy-two churches but just six banks, not one of which was black-owned. There were plenty of places to pray for a positive future but few institutions willing to risk investment in one. The fact that a teenager called Arthur McDuffie got out at all was unusual. The fact that he came back, found a good job, earned steadily, and raised a family was rarer still.
Frederica Jones had been Arthur McDuffie’s high school sweetheart at Booker T. Washington, one of Miami’s three segregated schools. When McDuffie graduated, he joined the Marine Corps, and for the next three years, he and Frederica communicated through letters. Then, within two months of his honorable discharge, they married. Two children quickly followed. After which came problems, separation, and, in 1978, divorce. McDuffie had always had a reputation as a ladies’ man, and now he had a child with another woman to prove it.
Yet toward the end of 1979, the 33-year-old McDuffie was back visiting the house he’d once shared with Frederica. He mowed the lawn, fixed the air conditioners, and trimmed the hedges of their neighbor, the last white family on the block. The warmth in the failed marriage seemed to be returning. The two spent the night of December 15, 1979, together, and McDuffie asked Frederica to join him on a trip to Hawaii—a vacation he’d just won at the office for his performance as the assistant manager at Coastal States Life Insurance.
The following day, Sunday, under bright 80-degree skies, Frederica, a nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital, drove McDuffie back to his home. She parked the car feeling like there was positive momentum. They’d talked of remarriage in front of their families. The deal was that if McDuffie could make “certain changes” in his life, then they could go ahead and make it official. As they sat in the car, McDuffie kissed his ex-wife goodbye and promised to be back at her place that evening to take care of their children before her shift. Normally, Frederica worked only afternoons, but the hospital was short-staffed over the Christmas period and she’d agreed to work that night at 11.
Shortly after 2 p.m., McDuffie walked into 1157 NW 111th Street, the home he now shared with his younger sister, Dorothy, a legal clerk. It was a modest building, painted green. Inside there was a record collection and books of music. McDuffie played five instruments, all horns. There was an entire white wall “covered with plaques and certificates of achievement,” including his “Most Outstanding” award from his Marine Corps platoon. He wasn’t a war hero, hadn’t fought in Vietnam, but McDuffie had been faithful to the corps, a military policeman who had done his job impeccably.
McDuffie had already wrapped Christmas presents for his two daughters and hidden them in a closet in his bedroom. His nine-year-old would get a wagon, a jack-in-the-box, and clothes. His oldest would get a watch, a tape recorder, a radio, and a pair of roller skates.
He’d saved for months, but it hadn’t been an easy year to make money. Under President Jimmy Carter, the country, most especially the South, had been battered. Unemployment was stubbornly high, and it looked like the president was being swept downstream by the economy. Interest rates were up to 17 percent. In 30 years, inflation had never run higher. Gas prices had doubled in two years. Even hamburger meat was two dollars a pound.
Surprisingly, Carter was about to enter an election year in comparatively good standing. Whatever America thought of his ability to steer the country, he retained the people’s sympathy, with an approval rating of 61 percent. Despite a hostage crisis in revolutionary Iran and a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, by the end of the year Carter led his presumptive challenger, Ronald Reagan, by a 24-point margin.
Still, the mood was summed up best by the Miami Herald in 1979. It was a year the average American wallet had “barely survived.” The unseen benefit, according to the paper, was that Miamians like McDuffie lived in Florida. They weren’t being hammered on heating oil like the rest of the country.
By Miami standards, the evening of December 16 counted as cold, expected to dip below 70 degrees and then drop below 60 the following day. McDuffie selected blue jeans, a navy shirt over a baby-blue undershirt, and a black motorcycle jacket. He searched his house for a hat to wear under his helmet. At 5 p.m., he closed the door behind him.
His own car, a 1969 green Grand Prix, wasn’t parked in its usual spot in his driveway. A friend had borrowed it. So he climbed on an orange-and-black 1973 Kawasaki 2100, “a more or less permanent loan” from his cousin. McDuffie turned the key, revved the engine, and drove the motorcycle south to 59th Street, to his friend Lynwood Blackmon’s house. He pulled up at the front door, feet still astride the bike, and talked to Blackmon’s seven- and eight-year-old daughters. He explained to them that he couldn’t help their father tune their car as he’d promised. His tools were in the back of the borrowed Grand Prix. Next he drove to his older brother’s house, his most common stop, and found him washing his car in his driveway. McDuffie grinned, revved the engine, spat up dirt over the clean car, and sped away before his brother could grab him. He raced to the far end of the street, turned, and braked hard.
“You better slow that bike down,” shouted his brother. McDuffie nodded, grinned, and pulled away.
