The Year Of Dangerous Days: Riots, Refugees, And Cocaine In Miami 1980

Author: Nicholas Griffin
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2020. 318 pages.
Reviewer: Steven Noll ǀ January 2022

Miami-Dade County 2020-21- the pandemic, the Surfside building collapse, the Black Lives Matter struggles, the January 6, 2021 insurrection, king tides- most people would maintain these were without a doubt the worst years ever for south Florida. Yet, in his The Year of Dangerous Days: Riots, Refugees, and Cocaine in Miami 1980, Nicholas Griffin makes a good case that 1980 can match them. In addition to national issues like an almost 15 % inflation level and mortgage rates nearly as high, residents had to cope with escalating Cold War tensions and the nightmare of the Iranian hostage crisis, where the United States appeared powerless to free the fifty-two captives held by Iranian student militants at the American embassy in Tehran. Griffin, however, does not examine these larger concerns, and is content to let them stay in the background of his story. Instead, he focuses on the local issues that tore greater Miami apart in 1980- rampant drug importation and its concomitant violence, the police killing of Arthur McDuffie and the riots that roiled the area in its aftermath, and the Mariel boatlift’s refugee exodus which overwhelmed the bureaucratic infrastructure of the city. Despite the difficulties of 1980, Griffin’s book ends on an optimistic note. “It’s better to think of that year in Miami,” he concludes, “as a most American experiment” (pg. 260).

Nicholas Griffin is a London born journalist and novelist who has lived full-time in Dade County for the past eight years. He has traveled extensively around the world, but this book was his first attempt to tackle the issues and challenges associated with his adopted hometown. In April 2020, as the COVID pandemic was just beginning and the book was about to be released, he wrote an article for Conde Nast Traveler entitled “What It’s Like to Watch Miami Turn into a Ghost Town While in Quarantine.” The book and the article speak both of his love for south Florida and his awareness of its problems. For Griffin, “geography defined Miami” (pg. 258), but that very “geography seemed to be conspiring against the city, not working for it” (pg. xvi). The city that Griffin writes about in 2020, the city of cruise ships and tourists, the city of sun and South Beach, was born in the chaos of 1980 that he describes so eloquently in The Year of Dangerous Days. This turmoil centered around three inter-related though very distinct stories. The first was the police killing of a black motorcycle rider, Arthur McDuffie, in December 1979, and the subsequent coverup of the crime. The trial of the officers involved led to an acquittal and days of bloody rioting in the streets of Liberty City and Overtown, Miami’s Black population centers. Secondly, Griffin chronicles the Mariel boatlift and its impact on south Florida. Between mid-April and the end of October, approximately 125,000 Cuban refugees fled the oppressive Castro regime, leading to a dramatic change in the demographics of the region. Finally, he recounts the ongoing drug violence associated with the importation of cocaine from South America, especially Colombia.

Using a narrative approach, Griffin examined 1980 Miami in a journalistic manner, writing in an almost “crime-noir” style. He tied the three major stories of 1980 together using the individual accounts of important figures such as Maurice Ferré, six-time mayor of the city of Miami, Edna Buchanan, long-time crime reporter for the Miami Herald, the area’s leading newspaper, and Marshall Frank, a homicide policeman assigned to get to the truth surrounding the death of Arthur McDuffie. Their personal chronicles and remembrances, culled from dozens of hours of oral history interviews conducted by Griffin, gives the book the flavor of a documentary rather than an academic monograph. Much of his other source material comes from Florida newspapers, which adds to the journalistic focus of the book. In the Acknowledgements, Griffin talks about the value of long hours of difficult microfiche reading of these papers, since “the Miami Herald had only digitized its archives back to 1982” (pg. 262). He also uses court cases and government documents to flesh out the complicated and convoluted financial transactions and shenanigans associated with the money laundering of funds associated with the Colombian cocaine trade. All told, Griffin has put together a well-written tale that is both readable and deeply sourced.

