In the Miami of the 1960s, Liberty City was boiling over.
Protests and black-empowerment rallies sprang up in response to aggressive policing of black neighborhoods, stop-and-frisk policies, and a police chief whose "get tough" crime-fighting approach amounted to a declaration of war on the black community.
A Miami Herald article from December 1967 said then-Miami Police Chief Walter Headley would arm his officers with shotguns and dogs to "cut crimes in the city's slums" rather than build a community-relations program.
"We haven't had any serious problems with civil uprisings and looting because I've let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts," Headley said, according to the Herald.
"[Headley] said the major group his 'get tough' policy is aimed at is young Negro males, from 15 to 21," the paper wrote.
"Felons will learn that they can't be bonded out from the morgue," Headley said at the time. "We don't mind being accused of police brutality. They haven't seen anything yet."
The former police chief died in 1968, but President Donald Trump resurrected his words without attribution early this morning in a tweet about civil unrest in Minneapolis. The ongoing protests are a response to a police officer handcuffing and pinning George Floyd to the ground and putting a knee to Floyd's neck; the 46-year-old later died.
"....These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won't let that happen," Trump tweeted. "Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!"
Twitter flagged the president's tweet for violating the company's rules about glorifying violence and blocked it from being automatically viewed.
New York Times national politics reporter Astead Herndon and other journalists called attention to the source of Trump's alliterative turn of phrase.
"When the looting starts, the shooting starts" is originally a phrase of Miami police chief Walter Headley.— Steadman™ (@AsteadWesley) May 29, 2020
Headley refused to return from vacation when violent protests broke out at the RNC in 1968. "They know what to do...Wen the looting starts, the shooting starts." https://t.co/NpehNOCLNx
“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” is a threat coined by Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, who promised violent reprisals on black protesters in 1967. He also said: “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality. They haven’t seen anything yet.” https://t.co/inm7T4N804 pic.twitter.com/yfYY59Xfel— Todd Zwillich (@toddzwillich) May 29, 2020
Headley was chief for two decades and oversaw the Miami Police Department during a time of tremendous racial tension within the city.
In February 1968, two MPD officers stripped a black teenager down to his shorts and dangled him by his ankles from a bridge 80 feet above the Miami River. Officers were conducting searches on patrons of a pool hall, according to a Herald article at the time, and reportedly found that the boy, Robert Owens, was carrying a knife.
There are conflicting stories about what happened to the officers. Some reports say Headley suspended them immediately, while others say one officer resigned and the other was suspended after refusing to do likewise.
Stanley Jean-Poix, president of the Miami Community Police Benevolent Association, the city's black police union, tells New Times Headley had been warned about one of the officers. Jean-Poix says black community leaders told Headley one of the officers was "racist and antagonistic" toward the black community.
"They wanted him removed from Liberty City," explains Jean-Poix, who says he has become conversant in the department's history of race relations.
Headley reportedly rejected the leaders' concerns, and when the community learned what the officers did to Owens, they rebelled.
"Tension between the black community and Headley accelerated at that time," Jean-Poix says.
Six months later, community organizers were planning rallies to protest the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, which secured the nomination of Richard Nixon for president.
Jean-Poix says the organizers were mindful of the fact that the media would be present for the convention and planned the demonstrations to bring continued attention to the issue of police brutality and racism in Miami.
The rallies devolved into three days of rebellion, during which police killed three people, wounded 18, and arrested 222, according to a 2018 look back at the riot by the Washington Post.
Headley died later that year at age 63. An Associated Press obituary called him the "architect of a crime crackdown that sent police dogs and shotgun-toting patrolmen into Miami's slums in force."
Stephen P. Clark, the mayor of Dade County from the 1970s to the 1990s, praised Headley in the obituary for his "effective" policing tactics.
Clark was quoted in the obituary as saying Headley's policy "will always be in existence in this city."
The former chief's legacy lives on, as evidenced by Miami's Fraternal Order of Police union, which bears his name.
Jean-Poix says he was disturbed to see Trump quote Headley, knowing Headley's history with the black community in Miami.
"His comments were very disappointing, but I'm not surprised because I feel he showed himself," Jean-Poix says. "I just feel like he's adding fuel to the fire."
Jean-Poix worries that Trump's words will encourage people’s implicit biases and perpetuate racism. At the same time, he says the resurfacing of Headley's comments sheds a light on racism in America and the importance of listening to the voices of the oppressed.
"Looting and breaking things, I don't agree with," he says. "But I'm savvy enough to understand that people who feel disrespected lash out. They're reacting out of anger, and this is how they know to get the word out. It's easy to say, 'Be calm,' but if you don't give that person a voice, if you don't acknowledge or validate them, they are going to lash out."
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.