The 1980 race riots in Miami’s Liberty City and Overtown neighborhoods was sparked after the acquittal of four White Miami-Dade police officers who beat a Black motorcyclist to death then attempted to hide the crime. On May 17, 1980, the mostly-Black neighborhood erupted in violence after an all-white, all-male Tampa jury didn’t find sufficient evidence to convict the cops.
The incident that sparked the rioting occurred on December 17, 1979 when Arthur McDuffie, a U.S. Marine veteran and businessman, was riding his Kawasaki motorcycle through the neighborhood. The Miami-Dade officers gave chase claiming McDuffie was going 80-plus miles per hour. Officers said after McDuffie lost control of his bike he sped off on foot. According to the officers’ initial reports, McDuffie was involved in a scuffle with the cops with a reported six to eight officers present at the scene.
Later testimony by Officer Charles Veverka revealed that the cops struck McDuffie with nightclubs and their fists until he lay still. Veverka also said that one of the cops ran over McDuffie’s bike with their car to make it appear he had a bad wreck. Another officer, William Hanlon, claims he was the cop who choked McDuffie to the ground while officer Alex Marrero struck him with a heavy-duty flashlight.
The cops who testified in exchange for immunity were given lesser charges, save for Hanlon, who says he was the cop who ran over the motorbike. Mark Meier, another officer who testified against the defendants in the Tampa trial, said that McDuffie actually surrendered at one point. Two other officers, Herbert Evans, Jr. and Ubaldo Del Toro, were charged as accessories to the crime but both walked as well. On May 8, the judge in the case acquitted Del Toro and said that state prosecutors failed to make a case despite the testimonies.
On May 17, the jury acquitted the remaining cops, leading to the riots. Liberty City residents began rioting and burning cars, while reportedly attacking whites in the street. Gov. Bob Graham called in the National Guard. In three days of rioting, 17 were reported dead and over 1,000 arrested. The area was declared a disaster zone. Then President Jimmy Carter came to Miami and asked the community to quell the tension and take action before he would approve much needed federal assistance.
Already frustrated by the lack of support given to the African-American community in favor of Haitian and Cuban immigrants, community leaders saw Carter’s plea as an affront. Historians point to the existing state of race tensions in the area as part of the reason the riots happened. Nearly $100 million in damages was reported in the Overtown neighborhood and across Miami.
Eula McDuffie, the victim’s mother, would not get the justice her son deserved. She was quoted as saying that the cops beat her son to death “like a dog,” which was picked up by local media outlets. The McDuffie family brought a $25 million civil lawsuit against the city, but settled for $1.1 million with nearly half going to attorneys and the rest split between McDuffie’s two children and his mother.