Miami 1980: Two Versions
By John Dorschner
Well, it’s kind of weird, I must say, to read a book that I wanted to write at one point. I’m talking about The Year of Dangerous Days: Riots, Refugees and Cocaine in Miami 1980 by Nicholas Griffin.
I found it elegantly written — a fast-paced read — but I was surprised how much it left out. Not counting indexes and notes, it’s a mere 260 pages, including epilogue. That’s seems astonishingly short, in my humble opinion, for an exceptionally complex year that included the McDuffie riots and the Mariel boatlift, both of which had far reaching implications not only for Miami, but for the whole country, reverberating even today through Black Lives Matter and the continuing debate about immigration.
A bunch of times I found myself searching the index for things that weren’t there or were brushed off in a footnote. The editors seem to be blame. Griffin thanked them in an acknowledgement for “their wise, heavy edits that turned this book from an unwieldy behemoth into a slimmer beast.” I’ll bet I would have liked the “behemoth” better, which may reveal more about me than about him.
I have several gripes about his account on the portion of 1980 Miami that I ended up concentrating on — the trial of the five McDuffie cops — but I must congratulate him for finding two documents that I looked for and failed to get. One of them was pretty damn important.
Before I get too much into the journalistic weeds, let me back up.
When I retired from the Herald in 2013 after 42 years of writing magazine and news stories, I wanted to switch gears: Concentrate on video, maybe make a documentary that could be shown on PBS. I bought a camera that had what I thought were the necessary specs for broadcast production. I set up a website — Miami1980.com — and did a bunch of interviews, including four of the lawyers in the McDuffie cops trial (three defense, one prosecutor), Merrett Stierheim (then county manager), Maurice Ferre (city of Miami mayor), Sergio Pereira (the assistant county manager who managed the boatlift for weeks), Cesar Odio (who did the same for the city), Marvin Dunn (a historian of Black Miami, among many other things), Ken Harms (Miami police chief) and a bunch of others.
Frankly, I wasn’t working very hard on this. It was more of a retirement hobby than anything else. After a while, I realized there was a very slim chance of me getting a documentary aired, even locally. Our local public television stations, I was told, rarely did local documentaries that were controversial. One Miami documentary maker told him that when he had approached Channel 2 (WPBS) with what I thought was a wonderful (and non-controversial) documentary, he was told he would have to pay the station $5000 for liability insurance before they aired the show.
I came to realize too that my video techniques — particularly lighting — were pretty damn amateurish. In November 2016, I made one last attempt at the documentary, connecting with Alan Tomlinson, WLRN’s director of television programming. He agreed to look at samples of my interview clips. I was to send him the clips on a Monday. That Saturday, he died unexpectedly after a minor medical procedure. I waited until a replacement was appointed and sent a query. I never heard back.
So … I thought back to when I did a video interview with Ferre, who knew my work well from my years at the Herald. “John Dorschner!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing trying to make a film? Write a book!”
Well, why not, I eventually decided. Still, I didn’t work very hard on this: Maybe 20 hours a week, with time off for travel and free-lance magazine work. I was pecking away at a gigantic topic (at least in my opinion), with dozens if not hundreds of characters to track down.
I wrestled too with the big picture. Were Mariel and the riots connected? Had to be, some said. No way, others said. And was 1980 a mere hiccup in Miami’s trajectory, or a major course change? (My favorite answer came from prosecutor George Yoss, who said something like, “It was a hiccup, but living through the hiccup was a nightmare.”)
I kept plugging away. With the help of a private detective, I found two McDuffie jurors. Both agreed: The case was a mess from the get-go, and they were surprised that the media didn’t reveal that.
In 2017, I approached the University Press of Florida, and got a polite rejection: They had too many Miami history books already under contract, including two on Mariel.
