If Miami wishes to call itself a true international city, then we must rise to a position of leadership around the crisis incited by systemic police brutality and racial profiling in our country. While there is a clear void of leadership at the national level, our local leaders have an opportunity to step up by taking courageous actions that deliver tangible change.
The 1979 murder of Arthur McDuffie, along with the deadly riots following the acquittal of the police officers who took his life, are among the most notorious memories of the cultural conflict in Miami during the late 20th century. To this day, I refuse to call them the “McDuffie Riots,” because McDuffie himself never rioted; he had already been killed. This misnomer captures the misperceptions surrounding race in our community. We should have learned from Mr. McDuffie’s death and the injustice that followed, but we still have significant work to do.
My most memorable encounter with racial profiling in Miami came during college. I was home visiting family when two Miami-Dade police officers stopped me during a bike ride in my neighborhood, demanded identification, and asked why I was riding on Old Cutler Road. I had been lectured on how to interact with cops, so I survived the conversation. After the officer made a sarcastic remark, the officers let me go without providing any rationale for detaining me.
The incident was especially unsettling because of my family’s background: My grandfather was in law enforcement, and I have siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews serving in police departments and the military. Having been surrounded by men and women in uniform my entire life, I respect officers of the law who wield their power responsibly. However, I am continually troubled, saddened, and angered by members of law enforcement — and private citizens — who believe it is their right to administer an immediate death sentence on their own accord, simply because of a person’s race. No judge. No trial. No jury. Just execution.
We have seen this time and again. Emmett Till in Mississippi. Alberta Spruill in New York. Michael Brown in Ferguson. Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. Philando Castile in St. Paul. Eric Garner in New York. The list goes on. The names and places change over decades, but the circumstances are unfortunately and inexcusably the same: An unarmed Black person receives the death penalty and is executed at the hands of irresponsible members of law enforcement.
For all the progress minorities in America have accomplished — ascending to the Oval Office, leading public companies, and rising to prominence in communities everywhere — the notion of equal access to opportunity still rings hollow for too many children, college graduates, the unemployed and those who simply want to walk, ride their bike, or breathe in public.
My challenge to our community is that the murder of George Floyd provoke action at all levels of government and in all corners of society. Bringing real, lasting change with the goal of preventing one more unnecessary death and bridging the cultural divides among us will require the following:
- Adopt and enforce zero tolerance policies. If someone kills an on-duty law enforcement officer in Florida, their legal proceedings come with enhanced scrutiny and the potential for a harsher penalty. This should be balanced with an acknowledgment among law enforcement leaders and prosecutors that those in uniform who have taken an oath to act responsibly should likewise be held to a higher threshold. Any action falling short of that standard must be fully prosecuted.
- Elected leaders must lead. In a culturally and bureaucratically fractured community such as Miami, there is no room for ambiguity or — worse — silence. Residents are taking to the streets because they are starving for change. Elected officials should confront their demands head-on in recognition that no one segment of our community can solve these problems alone. Constituents deserve action, nothing less, and leaders must avoid focusing too heavily on the response to a tragedy at the expense of the tragedy itself.
- Law enforcement should avow its commitment to accountability. Every police chief in our community and the leaders of our police unions, along with prosecutors, should stand together and make it clear they will continue holding officers accountable for acts of violence and misjudgment against those they serve and protect. A renewed pledge to uphold high standards of integrity is critical to healing racial wounds. Additionally, there are many “best practices” for policing that have proven elusive. Our leaders must implement these guidelines without fear of reprisal when they speak out about those who violate them or, worse yet, concoct reasons to ignore them.
- Embrace and protect demonstrators. Throughout history, righteous causes have sparked action through protests. Thwarting these demonstrations is un-American, anti-democratic, and pro-autocracy. No matter how a protest unfolds, our focus must center on protecting demonstrators and preserving civil rights. Just as some protests have become disorderly, we have also watched silent protests decrying police brutality in recent years. In both cases, protesters were vilified. The only logical conclusion is that people in power cannot accept contrasting points of view, fearing that any one person or group could harness outsized influence. The unheard must raise their voices.
Our nation and community are at a crossroads. Will we continue down the path to mediocrity, or reverse course and accelerate to greatness? Will this be the tipping point where Black members of society are finally viewed on equal footing, or will the outrage we are witnessing today fizzle until the next act of race-driven brutality goes viral?
As one of the world’s most culturally rich communities, Miami has a chance to lead on this issue by enacting real reforms and holding those in power accountable when they fail to do so. I pray that we will seize that opportunity.
*This article was republished with permission from Miami Herald