Rioters Protest Miami Police Brutality

The race riot that took place in Miami, Florida, in 1980 gave evidence that the attainment of an American society free of racial conflict was far from being realized.

Summary of Event

On May 17, 1980, a sad chapter of racial violence was added to the long and painful history of race relations in the United States. On that date, five white South Florida law-enforcement officers—Herbert Evans, Ira Diggs, William Hanlon, Alex Marrero, and Michael Watts—were acquitted by an all-white jury of charges stemming from the death of Arthur McDuffie, an African American insurance executive. The acquittals precipitated a riot in an area known as Liberty City, a black community of Miami, Florida. Before the riot was brought under control, eighteen people were dead and countless more had been injured. Property damages were assessed in the millions of dollars. Eight of those who died were whites who had been driving through Liberty City unaware of the verdicts. By the time anger had replaced the initial shock caused by the acquittals, migrants as well as residents had been beaten, stabbed, and burned to death by rioters who were taking out their frustrations on those they believed to be responsible not only for the verdicts but also for their impoverished condition. Riots;Miami
Police brutality;Miami
Racial and ethnic conflict;Miami
[kw]Rioters Protest Miami Police Brutality (May 17-19, 1980)
[kw]Protest Miami Police Brutality, Rioters (May 17-19, 1980)
[kw]Miami Police Brutality, Rioters Protest (May 17-19, 1980)
[kw]Police Brutality, Rioters Protest Miami (May 17-19, 1980)
[kw]Brutality, Rioters Protest Miami Police (May 17-19, 1980)
Police brutality;Miami
Racial and ethnic conflict;Miami
[g]North America;May 17-19, 1980: Rioters Protest Miami Police Brutality[04170]
[g]United States;May 17-19, 1980: Rioters Protest Miami Police Brutality[04170]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;May 17-19, 1980: Rioters Protest Miami Police Brutality[04170]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 17-19, 1980: Rioters Protest Miami Police Brutality[04170]
[c]Social issues and reform;May 17-19, 1980: Rioters Protest Miami Police Brutality[04170]
McDuffie, Arthur
Marrero, Alex
Watts, Michael
Evans, Herbert
Diggs, Ira
Hanlon, William
Reno, Janet

Although the immediate cause of this urban and racial violence could be attributed to the Tampa jury’s failure to find the police defendants guilty, the underlying cause may be somewhat more difficult to ascertain. It is highly unlikely that any riot would have taken place at all if the defendants had been found guilty. For the African American community, the acquittal was more than simply one more example of unequal justice, and it had a profound meaning that went beyond that community to a much larger audience. It became a symbol for an outpouring of fear, distrust, and hostility, mirroring some of the emotional and violent disturbances and attempts to achieve equal process that had surfaced during the 1960’s. That decade had been filled with inner-city frustration that had resulted in a “get whitey” response to real and perceived racial injustices. The Miami riot seemed equally representative of this period in American history. Perhaps most shocking about the Miami riot was the intensity of the rage directed by blacks against whites.

The Miami riot, born of the immediate need to redress a perceived injustice, may also be viewed as a culmination of events that exemplified general policies of official oppression against the African American community. It had been fifteen years since the government had established equal employment opportunity guidelines and affirmative action processes that were supposed to provide equal access for minorities to political decision-making centers. It was therefore only a short step from the perception that an all-white jury had unjustly set free the white police defendants to the recognition that the black community was still being racially discriminated against by a society dominated by white people. Included in this immediate reaction was the idea that the police forces in South Florida were disproportionately white. At the time of the riot, the number of African Americans on the Dade County Public Safety Department (PSD) police force stood at only 7 percent. The upper ranks had only a few black officers, and in the higher ranks, there were no blacks at all.

The violent reaction by blacks also stemmed from frustration over largely ignored accusations of police brutality in the past. Many blacks perceived McDuffie’s death as only the most recent in a long series of police transgressions against members of the black community—incidents that, when addressed, had resulted in few or no disciplinary actions against those charged.

On the morning of December 17, 1979, Arthur McDuffie left the home of a friend. He was riding his motorcycle toward his home in northwest Dade County, where he lived with his sister. At approximately 1:00 a.m., McDuffie was observed by PSD sergeant Ira Diggs as having failed to stop for a red light. Diggs began to pursue McDuffie, calling police headquarters for assistance as he did. McDuffie reacted to Diggs’s pursuit by increasing his speed. After an eight-minute chase, more than one dozen police cars surrounded McDuffie’s motorcycle, forcing him to stop. In an ensuing confrontation between McDuffie and six police officers, McDuffie received severe head wounds that resulted in his death four days later.

The investigation into McDuffie’s death led to the eventual prosecution of the officers involved in the incident. During the investigation, it was determined that a cover-up of the cause of McDuffie’s death had been instituted by key police personnel, including higher-ranking personnel who were not present during the confrontation with McDuffie. Inconsistencies in official police reports made the police officers’ statements surrounding McDuffie’s death seem highly suspect. The county medical examiner, for example, did not believe that if McDuffie’s injuries had occurred as stated by the officers that they would have been sufficient to cause death. In the end, State Attorney Janet Reno brought official charges of manslaughter and tampering with evidence against the PSD officers.