Sometimes on weekends McDuffie moonlighted as a truck driver, making deliveries to Miami Beach. Sometimes he gave up his time to help jobless youngsters, teaching them how to paint houses. Just two years before, he’d painted the Range Funeral Home, where his body would arrive in exactly a week. On this particular Sunday evening, he was going to see Carolyn Battle, the twenty-six-year-old assistant that McDuffie had hired at Coastal Insurance. She was pretty, independent, and stylish, with a preference for dresses and wearing her hair in an Afro. He’d brought a helmet for her.
McDuffie shouldn’t have been driving at all. His license had been suspended months before, and he’d paid his $35 traffic fine with a check that had bounced. He’d told a coworker that he was worried about getting stopped again, but there were no alternatives for driving back and forth to work. Public transport was pitiful in Miami, and Liberty City — barely serviced — was reliant on independent jitney operators who rarely worked weekends. Not having a car was a self-quarantine.
At one in the morning, McDuffie slept in Battle’s bed while she watched television on her couch. At 1:30 she woke him up. “Jesus,” said McDuffie, reaching for his watch. He was far too late to show up at his ex-wife’s house. Frederica would have taken the kids over to a babysitter two hours ago. How was he going to make that up to her? Had he blown it? McDuffie gathered his watch, his wedding ring, his medallion. Still dressed in his blue jeans, two blue shirts, and boots, he put on his knitted cap under his white helmet, tied his knapsack to the back of the Kawasaki, and headed north toward home.
Was it a wheelie, a rolled stop sign, a hand lifted from a handlebar to give the finger that caught the sergeant’s attention? The officer would later offer all three explanations of why he’d first noticed the Kawasaki pass by him. It was 1:51 a.m. The sergeant got on the radio, described McDuffie’s white helmet and the tag number of the motorbike, and flipped on his red light and siren. On a cool night, with the rider in jeans, jacket, and helmet, he couldn’t have known if he was black, Latin, or white.
McDuffie appeared to glance in his mirror and then sped through a red light on NW 61st Street. As the sergeant followed in his county squad car, McDuffie blew through another red light and swept around corners, not even slowing for the stop signs. He’d picked a very quiet night for these traffic infractions. Within 60 seconds of the beginning of the chase, McDuffie was being followed by every available unit within Central District.
As McDuffie began to weave and jig through the night, flipping off his lights and accelerating, he crossed from city line to county line and back again. Sirens wailed across the Central District. McDuffie was now followed by not one but two police departments. The city cops, in their dark blue uniforms, controlled a narrow but heavily populated area around Miami’s downtown. The county cops, in brown-and-tan uniforms, covered the rest of unincorporated Dade’s 2,400 square miles. The county cops were better known as the PSD, or Public Safety Department. In matters that seemed to land between their jurisdictions, the county force, with its greater numbers and larger budget, tended to take control.
For a moment, it seemed as if they’d all lost McDuffie between buildings. Then the sergeant who had first noted him saw the motorbike accelerate away, its lights still off. By now it seemed as if McDuffie were being followed by a freight train, eleven police cars long.
Even in the dead of night, city police chases are different from highway pursuits. “You go fast, you accelerate, brake. You take corners as you endeavor to stay on the radio, read street signs in the dark, keep an eye on the suspect.” Officers were gripping their wheels, pushing the squad cars on corners. One county car spun out, hit a curb with a rim, bursting the tire. It limped on after McDuffie at walking speed.
The radio crackled with updates on the motorcyclist’s position. They knew nothing about him. An orange-and-black bike, a tag number, a white helmet. Almost 2 a.m. Most had the same thought. This rider’s fleeing a traffic violation at reckless speed. What had he done?
Was it the suspended license that spurred McDuffie’s course of action? Did he think that the possibilities for 1980—a family reunification, his job, his freedom, bringing his ex-wife to Hawaii—were all at stake? Had he blown it all by oversleeping? A 30-second high-speed chase along city streets can seem interminable, but McDuffie had now led the police for almost eight minutes. He took 26 turns, flipped his lights on and off, went at a deceptive crawl, feinted parking, and rode at over 80 miles an hour. There were now fourteen squad cars tracking him.
At 1:59, McDuffie finally made a sensible decision, pulling over by the on-ramp to I-395, the intersection by Decorator’s Row, and put his kickstand down. Two green-and-white squad cars pulled in immediately behind him, each containing a single officer. Moments later the blue-and-white cars of the city police joined them. In the faint light, the officers were easier to distinguish than their cars. County officers wore brown and tan, city officers a dark blue almost indistinguishable from the night.
Less than four minutes later, the sirens of Fire Rescue could be heard from several blocks away. As the ambulance slowed, its sirens were silenced, leaving just the flashing red light to illuminate the scene; enough for the attending medics to see that McDuffie’s face was entirely covered in blood.
To read Ben Greenman's interview with Nicholas Griffin, author of The Year of Dangerous Days, click here.