Living Through History

You would normally be receiving this on a Tuesday, but we paused our outgoing communications yesterday in solidarity for #BlackoutTuesday. With over one hundred thousand COVID-19 deaths nationwide and Atlanta under siege, it feels senseless to try and put a positive spin on this week's newsletter. Here's what's up. I drove through downtown this past Sunday after the peak of destruction had subsided. I had to see for myself what was blowing up my social media channels. The only physical evidence of Friday night's riots was the plywood covered windows on Walgreens, Ted's Montana Grill, the Children's Museum of Atlanta, the College Football Hall of Fame, Chick-fil-A and Starbuck's. How strange that, beyond boarded up storefronts and a heavy police presence, the eerie quiet revealed no signs of the unrest that occurred just a couple of nights before. That is, until I reached the state capitol. The statue of Henry Grady loomed large on the lawn of the historic gold dome. Just hours before a protester perched on Grady, screaming loudly "I can't breathe," echoing George Floyd's final plea to the Minneapolis police officer, whose deadly knee crush to the neck was killing Floyd. Now the statue stood amid an army of National Guard troops and armored vehicles. It felt surreal. How did we get here? The ease with which a peaceful protest against this senseless killing could escalate to riots seems clear that, although we are the birthplace of the civil rights movement, we not only have a long way to go, we may very well be moving backwards. Atlanta was among several cities around the country that exploded in riots over the weekend. But emotions have been running high prior to the riots because we've been locked down for months and the economy is in the crapper. To see retailers already reeling from a bad economy now boarded up makes me deeply disturbed. It is shocking, and yet half of us are amazed that racism is still pervasive while the other half are incredulous that it took seeing it on video to trigger any response at all. We are angry, frustrated, confused and scared. Sadly, we are also more divided than ever. I lived through the 1991 riots here after the Rodney King verdict, which was terrifying. But, it wasn't my first rodeo. I lived through the Liberty City Riots in Miami, as well. And that changed my life. I grew up there in the 1970s and 1980s when it was still a segregated small southern tourist town. In fact, Miami was a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan well into the 1960s, splintered but still lingering through the next two decades. The city's long and insidious history of racism came to a head on the early morning of December 17, 1979, when four Miami Dade police officers beat Arthur McDuffie to death following a chase and then tried to make it look like an accident. Apprehension surrounding the case was so intense, officials moved the trial to Tampa. Still, on May 18, 1980, the city erupted following the officers' acquittal for the killing of McDuffie, an African-American salesman and former Marine. The lead prosecutor Janet Reno, who would go on to become President Bill Clinton's attorney general, said that they cracked his skull "like an egg." Over the course of the previous decade, the officers had been cited in 47 citizen complaints and 13 internal affairs probes. And yet they remained on the job. After the verdict, about 5,000 protesters showed up in downtown Miami. By that evening, the protests turned to riots. Three people were killed and at least 23 injured, some critically. The governor ordered 5,000 National Guard troops and doubled that number the next day. But nothing could contain the fires and looting, which spread to the Black Grove, Overtown, Liberty City and Brownsville.

In the end, 18 people were killed, 350 people were hurt and 600 arrested. Property destruction exceeded $100 million.

My family lived a couple of miles away from the Black Grove; close enough to smell the smoke. And yet by most standards, we were a world away. We sat in our Mid Century Modern ranch home in terror watching our city make headlines on the national news. As a society, we would be forever changed. Unless you live through something like this, it's hard to understand how profoundly it impacts you. To experience a cauldron of anger, frustration and rage that finally blows over and turns to widespread violence makes you understand how truly flawed the system can be. Yes, the destruction was horrifying. But it was the systematic abuse of power and societal blind eye that made us check ourselves. Within months, Fidel Castro would open his prisons and about 125,000 refugees would take to the Atlantic, eventually arriving on the beaches of Miami and further shifting the racial tensions. The riots would become another footnote in the story of a city that I deeply love. The impact of the Liberty City Riots has never been lost on me. And with every killing of a black man or woman I still wonder what has to happen to truly change the system. As a Jew, I understand discrimination first hand. But I can pass. I will never completely know what it means to be afraid to go jogging or to feel anything more than frustrated by a simple traffic stop. The one lingering question that my friends keep asking is: what can we do? It's on all of us to make change. If not now, when? The statistics remain staggering. Did you know that black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, or that police force is the sixth leading cause of death for young Black men in the United States? Educating ourselves is simply the first step. We have to talk about this. It's not comfortable, but we're clearly contending with two pandemics here. And we seem to only be working on a vaccine for one of them. Remember their names: George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Rodney King. Arthur McDuffie.

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