Miami-Dade County

Race stirs raw talk on Miami-Dade commission

Miami-Dade’s four black commissioners led colleagues through a personal tour of the local racial divide, sharing concerns about police, economic disparity in a Spanish-speaking community and simmering resentment from black residents.

The extraordinary discussion unfolded under the heading of “What can be learned from the unrest of Ferguson, Missouri,” the official title of an agenda item requested by Commissioner Dennis Moss, the senior African American on the 13-member panel.

What followed touched on one hot-button issue after another, from police body cameras, tension between the Hispanic and black communities, the recent intrusion by teenagers into former Heat star Ray Allen’s ritzy Coral Gables home, and the general feeling that black residents experience Miami-Dade in a way that white and Hispanic residents do not.

“I’m telling you, there is something going on out there,” said Moss, now in his fifth term as a commissioner representing southern Miami-Dade. “People feel hopeless.”

Weeks after the fatal shooting by a white Ferguson police officer of an unarmed black teenager, commissioners relayed their own concerns about police harming their families. “I’m still scared, and I’m still afraid,” said Commissioner Barbara Jordan. “Because my older grandson stutters a little bit. And his expressions can be misread because it takes him a little bit to get his thoughts together. So I’m afraid.”

“I’ve had these conversations with my two sons, who are both college students,” said Commissioner Jean Monestime, the first Haitan American elected to the panel. “In terms of who they are, and how society regards them.”

The back-and-forth came about eight hours into an unusually long commission meeting, which saw packed chambers for votes on ballot questions involving county courts and Florida International University. The raw discussion sent county officials hurrying to return to the chambers. Mayor Carlos Gimenez retook his seat on the dais shortly after the talk began, and Miami-Dade’s police director, J.D. Patterson, left his home to sit in the audience for the talk.

“It was too important,” said Patterson, who is black. Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, also black, said in her nine years on the board she has never seen a race discussion as personal. “This was a first,” she said.

Patterson is shepherding through Gimenez’s plan to spend $1 million on 500 so-called “body” cameras for Miami-Dade patrol officers. The devices are designed to record what an officer sees, and offer clear evidence of what actually happened in the event of alleged police misconduct. Ferguson recently issued them to its officers in the wake of national criticism over the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

While Ferguson spurred the agenda item, Wednesday’s talk spanned a wide range of Miami-Dade’s racial issues. Retha Boone-Fye, director of the county’s Black Affairs Advisory Board, invoked the recent Allen incident, in which Coral Gables police initially declined to charge teenagers who snuck through Allen’s home while his wife and children slept.

“Had they been African American, trust me, we wouldn’t be having this discussion about good kids,” Boone-Fye said. “They would have been dead black men or dead black women.” Walter Richardson, who is black and head of the county’s Community Relations Board, was near tears telling commissioners about a traffic stop with his young grandson. “He said to me: Do I need to get on the floor?” Richardson recalled. “He was 6 years old.”

The discussion comes as Gimenez is feuding with the county police union over his body-camera plan, and as Moss is calling for tax funding for a proposed Black History museum. It’s also in the wake of Commissioner Sally Heyman, who was not there for the evening discussion, questioning whether Miami-Dade can afford to staff each of its six community-affairs boards.

Gimenez pointed to economic growth as a key salve to racial tension, and said he’s reaching out to county contractors and local builders to hire more local residents, with a focus on black communities. “I don’t look like you, but I’m the mayor of Miami-Dade County,” Gimenez told Richardson. “I know there are big problems in the African-American community, and I’m doing everything I can to alleviate them.”

Moss and Jordan cited the prevalence of Spanish in Miami-Dade as a hurdle for black job seekers. And they questioned whether Miami-Dade’s business leaders were committed to bringing prosperity to African Americans. Jordan pointed to the county’s One Community One Goal economic plan. “I want that community to include black folk,” she said.

Nine commissioners remained when the race discussion began: four black, four Hispanic and one white. Juan C. Zapata, a Hispanic commissioner born in Colombia, noted: “I know from what I see and read. But I don’t live it.” Rebeca Sosa, the Cuban-born chairwoman of the commission, said ethnic tension also extend into the Hispanic community, where Cubans are the largest group. “We have people from Central and South America who come here and feel left out from other people who have been here a longer time,” she said.

Jordan said she expected resentment for commissioners diving into the race issue, and that it would be nice if they didn’t have to press the issue.

“I’d like, for once, to be surprised and be delighted with this becoming an issue for ethnic groups other than mine,” she told colleagues. “We get complaints that we’re always . . . playing the race card. Well, we have to.”