From 1980s Miami to London 2011: Riots and redemption

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When it comes to riots, London could learn a thing or two from Miami.

Unfortunately, the lessons from this side of the Atlantic aren’t all good.

In the 1980s, Florida’s largest city had not one, but two riots that resulted in 18 deaths, numerous injuries and more than $101 million in property damage. Even worse, history has the potential of repeating itself. Miami police recently shot and killed seven African-American males within an eight-month span, again raising racial tensions between law enforcement and the city’s black residents.

Still Britons might want to trade Miami’s uneasy peace for what is now the fourth night of national unrest that has spread beyond London’s city limits. Fires, looting and clashes with police have broken out in predominantly poor and black neighborhoods in at least six English cities, prompting Primer Minister David Cameron to increase the number of police from 6,000 to 16,000. More than 700 individuals have been arrested, and business losses and property damage estimates have been put in the “hundreds of millions.” Authorities are considering using plastic bullets against unruly mobs — a first — and a special battalion of the British Army stands ready should the rioting worsens.

The events leading up to the urban carnage on both sides of the pond remain eerily similar. Start with smoldering racial tensions, an indifferent majority — be it England’s white elite or the Cuban community that largely controls Miami — a crippling economy and rising unemployment. Add the use of lethal force by the police and catastrophe usually results.

In 1979, Miami police arrested Arthur McDuffie, a former Marine and then insurance salesman, after a brief chase and fatally beat him. Authorities filed criminal charges against the officers, ranging from second degree murder, manslaughter to tampering with physical evidence, but a jury acquitted the officers the following year. The riot erupted once word of the verdict spread through Miami’s black neighborhoods.

Nine years later, another Miami policeman shot and killed Clement Lloyd, a car wash manage, as he sped by during a police chase on his motorcycle. A passenger on the bike died in the crash, and the shooting deaths sparked three days of rioting. The officer was found guilty of manslaughter but an appeals court judge overturned the conviction.

More recently, Miami Police Chief Miguel A. Exposito drew the ire of many blacks for the seven African-American men who have been fatally shot by city police. Exposito has steadfastly stood by his officers, prompting the mayor to ask the U.S. Departent of Justice to investigate his own police department.

Police in London may have lit the fuse to their national tragedy with the earlier fatal shooting of Smiley Culture, a British reggae artist, and more recently Mark Duggan, a Jamaican-British father of four. However, a subsequent BBC interview of a West Indian writer and journalist revealed that many of the young men participating in the violence had been victims of police harassment and brutality. The writer described the violence as an “insurrection of the masses” rather than a riot, which leads to the conclusion that many Britons remain blissfully ignorant of their fellow citizens’ frustrations.

Genuine reconciliation won’t come anytime soon as most British citizens see those participating in the riots as common criminals who rightfully deserve punishment. The real challenge, and the chance at long-term healing, begins after the rioting ends. The nation’s leaders must somehow see past criminal prosecution and assimilate Britain’s diverse but long ignored population into English society, or risk a deepening and debilitating rift between the nation’s white majority and its black Britons. They can start by increasing efforts to integrate London’s Metropolitan Police, Scotland Yard and other law enforcement agencies.

Miami, on the other hand, can’t rest on its laurels either. City officials here may understand the dynamics of diversity, but the chances of a new outburst of racial violence only increase when the work needed to maintain a healthy relationship between the police and the communities they are sworn to protect deteriorates into a raw and unfortunate display of power.