A DOSE OF REALITY
A couple of months later, in November 2017, I got an email from Griffin. He too was working on a book about Miami 1980 — and he already had a contract with Simon & Schuster. “I’m about three or four years into the project and with orders to hand in a first draft roughly a year from now. I’m slowly coming towards the end of my interviews. We’ve knocked on many of the same doors. Dunn, Ferre, O’Donnell, etc. I’m still going on my interviews, about 40 down and maybe another 30- to go. … I don’t know how you’d feel about talking your experiences in Miami that year on the record? Or perhaps we could just have lunch and chew over the ups and downs of Miami’s fortunes in 1980?”
Well! Griffin is an accomplished British writer of popular history, including the critically acclaimed Ping-Pong Diplomacy. I checked out the book: Well written, well researched. And he had a contract.
Rather than respond, I went into a profound funk. I had no reason to, really. At the rate I had been progressing, it might take me a couple of decades to finish a manuscript — without a publisher.
For a while, I set the project aside. But not completely. From time to time, in idle moments, I found myself looking back to 1980 — especially the trial in Tampa of the five cops accused of killing McDuffie or covering up the way he died.
WHY DID THE VERDICTS SHOCK MIAMI?
Here’s what kept gnawing at me: The not guilty verdicts shocked Miami. No one was expecting them. The city erupted in a bloody riot. What had happened? Four of the defense attorneys (one had died) and one of the prosecutors (George Yoss) all said the state’s case was a mess because the state’s main witnesses were awful, contradicting each other and admitting they had lied repeatedly at the start of the investigation.
But reporters — including the Miami Herald’s — didn’t describe the state’s troubles.
That Herald reporter was Gene Miller, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and probably Miami’s best newspaper reporter of all time. What had happened? I read every story of his on the trial, then looked at the coverage by reporters from the Miami News, Tampa Tribune, St. Pete Times, Star Sentinel (Orlando), Associated Press and Miami’s Channel 4.
Television’s coverage was simplest, as you’d expect. Among the print reporters, Miller’s stories were almost always the best written and the longest, giving the most details about both the prosecution’s case and the defense’s. But, with a lone exception, Miller and the other reporters focused on each day’s testimony, without offering any analysis of the prosecutors’ huge problems.
Examples: The state’s first witness said McDuffie started off by fighting like hell. The state’s second witness said McDuffie immediately shouted “I give up!” and never resisted arrest. No one else heard “I give up!”
What’s more, the state’s first three witnesses said Officer Marrero struck the deadly blows. The state’s fourth witness said it was Officer Watts, and he was certain it was NOT Marrero.
THE MIAMI NEWS STOOD OUT
The only reporter who analyzed the problems was Verne Williams, of the afternoon Miami News. One of his stories was headlined “McDuffie case in disarray.” Another time, he wrote that a state witness’s “candid answers just may have wrecked the prosecution’s case.”
Well! Who was I, a journeyman reporter for the Herald for four decades, to criticize Miller’s work? One friend suggested it would be poor form, at the very least, to criticize a dead colleague. Several times, I set aside the project.
But … I kept coming back to it. Kind of picking at a scab, I couldn’t help myself. Friends asked me why I chose to write on this topic. My response was that I didn’t choose the topic. Somehow, the topic chose me. Which is kind of a cop-out, but that’s the way I felt.
I tracked down Williams’ editor, Howard Kleinberg, who told me that both Miller and Williams were just doing their jobs: Miller’s was to report all the facts he could, Williams’ for the “p.m. cycle” was to do the analysis that the morning Herald wasn’t doing.
Still, doubts persisted. For one thing, I was delving into an area that had already been explored by Robert Hardin, a onetime Herald writer who in 1980 self-published a vehement attack From Quiet to Riot, charging that the Herald had caused the riots in its attempts to win a Pulitzer Prize while ignoring all the problems with the case. Hardin’s book was a mixture of legitimate gripes from the defense attorneys (he’d worked with several of them at one point) and over-the-top accusations that had no connection with reality. Could I ignore Hardin if I wrote a book on the same subject. Well, no.
