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L.A. Copying Miami's Failures at Rebuilding after Riots

By Miles Corwin
Los Angeles Times


Twelve years before Rodney G. King, there was Arthur McDuffie.

As in the King case, there was a chase. McDuffie, a black motorcyclist, led police on a high-speed pursuit through the streets of Miami. There was a beating. McDuffie died after police struck him repeatedly with heavy flashlights and then tried to cover up it up by staging an accident scene.

There was a trial -- before an all-white jury after a change of venue out of Miami -- that ended in the acquittal of four police officers. And there were devastating riots that lasted three days, claimed 18 lives and caused $100 million in damage.

Then there was the aftermath.

Miami was not able to substantially improve conditions in its inner city, defuse racial tensions or greatly improve police relations with the African-American community. The problems continued into the 1980s, and Miami ended up enduring three smaller-scale riots.

Now, as Los Angeles awaits the verdicts in the federal trial of officers accused of violating King's civil rights, many community leaders wonder if Southern California can learn from Miami's mistakes.

The parallels between the two cities are striking.

In both cities, massive immigration -- of Asians and Central Americans in Los Angeles, Cubans and Haitians in Miami -- has contributed to new social tensions. The riots of 1965 in Watts, 1980 in the Liberty City and Overtown sections of Miami, and 1992 in Los Angeles all were triggered by police encounters with minority residents.

Each instance produced studies and reports calling for the revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods as the solution to underlying problems. Yet massive doses of national attention and federal aid has frequently failed to prevent renewed violence.

Such a history raises a host of complex, unsettling questions for local and national leaders: Why have Los Angeles and Miami been unable to change course despite experiencing major riots? How can the cities learn from each other? Will attention focused on Los Angeles in the aftermath of last year's disturbances result, finally, in an effective national policy that attacks the underlying causes of urban unrest?

"Los Angeles should look very carefully at what happened to Miami in the years after the McDuffie case," said H.T. Smith, a Miami lawyer and activist in the African-American community.

"Because if L.A. doesn't learn from Miami's lessons, one thing will happen for sure: The city will burn again."

Miami offers a model of failure as Los Angeles attempts to rebuild its inner city, civil rights activists say. During the 1980s, much of the money targeted to rebuild riot-torn areas of Miami was spent on projects outside these neighborhoods and did not benefit inner-city residents, said Johnnie McMillian, president of the Miami-Dade branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Shortly after the Miami riots, President Carter established a federal task force to devise an economic recovery plan for the city. As in Los Angeles today, local, state and federal agencies as well as area business leaders were expected to cooperate in rebuilding the city's hardest-hit neighborhoods.

The Miami Chamber of Commerce raised several million dollars to create jobs and build a business assistance center. A state-created revitalization board played a key role in opening Miami's first black-owned bank. And federal Small Business Administration money was made available.

But, according to studies, most of the efforts fell far short of their goals.

"The impact of the SBA loans during the year following the riot was to facilitate the re-establishment of numerous businesses affected -- but not in Liberty City," according to a book on the 1980 riots co-authored by Marvin Dunn. "Indeed the real impact ... seems to have been to help drain riot-damaged businesses away from Liberty City rather than to keep them there."

Dunn, a psychology professor at Florida International University, said he sees Los Angeles heading down the same flawed path.

"If (Miami) took every new job that has been created for blacks since 1980, it wouldn't amount to more than 500, yet we raised millions of dollars to try to do just that. We tried some of the same things that you are now talking about in L.A. ... Your ills are not going to be cured that way."

The key question, many experts say, is whether cities such as Los Angeles and Miami -- and the national government -- have the political or moral will to undertake the enormous efforts needed to eliminate the causes of urban unrest. Many are pessimistic and see the costs of years of neglect in a new generation of troubled inner-city youths.