Quiet Riot Revisited | News | Miami | Miami New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Miami, Florida


Quiet Riot Revisited

Thirteen years ago H.T. Smith started a riot in Miami. It was a quiet riot, one fought not in the streets by burning but in boardrooms, hotels, and restaurants all around the county. Smith, backed by a handful of other black lawyers (mostly women, he notes), organized a nationwide black...
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Thirteen years ago H.T. Smith started a riot in Miami. It was a quiet riot, one fought not in the streets by burning but in boardrooms, hotels, and restaurants all around the county. Smith, backed by a handful of other black lawyers (mostly women, he notes), organized a nationwide black boycott of Miami that lasted nearly three years and cost the tourism industry millions.

The boycott was sparked by the snubbing of South African anti-apartheid legend Nelson Mandela by Cuban-American elected officials, who denounced him for refusing to repudiate his old ally Fidel Castro. But the kindling had been laid by 100 years of economic inequality and social injustice in the parallel world that exists in white Miami's shadow.

To varying degrees, the boycott was successful. There's now a black-owned luxury hotel on Miami Beach. There are a few more black faces evident among the clubby organizations -- business and charitable -- that more or less run this place. There are internships and scholarships available to young blacks who wish to enter the hospitality industry. So last week, when the NAACP convention rolled into town after a 23-year absence, there was a predictable smugness in the commentary coming from the usual suspects. Even H.T. Smith offered his opinion to the Associated Press that the convention returning to Miami was "the most significant event ... in terms of race relations since the boycott."

Had Smith finished the thought, his full judgment would not have been so favorable. As the convention ended last week, New Times asked Smith to elaborate on the legacy of the boycott he led a decade ago and whether the NAACP convention appropriately caps that era. He's unequivocal. "Political leaders and business leaders in Miami are misinterpreting the return of the NAACP," he says. "They are hailing this as progress in race relations. Nothing could be further from the truth."

He continues: "The NAACP convention is a celebration we don't deserve. This is not a celebration of the ending of anything. This is not us celebrating that, 'Hey, black people are not being shot down by the police anymore' and blacks have been welcomed into the business community -- that's not what we're celebrating."

Smith points out that while progress is measurable on several fronts, many of the fundamental inequities that have historically isolated black Miami-Dade still exist. He cites the lack of government contracts going to black businesses, the long waiting lists for affordable housing, and a black "brain drain" as young professionals seek better opportunities elsewhere.

But the most critical problem he sees is the public-school system -- largely segregated and unequal. "It's really two systems," he argues. "There's an inner-city system and a suburban school system. The inner-city schools have some of the poorest-performing teachers, from those who don't care to those who are just scared of the kids they're trying to teach."

So no, he doesn't see the convention necessarily marking the end of Miami's bad habits. Smith pauses, searching for an analogy. "It's like an estranged husband who got caught sleeping around is being allowed a second chance to move back into the house," he ventures. "But he's still sleeping in the other room and he'd better not think about intimacy right now. So he's out at the bar telling his buddies he got his wife back, but she's telling her friends she doesn't know if she made the right decision letting him back in the house."

For example, even though Miami voters approved a civilian investigative panel to review controversial police actions (in a weird convergence of black activism, police corruption scandals, and Cuban anger at police conduct following the Elian raid), Smith complains that police-community relations haven't changed much. Case in point -- the incident that sealed voter approval of the CIP: the April 30, 2001, shooting of unarmed Overtown teenager Nicholas Singleton as he ran from a Miami cop who thought he'd been riding in a stolen car. "We've got a new mayor, new police chief, and new manager," says Smith, who is suing the city on behalf of Singleton's family. "Yet two years and three months later and they still haven't finished the internal investigation of the Singleton shooting."

Another example of Miami's uneven progress is the awkward reaction of Miami Beach civic and business leaders to unexpectedly becoming a hot destination for America's young black bourgeoisie. That, in fact, highlighted the occasional disconnect between the national NAACP and its often feistier local chapters. After a few disparaging remarks from a prominent Beach businessman about black visitors during the 2001 festivities, Bishop Victor Curry, then-president of the NAACP's Miami-Dade chapter, strongly suggested the organization cancel its plans to hold the 2003 convention here. But the national didn't back him, and he quit as president. (Similarly, the national NAACP hasn't jumped aboard the nascent effort to boycott certain Florida industries to protest the public schools' FCAT test.)

The way H.T. Smith sees it, one of black Miami's ongoing challenges is to close the gap between its grassroots activists and its middle class. "Middle-class blacks are so afraid of losing something and they don't realize they don't have much anyway," he observes.

That's what made the black-boycott campaign so unusual -- and so effective. "It was the first time in my life black Miami -- from no collar, to blue collar, to white collar -- stood together for a thousand days," he reminisces. "I had never seen anything like that before. That fueled me when I got lonely and tired, and I'd get death threats." Smith recalls that when the boycott brain trust decided they needed to produce a video to spread their message nationally, the middle class raised the money in a flash through the churches.

That broad support, plus a well-controlled message, is what Smith credits with spurring a successful campaign. His main regret is that when the boycott ended, a lot of people faded into the background. Momentum was lost. "The Boycott Miami campaign was never supposed to be a panacea for 100 years of black experience in Miami," he explains. "It was basically to provide a prototype for actions that need to be taken continually in the freedom struggle, replicating the type of integrity and discipline needed to follow through."

Smith views with a jaundiced eye some of the subsequent movements stirred up by leaders who ultimately seemed more self-interested than committed to real change. "What has been lacking in a lot of things is integrity, and that disappoints people," he laments. "All too often we have had in our community imperial leaders as opposed to servant leaders. They will cause things to be done but they won't do a damn thing themselves and it shows."

His parting advice for community leaders, silent majority, and activists alike contains his trademark blend of pragmatism and activism: "This is a time for the Miami-Dade community to demonstrate that this unearned second chance will be deserved, that it will finally begin to bring black Miami into the mainstream of the economic community. It's time to match rhetoric with results."

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