In 1980, three back-to-back disasters hit Miami: the McDuffie riots, an overwhelming surge of Cuban immigration and a rapid influx of drugs and money. Nicholas Griffin’s new book — The Year of Dangerous Days — covers this turbulent time in Miami’s history.
“This book basically is built around 12 months in the life of Miami and what happened in Miami,” said Griffin. “Particularly, there are these three sort-of overlapping disasters that come in extraordinarily short form.”
Griffin, a journalist and author of multiple novels, recently presented his book The Year of Dangerous Days in an event hosted by the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs and Books & Books.
“There were three centers of power at that time,” explained Griffin. “There was the city government, the county government — and between them there was a lot of tension — and then because of that tension there was something called the ‘non-group.’”
This “non-group” was a group of the wealthiest and most influential businessmen in Miami. Of this group, one became mayor: Maurice Ferré. Ferré would go on to serve six terms as mayor of Miami and change the cultural and economic landscape of the city.
Ferré’s tenure as mayor combined with a liberal county manager and governor set the stage for what seemed to be a quite progressive Miami. In 1980, all three disasters broke the chain of progress starting with the Mariel boatlift, a mass emigration of Cubans who traveled from Cuba's Mariel Harbor to the United States between April 15 and October 31.
Shortly after the initial waves of immigration, the city of Miami became overwhelmed and asked for county assistance. Then, after a sequence of rapid immigration policy changes, the growing distrust between government and local agencies came to a head as the cocaine epidemic flourished.
The final of the three disasters came on May 18, 1980, as riots broke out following the acquittal of police officers involved in the murder of Arthur McDuffie.
“[Another aspect of the non-group’s control] that we can point out is the manner in which the media — even in the 70s — was able to influence public opinion,” said George Knox, former City of Miami attorney and visiting faculty member of the FIU College of Law. “The events that led to McDuffie’s death, for example … we identify the McDuffie riot as the worst riot in the country’s history. At the same time there is a very valid statement that the McDuffie murder by police officers was the most heinous crime against an innocent citizen in the history of the United States of America — and it becomes a matter of perception and perspective."
From the riots rose the question of whether the polarization around the riots had increased or decreased in their aftermath. According to Knox, the answer lies in how each of the affected populations saw those events.
“The important thing, from my perspective, is to have people appreciate the complexity and depth that was underlying all of the events that took place in 1980,” continued Knox.
Many of the questions regarding the lack of intergovernmental coordination during these crises are still being asked, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As I was reading the book, there are some passages where FEMA was discussed [and I thought] ‘Wow, FEMA again!’” said Valerie Patterson, clinical associate professor of the Department of Public Policy & Administration.
FEMA’s involvement in Miami during this time mirrors other contemporary crises such as hurricanes Katrina and Andrew, or more recently, COVID-19.
“The other day I was reading a passage where they discussed [COVID-19] response … this sounds just like the sort of COVID-19 response on the federal level,” continued Patterson.
Patterson noted that the passage connected the past to the present as local solutions may require federal coordination and collaboration, much like the current situation with COVID-19. Despite the occasional echoes of past mistakes, there is still plenty of room for anticipation of the future.
“It sounds like it’s a hopeful future that we can look forward to,” said Patterson. “Sometimes I think that it’s really useful to ask next-generation leadership about the future that they want to see, and to get them to think about their ideas for the possibilities.”
Watch Nicholas Griffin’s presentation of The Year of Dangerous Days below.