Protests over McDuffie’s death began almost immediately within the African American community. On January 3, 1980, five days following the official charges, two dozen blacks and a handful of whites marched from Liberty City to the Dade County criminal justice building, where they demanded that the manslaughter charges be changed to charges of murder. Reno issued a public statement rejecting any such change on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Black newspapers and radio stations began to receive angry messages calling for Reno’s removal from the case. Reno then handed the prosecution over to a team of mostly white assistant state’s attorneys.

The trial was eventually moved to the Tampa area, as it was believed that the officers would not be able to receive a fair trial in the heated racial atmosphere of Miami. On May 17, 1980, after almost four weeks of testimony, an all-white jury took only two hours and forty-five minutes to return not-guilty verdicts for all officers involved. Shocked reactions to the verdicts surfaced immediately throughout Florida, especially in the Liberty City area of Miami. For Liberty City blacks, the trial and the verdicts seemed to represent a continuation of an inherently unequal judicial process. In reaction to this and other perceived injustices, Liberty City erupted into violence that claimed the lives of eighteen people and injured many others.

The residents of Liberty City did not riot because of the death of Arthur McDuffie at the hands of PSD officers—the riot did not begin until after the officers’ trial was completed and the verdicts were announced. Rather, the riot took place in an atmosphere of perceived racial injustice; it was caused by African Americans’ belief that the American criminal justice system had failed to punish those they believed were guilty of McDuffie’s death.


If there are lessons to be learned from the Miami riot of 1980, then certain questions must be addressed regarding the judiciary process surrounding the prosecution of those accused of causing McDuffie’s death. Did the system fail? Was racism a factor in the white officers’ acquittal? Was there psychological conflict between the residents of Liberty City and the white government? Do the members of all racial groups in the United States share connected values, assumptions, and perceptions of problems and goals?

A good place to start in attempting to answer such questions is to look at readily identifiable values and perceptions that characterize American cultural identity. In the case of the Miami riot, three such values and their interpretations clearly emerge: equality, freedom, and justice. It was a combination of equality and justice, or a perception of a lack of these, that encouraged the violent response to the trial verdicts by members of the black community.

The acquittal of the white police officers by an all-white jury reawakened age-old fears of racism in the Liberty City section of Miami—in particular, the fear that the American criminal justice system was inherently racist. In part, this perception was justified. Any system that prevents members of a jury from being seated on the basis of race can surely be labeled as racist. The prosecutors and defense attorneys in the McDuffie case freely applied such a selection process. Prosecutors did not try to exclude black jurors; the defense did. Both sides, whether racist in outlook or not, based their decisions during jury selection on the color of potential jury members, and a racist outcome resulted. In the McDuffie case, whether the racial makeup of the jury affected the verdict was obscured by the confusing and contradictory evidence presented by the prosecution. If the evidence presented did not in fact convince the jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers were guilty as charged, then charges of procedural racism were irrelevant.

The McDuffie case contained enough racist possibilities to cause concern over the accusations surrounding it. It was not enough that officers of the court maintained that the trial was a fair one; the trial also needed to appear fair to those outside administrative capacities. Blacks in the United States have a long history of racial abuse. A lack of equality of condition and equality of opportunity has kept blacks from participating in the mainstream wealth of the nation. Many laws have been enacted to override discriminatory practices, but those laws have varied in their impacts. The courts have become the vehicle through which minorities experiencing discrimination attempt to achieve redress. The denial of justice in the courts—the chief avenue for the elimination of discrimination—creates the potential for violence.

The death of Arthur McDuffie and the acquittal of those perceived to be responsible for it left the black community with a sense of alienation that was answered by violence. In evaluating the reasons for the Miami riot, it is not necessary to confront the inequalities of condition and opportunity; one can simply look to see if justice was perceived to have been served. In the black community of Liberty City, the perception was clearly otherwise. The resulting frustration quickly grew into rage and violence. Riots;Miami
Police brutality;Miami
Racial and ethnic conflict;Miami

Further Reading

  • Dunn, Marvin. Black Miami in the Twentieth Century. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. Scholarly, well-documented history of African Americans in Miami from the seventeenth century. Well illustrated and supplemented with notes, bibliography, and index.
  • Harris, Daryl B. The Logic of Black Urban Rebellions: Challenging the Dynamics of White Domination in Miami. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999. Discusses the causes and functions of rebellions such as the Miami riots for the African American community. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Porter, Bruce, and Marvin Dunn. The Miami Race Riot of 1980: Crossing the Bounds. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1984. Account of the Miami riot includes information about the history of race relations in the city, interviews, public reports, and the highly publicized trial and the violence that erupted. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Sniderman, Paul M., and Michael Gray Hagen. Race and Inequality: A Study in American Values. Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House, 1985. Draws on extensive interviews to explore what Americans have to say about the problem of racial inequality, what has produced it, and what should be done about it. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Wilson, William Julius. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Controversial book by a leading African American scholar provides an insightful examination of how poverty and inequality affect behavior in urban slums. Includes bibliography and index.

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