The book opens with the dramatic retelling of the brutal police beating of Arthur McDuffie in the early morning hours of December 17, 1979. McDuffie, a 33-year-old Black insurance executive and Marine Corps veteran was driving his motorcycle at a high speed when stopped by the police. They beat McDuffie so badly he slipped into a coma and died 4 days later. To make matters worse, the officers lied in official reports about the incident, claiming McDuffie died after losing control of his bike and hitting a wall. With Edna Buchanan doggedly reporting on the case, the police cover-up story quickly fell apart. By late March 1980, 5 police officers were being tried for McDuffie’s death, one for murder in the second degree. In the trial held in Tampa rather than Miami, their attorneys used a defense that has become all too familiar to Americans today. “This wasn’t a trial,” they argued, “but a politicized show trial, with their clients being offered as scapegoats to Miami politics. They blazed into the courtroom describing the trial as a ‘witch hunt’” (pg. 128). After 7 weeks of riveting testimony, the all-white all male jury returned a verdict of not guilty for all on all counts. Reaction in Miami was swift and violent. Griffin set the stage for the largest riot/insurrection in Florida history as he wrote, “it was 80 degrees; the end of one of those soft Miami afternoons was fading out with impossible purple and blues” (pg. 146). Juxtaposing that tranquil scene with the righteous rage of Miami’s Black citizens, Griffin chronicled the three days in mid-May when Miami burned. As he concludes: “Every black [sic] person in Dade County knew that the McDuffie trial was the time for justice, and that, once again, justice was not for them” (pg. 153). After Governor Bob Graham called in the National Guard, order was finally restored, but not until after 18 people had been killed, over 3,500 arrested, and more than $100 million in property damaged or destroyed. Finally, “synchronized to the weather, the mood of Liberty City turned from outrage to casual looting, to a return of relative normalcy” (pg. 161). Yet, as Griffin is quick to point out, little in Miami changed in response to Black calls for justice. In July 2021, in an incident strikingly similar to the McDuffie killing, 5 Miami Beach police officers were caught on cellphone video brutally beating and kicking a Black suspect accused of illegally parking a scooter. That case is still winding its way through the judicial process and it remains to be seen whether justice will be served.

While Miami, particularly Black Miami, remained captivated over the McDuffie “incident,” another catastrophic event simultaneously overwhelmed South Florida. This one, like the McDuffie story, was the culmination of events years in the making. For 20 years, since the early 1960s, Miami’s demographics had been changing dramatically with the influx of Cubans fleeing the repressive Castro regime on that island. As the McDuffie matter captured the Miami headlines in mid -April, thousands of Cuban refugees crowded the port of Mariel, to be transported to the United States by a motley flotilla of fishing and pleasure boats operated by Cuban-American skippers. The author catches the surprised reaction of south Florida when he writes that at first, “this landmark moment- the news of the outgoing boats- didn’t even make the Miami Herald” (pg. 85). By mid-May, the Mariel refugee boatlift moved to the above the fold on the front page of the paper every day, and promised to overwhelm south Florida. The responses of American government entities- city, state, and national- were uncoordinated and often vacillating. Even many south Florida Cuban residents felt ambivalent about the “Marielitos.” These were not the upper- and middle-class Cubans who had fled Castro in the early to mid-1960s. “By adding an entire nation’s hardened criminals to a small city’s population,” Griffin notes, “Castro was about to skew Miami’s crime statistics” (pg. 100). The sheer number of asylum seekers overwhelmed both south Florida’s and the nation’s immigration system. In the first month of the boatlift alone, almost 25,000 Cubans fled the island to reach the U.S. and an uncertain future. Landing in south Florida in the midst of the Miami riots must have been a surreal experience for the Marielitos. “From the Orange Bowl, the hopeful refugees of Mariel waited out the rains and climbed to the top of the bleachers for a better view of Miami’s smoldering fires. So many had been lured by the photographs of the beautiful city their proud relatives had shared the year before. This was a different America” (pg. 161). Even the visitation of Florida Governor Bob Graham and President Jimmy Carter did little to tamp down the concerns over the refugee “invasion.” Again, presaging the events of the past four years of a Donald Trump presidency, Miami became a profoundly partitioned city. Griffin concludes that “the city had become more divided, defensive, and openly paranoid. In the wake of Mariel, McDuffie, and the cocaine violence, Miami had armed itself” (pg. 191).