Another stumbling block: Though I spent a ton of time searching, I was unable to find a trial transcript, if one ever existed. To do a book on a lengthy trial without a transcript was a big gaping research hole.
Still, I kept finding out stuff that sparked my interest. One was an interview with Abe Laeser, who was working in the state attorney’s office at the time but wasn’t involved in the McDuffie case. He told me that he and others inside Reno’s operation thought the main prosecutors acted way too fast in response to intense public pressure, creating problems in the first days that were to sabotage the case in the courtroom.
I also found Marshall Frank, the lead detective on the case. He thought that the first cop to get immunity was the one who had started the fight with McDuffie. If he’d done nothing, McDuffie wouldn’t have died. “If I had been on that jury, I might have had those same doubts,” Frank stated.
Wow. Frank’s comments had come out in a memoir some years before, but hadn’t come to my attention (or any other Miami writer’s as far as I could tell).
With Laeser and Frank, I felt I was on to something. Still, I wasn’t rushing. Retirement meant travel — overseas sometimes, along with visiting Major League ball parks. I was in no rush. I figured vaguely that Griffin was likely to paint broad brush strokes and wouldn’t get into the details that I’d found about the cops’ case.
Then last fall, I happened to look at the Simon & Schuster website and saw a promo for the book, which was scheduled for mid-May, in time for the 40th anniversary of the riots. It was to feature three main characters: Reporter Edna Buchanan, Mayor Maurice Ferre — and Frank, the homicide detective.
Arg. So the profound doubts of the lead detective were about to come out, one of the keys I had been thinking might make my work unique. What to do? For some weeks, I agonized. Give up the project completely after six years of on-again, off-again work? Plug along at my own pace and ignore the competition? Or rush it into print? When I checked with an agent, he said it would take at least a year and a half to put out a regular hardcover book, and he couldn’t imagine any publisher wanting to come out a year after Simon & Schuster covered the same material.
So … I consulted with a couple of friends. One was a longtime investigative journalist whom I’ve always respected. He said two things:
First, I should go ahead and publish. He had once stopped work on a book and regretted it ever after.
Second, he really, really hated the idea of a book that would offer up any criticism of Gene Miller. He disliked books that involved second-guessing in general, and he especially did not like doing a book on a trial without a transcript: “You won’t be able to speak with authority.” When I told him that I found that Miller had done the most comprehensive and well written stories on the trial, he remarked: “Of course!” He suggested I do a big-picture look at 1980, picking out two or three characters to focus on. That’s exactly what Simon & Schuster was doing.
I also consulted Patrick Malone, now a successful Washington lawyer. Patrick had been the Herald’s medical writer back in 1980 and done a revealing story on the autopsy of McDuffie. He hadn’t heard of the problems with the trial and wanted to know more. About the lack of the transcript: In a perfect world, it’d be great to have, he said, but he knew from his own experience that the world is filled with imperfections, and that shouldn’t stop me.
With that, I rushed ahead. I showed Malone a very rough draft that was approaching 250,000 words — this is War and Peace monster book length. Because I didn’t have a trial transcript, I was thinking I should report on the reporting, as it were — and starting from the first stories on McDuffie, I quoted at length from news reports. Malone found this numbing to read and urged me to just report directly on the case. I sent some sample chapters to Gigi Lehman, another former colleague. She agreed: Way too complicated. Slim it down.
And with that I set out. My goal was to self-publish on Amazon a bit before May 17, the 40th anniversary of the riot, coming out about the time of the S&S book and may be getting mentioned in some 40th anniversary stories. Along the way, I saw that the S&S book was postponed to mid-July, which seemed odd to me, but I still decided to shoot for publication before the 40th anniversary.
SALES WERE MINUSCULE
The book went live on Amazon on April 27. Verdict on Trial: The Inside Story of The Cop Case That Ignited Miami’s Deadliest Riot. https://www.amazon.com/Verdict-Trial-Inside-Ignited-Deadliest/dp/B0882JSH7R
It sold to family, friends, those with a deep interest in the trial and a few others. Sales were minuscule.