While Miami boiled over with the racial and ethnic tensions caused by these two major events, the city was simultaneously dealing with a long-term crisis that would ultimately re-shape south Florida. Miami’s location at the crossroads of the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States made it the perfect location for the importation of drugs, particularly cocaine, into the states. By 1980, large international drug cartels, usually based in Colombia, had seized control of this multi-million dollar enterprise through both street level violence and money laundering in the board rooms of major corporations and banks. Griffin notes that “cocaine was a problem whose extent was in no way understood either by the FBI or by the PSD [the Dade County Public Safety Department] homicide bureau” (pg. 64). Violence associated with control of the cocaine trade escalated during all of 1980, giving Edna Buchanan and other Herald reporters more than enough work. In early September, Griffin writes, “in a city that used to average 120 homicides a year, there were already two in a day. Edna Buchanan did the math. It was homicide number 328 for 1980, which meant that they were on course for over 500 murders in a year” (pg. 193). And it was not just the increasing number of murders, it was the brazenness of them that terrified south Florida residents. Buchanan saw herself as “Miami’s first war correspondent, a witness to the endless grind, the fascination of violence, the questions and the breaks” (pg. 195).

While Dade County homicide detectives tried to handle the rising murder rate (a situation made more difficult by the increasingly bilingual nature of the region), federal white-collar investigators examined the Byzantine nature of the cocaine currency trail. In a multi-agency undertaking dubbed Operation Greenback, federal agents followed the money and focused on an unlikely target- Isaac Kattan, a slovenly currency trader, bank auditor, and travel agent who lived a rather spartan existence and drove a Chevy Citation. Kattan was not the stereotypical blinged out drug kingpin driving a flashy Jaguar, yet authorities determined Kattan laundered over $40 million in drug money in 1980 alone (at a time when the average CEO salary averaged a paltry $1 million). Griffin is at his best describing the financial machinations of Kattan and his Colombian drug partners and the efforts of federal authorities to halt them. Based on the work of Greenback agents, Kattan was convicted of money laundering and bank fraud and served ten years in federal prison before being deported to Colombia. Griffin concludes that “Operation Greenback had done the country an extraordinary service. Not only did Greenback imitators pop-up all-over America, but the art and power of forensic accountancy was acknowledged across federal law enforcement agencies” (pg. 249). The results of street level prosecution were not so sanguine, however. Anibal Jaramillo, a hired Colombian hit man, was sentenced to death for a brutal double murder in November 1980, but that conviction was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court, who ordered him immediately discharged from death row.

The year 1980 was also a bad year for Miami- tourism, the lifeblood of the city’s economy, which was down by almost 25%, and national news reports blasted the city for its lawlessness. And yet, “optimists like Governor Graham or Mayor Ferré hadn’t given up on the city, even when it seemed President Carter had” (pgs. 250-251). The author’s journalistic narrative of this tough time in south Florida is a riveting hard to put down tale. It would have been improved however, by a widening of his source materials to include some more of Miami’s underrepresented groups. The McDuffie story is told almost exclusively from the point of view of Anglo Miami. Using more Black oral histories would have given the analysis of this important event more nuance and context. The same goes for the discussion of the saga of the Marielitos. We are left hoping to hear more of their side of the story- why did they leave Cuba? How did they fit into Miami’s Cuban society? What was their experience with the formalized immigration process? What did they think of what was happening in the streets of Miami as they came into America?

While Griffin does a good job narrating a chronology of the “annus horribilis” that was 1980 Miami, he is even better as he puts a present day perspective on the events of that year. He maintains that the growth of Miami from a major Florida city to an international capital of business and finance was directly related to the influx of money generated from the importation of cocaine and other illicit drugs to south Florida. Only four years after the difficulties of 1980, Miami, even with its issues and problems, was celebrated in the iconic TV show Miami Vice. In a 1985 Time magazine article, series executive producer Anthony Yerkovich described the south Florida setting in terms that sound like they were ripped from the pages of Griffin’s book. Miami, he noted, “is a sort of modern-day American Casablanca. It seemed to be an interesting socio-economic tide pool: the incredible numbers of refugees from Central America and Cuba, the already extensive Cuban-American community, and on top of all that the drug trade.” Miami was now hip, Miami was now cool, old run-down Miami Beach was now vibrant upscale South Beach. Nothing exemplified that change more than the 2010 nationally televised ESPN interview in which NBA superstar LeBron James announced that he was taking his talents to South Beach. Despite its racial tensions, immigration problems, and highly visible drug violence, it appears that Miami has emerged as the exemplar of the modern American city. But after reading Nicholas Griffin’s important book, especially in light of the divisive matters of the past four years exacerbated by Donald Trump’s politics of fear and loathing, one should instead argue that Miami has emerged as the exemplar of not just the modern American city, but America itself, precisely because of those issues.

Steven Noll, University of Florida

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