The pandemic was raging, and no local media, as far as I know, did anything to mark the 40th anniversary. I tried all the customary things for a self-published author seeking publicity: Facebook postings, Twitter postings, set up an account through Medium.com, a bit of advertising on Amazon. And of course I updated my websites Miami1980.com and MiamiWebNews.com. I did a bunch of other things I won’t bother you with. The result for sales: diddly-squat.
On May 25, George Floyd’s death sparked a national uproar. I tried various ways to comment on the Floyd case and plug my book. But…. What actually did my book have to say that fit the Floyd and other 2020 cases? No cell phones recorded McDuffie’s death. That’s why prosecutors had to immunize cops who participated in the beating.
One similarity between then and now: Prosecutors facing huge political pressure. I urged prosecutors working on the Floyd case and those involved with the Georgia jogger and the Atlanta Wendy’s shooting — don’t rush your investigation! Don’t bow to political pressure! Do it right! Don’t count on the courts to solve all the issues of police brutality! Those thoughts got zero traction. Whatever points my book made didn’t fit with the present heavily polarized universe: Convict bad cops! Black Lives Matter! Trump’s calls for civil war! Nuances were gone. And so I shut up.
I never envisioned a best-seller. My hope was to at least to reset history a bit. The local media — particularly the Miami Herald — had for 40 years generally blamed the verdicts on an “all-white jury,” mostly without further explanation. At least my book could change that.
After Floyd, the Herald mentioned the McDuffie case at least twice. One was the standard brush-off of the “all-white jury” verdicts. More bothersome was the column by Carl Hiaasen, a top Herald investigative reporter before he became a fabulous novelist. He wrote that an officer at the 1980 trial “testified that McDuffie had slowed down to 25 miles per hour and shouted that he was giving up. Then he was surrounded, his helmet yanked off, and beaten with nightsticks and a flashlight, according to the cooperating officers.”
Carl must have been writing this from memory. Officer Mark Meier testified that McDuffie stopped his Kawasaki 900. Meier pulled out his pistol and shouted, “Freeze!” McDuffie shouted, “I give up!”
Here’s the thing: I spend a lot of time in the book examining this testimony. Meier gave several interviews to detectives and prosecutors without mentioning “I give up!” It was more than a month later that he suddenly remembered McDuffie’s utterance. This memory lapse was hammered on by defense attorneys at the trial.
What’s more, Charles Veverka, the state’s first witness, testified he was the first to confront McDuffie. He said the motorcyclist started by fighting like hell at the beginning. Veverka testified that he hit McDuffie as hard as he could and his blow didn’t faze the motorcyclist a bit. Veverka said he never heard McDuffie say, “I give up!”
No wonder the jurors said they didn’t believe the state’s witnesses.
Meier’s testimony was so discredited that at a later federal trial, with Veverka charged with violating McDuffie’s civil rights, Meier testified again, this time without mentioning “I give up!” Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys asked him to recall the phrase.
Having whined about all this, I must say I agree completely with the main point that Carl made in that column, which was entitled: “Outraged public can’t assume officers will be convicted.” Exactly right: It’s difficult to convict cops in the United States. The McDuffie trial was just one of many examples.
THE YEAR OF DANGEROUS DAYS
Finally, in mid-July, Simon & Schuster released The Year of Dangerous Days. This was a major project from S&S, a division of the Viacom CBS media conglomerate. There was not only a hardcover and Kindle, but also an Audible! It had a proper index (way too expensive and time-consuming for me) and carefully detailed chapter notes (compared with my slap-dash sloppy ones).
A NYT reviewer praised the book as “deeply researched,” “utterly absorbing” and “never a dull moment.” The S&S publicity machine got him a whole six minutes on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
I was struck by Griffin’s elegant statement of why 1980 Miami is important to today’s America: “Miami was about to pose new problems and new questions for the rest of America to consider. Within the year, drugs would become a part of the national conversation. Immigration would evolve into a virulent topic in South Florida as race was redefined in Miami. Dade County not only witnessed what the New York Times called the worst racial disturbance of the century but would behold something entirely new: enough Latin Americans suddenly spilling into a city to turn both black and white citizens into minorities.”
To Griffin, “If 1980 was a diagnostic test for America, Miami was the biopsy.” Brilliantly said.
FINDING STUFF I HADN’T
Griffin did a ton of research. Twice he found materials that I failed to get. One turned out to be fairly minor (from my standpoint). His footnotes cite archives of the Dade State Attorney’s Office. I had sought those early on, in 2013. Ed Griffith, spokesman for the office, replied flatly: “There are no archives at the SAO.” I had been hoping for deeply revealing files of the McDuffie cops; what Griffin found was mostly stuff connected with the post-riot trials, which didn’t interest me.
But another of his finds was so crucial that, if I ever update my book, I will include this comment made in mid-trial by the Black-owned Miami Times: “It has quickly reached the point where nothing at all is assured. These men should be convicted and sent to prison, but the possibility impresses us as remote. The writer suggested Black people “may just do themselves a favor by expecting the worst out of Tampa.”
I had really wanted to see the Miami Times’ archives. The editor at the time said that the back issues were stuck deep in storage and inaccessible. Maybe Griffin found that article elsewhere. I wished I’d had it, because it contrasted so profoundly with the neutral coverage of the Herald.
THE GENE MILLER QUESTION
In his book, Griffin uses a mere paragraph to sum up the criticism of the Herald’s coverage:
“Miller’s reporting was nowhere near as pessimistic. Only rarely had he let opinion seep onto the page. Attorneys for both sides had been confused by Miller’s articles. Yoss worried that because of Miller’s coverage, the citizens of Miami still presumed he and Hank Adorno had a great case. Yoss knew they didn’t. … O’Donnell was equally perplexed by Miller…. Both sets of attorneys understood the danger. Miller was the barometer of the city’s expectations. If the state attorney failed to obtain convictions for the five defendants, Miami would be caught completely by surprise, and surprise would lead to outrage, and outrage could lead nowhere at all.”
Well! In one draft, I spent several thousand words in two chapters discussing the issue of the reporting of Miller and others. Even in the published version, I devoted a whole chapter to the press coverage of the trial, including expressions of my own angst in daring to suggest that Miller’s reporting could have been better. (James Lees, a lawyer who commented throughout the manuscript, emailed me at one point that I should man-up! Don’t be a moral coward. Do the criticism without the angst. I ignored his advice.)
In that media chapter, I concluded that if Herald offered more of an analysis of the case’s problems, city leaders might have been prepared for disturbances, but the Herald didn’t cause the riot. If anything, rioters followed the trial through television, not newspapers.
What had Griffin meant by his cryptic remark “outrage can lead nowhere at all”? In fact, outrage led to the murders of 18 persons and the destruction of $100 million in property.
NOW TO THE GRIPES
It’s natural that anyone who believes himself to be a specialist in a subject will have complaints when others delve into his field. I have a few gripes about his handling the trial — not a lot really.
The biggest: After the first three state witnesses said Officer Alex Marrero was the one who slammed McDuffie’s head with deadly blows, the fourth state witness (John Gerry Gerant, but unnamed in the book) was asked by prosecutors to point out in the courtroom “the man he saw beat McDuffie on the ground,” Griffin wrote. “To [prosecutors] Yoss and Adorno’s shock, he walked past Marrero and stopped in front of Michael Watts…. The witness knew Alex Marrero, had often seen him drinking coffee at the Ranch House Restaurant. He was certain he never saw him strike a blow.”
In fact, prosecutors — and defense attorneys — had known for many weeks that Gerant thought Watts struck the worst blows and Gerant had seen Marrero walking away from the scene when the blows were struck. That information had come out in a pre-trial deposition. This was a key moment in the trial — Griffin and I both quote Verne Williams of the Miami News as writing that this testimony “drove a king-sized hole through the prosecution case.”
Defense attorney Ed Carhart (who many thought should have been the Dade state attorney, rather than Reno) believed that this contradiction was so huge that prosecutors should never have put on Marrero and Watts on trial together. A juror later told reporters this discrepancy was a key reason why he couldn’t find either Marrero or Watts guilty.
With my natural pro-writer prejudice, I wonder if the editors pushed Griffin into this mistake. They insisted he cut a much longer scene, and he came up with prosecutors’ “shock” as a quick transition without thinking/researching.
My second big gripe is more a matter of emphasis. It concerns Veverka, the first cop at the scene to seek immunity.
Griffin writes: “Frank [the homicide detective] would have his evidence corroborated, even if he wasn’t entirely convinced by Veverka’s version of events. Why, Frank asked himself, would McDuffie pull over, put his kickstand down, and then throw a punch at an armed officer as other cars arrived, as Veverka said he had?”
Griffin leaves it at that. Perhaps a bunch of stuff was cut out, but this is the major point of the whole damn case. Veverka was the instigator of the violence, in the view of the lead homicide investigator. As Frank confessed in his memoir, “In my opinion, Veverka was the cop who sparked the chaos that followed. Had he and Meier simply taken the man into custody, the name McDuffie would never had been a household word in Dade County.”
In other words, Veverka was precisely the wrong person to give immunity to. Some staffers inside Reno’s office knew that — as I point out in the book — and plenty of critics complained that prosecutors rushed way too fast to placate public outcry by quickly indicting cops, when a slow, measured response might have worked much better.
In Griffin’s book, the lead detective’s summation of the trial is missing: “Had I been on that jury, I might have had those same doubts.” That’s a hell of a confession from the case’s lead investigator.
A smaller, less relevant mistake: Griffin has the case going to the jury on Friday afternoon, May 16, after Adorno’s summation. In fact, Carhart had the final word for the defense on Saturday morning. Shortly after 11:30 a.m., jurors began deliberating.
Other minor errors: Edna’s original story on McDuffie was on the front page of the Herald’s local section, not the front page as Griffin asserts.
For what it’s worth: Griffin and I both have Frank criticizing the work of Sergeant Linda Saunders, who did an Internal Review report that merely repeated what the cops told her. Frank said he met with Saunders and was astounded she hadn’t even looked at the motorcycle. I report — and Griffin doesn’t — that Saunders denies the Frank anecdote. She said she never met with Frank, never talked to him. And she disputes Frank’s assertion she had no experience: She had a lot of experience, she told me.
Still, these are mostly nit-picks. Overall, I must say, Griffin produced a highly accurate narrative.
HOW COULD THEY LEAVE THAT OUT?
Here’s a list of other omissions that I’ll bet were in an earlier draft and the S&S editors stupidly whacked:
Eddie Del Toro, the fifth cop on trial, had his case thrown out by the judge mid-trial because the state presented no evidence that he did anything illegal. Jurors viewed his sudden disappearance from the courtroom as a major indicator that the state’s case was weak. The unnamed Del Toro was relegated to a Griffin footnote. Two other defendants — Sergeants Ira Diggs and Herbert Evans — also went unnamed in the book. How can any book on Miami 1980 not name three of the five McDuffie defendants?
Also missing is Ed Carhart, a defense attorney who had once been chief assistant to Richard Gerstein, Reno’s predecessor. Carhart — with his insightful post-trial critique of the prosecutors’ performance — appeared in my book probably more than any other character. According to his notes, Griffin interviewed one defense attorney — Ed O’Donnell — and let it go at that.
Also missing: The two 1980 trials of Johnny Jones, the Black school superintendent. Reno and quite a few others were convinced that Jones’ conviction by an all-white jury combined with the McDuffie acquittals formed a one-two punch that ignited rage in the Black neighborhoods. Griffin brushed off the Jones affair in a couple of sentences and a footnote.
But… Let me insert a confession here: I may not be the best to judge what should be left out. As a self-published author, I was captain of my own ship, as it were. I had two editor/advisors — Patrick Malone and Gigi Lehman. Sometimes I took their suggestions. Sometimes I didn’t. Both of them thought that the two Johnny Jones trials were extraneous. Still, I found them damn interesting, and I included them in an appendix. After publication, a longtime friend, Richard French, said he enjoyed the book but skipped the Jones trials. Abe Laeser, the former prosecutor and a trial junkie, told me after reading the book that the Jones cases weren’t necessary.
Three Main Characters
I was fascinated by the decisions of Griffin — and his S&S editors — to shape the book around three main characters: Reporter Edna Buchanan, homicide commander Marshall Frank and Maurice Ferre. Two Anglos and a Puerto Rican.
I talked to Frank and Ferre, but not to Buchanan. She and I haven’t spoken since a Facebook spat in 2016 after she called Trump a “breath of fresh air.” For the trial book I ended up with, she wasn’t that important.
If I’d pursued a full-blown look at 1980, I planned to personify the narrative with a Marielito and a Black person from Liberty City. perhaps a youth who rioted or Shanreka Perry, a 11-year-old who lost a leg during that bloody first night of the disturbances.
After reading Griffin’s book, I realize he chose a much more readable direction for the American book-buying public than my imagined 1980 opus: He concentrated on crime.
Edna is a fabulous character for any book, doggedly pursuing scoops. Griffin uses Frank to discuss not only McDuffie but also Frank’s challenge of rebuilding the county homicide department, which was decimated after a bunch of detectives were charged with working with drug dealers.
In fact, drug dealing occupies a large part of the book. The riots end on page 163. The next 100 pages focuses in large part on the drug trade, much of the story involving money launderer Isaac Kattan. The feds’ pursuit of Kattan is fun to read: Cops going after a bad guy. Great page-turning narrative.
In fact, old somber John Dorschner had no plans to say much about the dope trade in my imagined 1980 book. The big cocaine years were just getting started, sparking plenty of murders, but the drug wars were the story of the entire decade. What made 1980 distinctive was Mariel and the riots. That’s what I would have concentrated on.
1980: A YEAR OF DOWNERS, TOUGH TO READ
Truth is, I realize now — after my experience and reading Griffin’s book — the main elements of 1980 Miami were downers that don’t do much to sell books. A bunch of foreigners overwhelming Miami, some of whom were released from Cuban prisons and mental institutions, isn’t a feel-good story, despite the fact that many Mariel reunited Miami Cuban families with relatives they hadn’t seen in many years.
White police beating a Black guy to death? That’s a downer. Bungled trial allowing white cops to go free? An extreme downer. Black rioters destroying their own neighborhoods, which wouldn’t recover for decades? Ugh.
Edna pursuing scoops, cops pursuing drug dealers — that’s a lot more fun to read.
And so is Maurice Ferre. Ferre emphasized to me — and to Griffin — that 1980 was the turning point for Miami. After all the negative publicity of Mariel and the riots, much of corporate America turned its back on Miami. Miami began facing south. The year marked a watershed to Miami’s shift in focus, encouraged by Ferre, becoming an international banking hub for Latin America, among many other things.
Griffin uses Ferre to personify that shift — and that works, kind of. At one point, he has Ferre going off to Vermont for vacation. “There was a lot for Ferre to contemplate in Vermont.”
Well, that’s because he wasn’t doing a lot in Miami. The first waves of Mariel had fallen into the county’s hands (Ferre was city). The county set up a reception center at the fairgrounds, and assistant county manager Sergio Pereira was the guy who spent 18 hours a day making that work. (That’s skipped in Griffin’s telling.) Later, Tent City under I-95 and refugees in the Orange Bowl fell to Cesar Odio, an assistant city manager. Ferre wasn’t directly involved in the day-to-day handling of refugees.
The mayor’s one big role during the riots was controversial — and omitted from Griffin’s book: Ferre was blasted for inviting Andrew Young, then Atlanta’s mayor, and Chicago activist Jesse Jackson to Miami to appeal to rioters to quiet down. Ferre told me he had nothing to do with Jackson coming to town, but he knew Young and he asked the former MLK aide to come down because he thought he’d know how to communicate with young people in Liberty City. Local Black leaders were irate, believing that Ferre thought they couldn’t talk to their own people.
From a strictly historic viewpoint, even though I was focusing on the trial, I felt compelled to include a chapter on something I’d spent a lot of work on: Whether Mariel might have helped spark the black anger that led to the riots. “What Really Caused the Riots?” was the title of that chapter. It included quotes from sociologists, anthropologists, economists and historians. Despite my best efforts, it was a pretty damn dense discussion. S&S had no interest in such an analysis — another reason why Dangerous is a fast read.
Another omission that surprised me wasn’t of historic import, but it involved two of Griffin’s three main characters: Edna Buchanan and Marshall Frank. The first night of the riots, Frank went to the Herald newsroom to learn what was going on. That’s in Griffin’s book. What’s missing is what happened in the elevator.
Frank’s memoir: “I don’t know what really came over me when I ignored the crisis of the moment and pressed close to Edna, wrapping her in my arms and kissing her. We were both stunned…. I felt a pang of guilt. After all, my guys were out there in harm’s way, and here I was making out with the queen of media.”
Her memoir: “I was scared, everything was out of control. It was all coming down around us. We boarded the slow and creaky elevator to the newsroom and simultaneously stepped into each other’s arms, hugging tight through the rest of the ride.”
Did it take too much space for Griffin to resolve the different versions? Maybe the differences couldn’t be resolved, and his editors didn’t want to publish disputed versions?
A more serious lapse is reducing to a footnote one of the key Reno cases that enraged the Black community: Her prosecutors agreed to a plea deal so that a white state trooper did no jail time for sexually abusing an 11-year-old Black girl. It was an Edna scoop and it was a major reason for the anger building in the Black community that finally exploded with the McDuffie acquittals.
Griffin does have one anecdote that I decided to skip. When Marrero took the witness stand, prosecutor Adorno badgered him for using white-out to change his activity log on the night McDuffie was killed. The strong implication was that Marrero was trying to disguise his whereabouts that night, and Griffin has Adorno scoring points for the defense.
I left out the white-out exchange because that night, after his shift, Marrero readily talked to Internal Review and admitted he had hit McDuffie as hard as he could. In Marrero’s telling, he acted in self-defense as the highly combative motorcyclist reached for his gun.
That contradicted the medical examiner, who testified that McDuffie’s head must have been on the pavement or leaning against a wall when the worst blows were struck. And McDuffie’s hands showed no defensive wounds: He hadn’t put up a fight.
On that Griffin and I agree: McDuffie was murdered, and no one was convicted of the crime. And now, 40 years, we still have out-of-control cops killing unarmed Black men. And that indeed is a downer.
Addendum: Ten days after I finished the above essay, the Sunday NYT Book Review published a glowing report of Griffin’s book. The review, by a Pulitzer Prize winner, called Dangerous Days “utterly absorbing,” “never a dull moment” and “deeply researched.” The reviewer blows off the cops’ verdict as the work of “an all-white, all-male jury” and lets it go at that.
Indeed, Griffin had hinted at the problems of the trial — the detective not believing all of what the main witness had to say, prosecutor Yoss saying he had terrible witnesses — but such hints didn’t move the needle on the trial’s narrative when even a top author gives a careful reading of a book.
An all-white jury set free the bad cops — that makes for an easy historic narrative, one that writers feel comfortable with, and so they stick with it.