A mother's grief reopened after more gun deaths in the neighborhood
Isadora Redmon jumped out of bed as her son stumbled into the room with a gunshot wound in his chest.
She had been sleeping when shots were fired just over a year ago outside her Liberty Square apartment. Her 28-year-old son, Andrew Darrel Griffin Jr., was outside smoking a Black and Mild when someone shot him. His life ended on his mother's bedroom floor, an image Redmon lives with every day. The killer has not been identified.
On Tuesday, Redmon stepped out from her front porch wearing a purple T-shirt emblazoned with images of her son as she spoke of the violence she's witnessed in Liberty Square over the nine years she's lived in the public housing project, Miami-Dade's oldest and largest.
She peered over at an arrangement of candles and stuffed animals set up just steps away, in front of another porch, a memorial for four young men who were felled by bullets there Sunday. Two of them, 17-year-old Kimson Green and 18-year-old Rickey Dixon, are dead. Two others were hospitalized with serious injuries.
"What kids are growing up seeing and living are very scary," she said, eyes squinted on a bright morning. "Enough is enough."
Her words ring true for many of Liberty Square's residents, young and old, who are frustrated with the painfully cyclical episodes of violence and death that sow an ever-present fear among residents — fear that prevents kids from going outside to play, fear that keeps young people's heads on swivels as they walk to the corner store and fear that speaking to police about who might have pulled a trigger will later lead to a retaliatory bullet.
Even if homicide rates have continued to trend downward in Miami over the past several years, the recent killings have caused a familiar pain to the community. Despite fewer murders, the crimes still occur in the same places, such as Liberty City.
The physical environment of Liberty Square is also discouraging for some residents who would rather see a cleaner, more well-maintained complex. A key complaint: Surveillance cameras have malfunctioned and failed to capture footage of crimes.
County officials maintain they have improved their maintenance work in recent years, but they confirmed that a camera overlooking the location of Sunday's shooting that should have been working did malfunction. It was not recording when the four young men were shot.
When it comes to Liberty Square's future, there's a difficult but amicable push and pull between people with eroded hopes who remain skeptical the situation will ever change and the optimistic activists trying to establish a new normal. The discourse that followed Sunday's murders illustrates a complex problem that spurs far more questions than answers.
Would more police help? Will the $307 million redevelopment of the whole public housing project, which broke ground a year ago, truly reduce crime, spark job creation and bolster social programs? Can the culture of silence be broken so that witnesses can testify against killers without fear of retaliation? What can be done to make the people of Liberty Square feel safe?
For now, the neighborhood is teeming with police. In the immediate aftermath of Sunday's shooting, officers from the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County were assigned to patrol the area in larger numbers. A Miami police mobile command center is parked in the center of Liberty Square, right outside Redmon's front door. She and others said they feel safer.
"The police here, they kind of cool it off," said David Young, 47, as he hung his laundry on a clothesline.
But some residents says they've seen this cycle before. A high-profile shooting captures the media's attention and leads to a temporarily heightened police presence. When enough time passes, the patrols are reduced, the public demonstrations subside and the outside attention dwindles, the violence returns.
Police, community activists and politicians came together for a peace walk Wednesday evening. People of all ages marched in Liberty Square, demanding justice, peace and an end to gang activity. As people began to gather a few blocks away, 32-year-old Gee Gee Davis looked on with a critical eye.
Standing in front of a corner store, she described a no-snitch culture that is hard to break when people don't trust the anonymity provided by police who need tips to make arrests.
"If you snitch, they'll come and find you," she said, adding that she feels once there is no longer a cop on every block, it'll be only a matter of time before the next killing.
"We'll wake up tomorrow, and it'll still be the same."
Redevelopment and police
Miami-Dade County officials have attached lofty goals of revitalizing the neighborhood and curbing crime to a massive redevelopment of Liberty Square's 709 public housing units. Related Urban Development Group, the affordable housing arm of Miami’s biggest luxury condo developer, is undertaking the ambitious project to tear down the existing buildings build a mixed-income project with community facilities, parks, shops and 1,400 condos, townhouses and apartments.
The deaths drew renewed attention to Miami-Dade's underfunded and overbooked network of public-housing complexes like Liberty Square. With the county in the process of redeveloping the complex, the logistics of the demolition and rebuilding had already raised concerns about the impact on gang violence.
Miami-Dade housing chief Michael Liu said the county opted against moving residents into another neighborhood during construction, instead pledging to keep Liberty Square tenants in temporary units until their new homes were ready.
After the shooting, city officials who visited Liberty Square said it looked neglected during construction. "I got some complaints that the place didn't look good," said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who said he last visited Liberty Square a few months ago.
The problem with the mess that drew complaints after the weekend shooting: cleanup crews assigned to the complex only work weekdays.
"By Sunday, it becomes problematic," Gimenez said. "I want to make sure it's clean."
Liu said money is a problem. The county's online waiting list for public housing — complexes like Liberty Square reserved for the lowest-income residents — has more than 28,000 slots. That doesn't count another 6,000-person waiting list for the county's affordable-housing program.
Miami-Dade does not dedicate property taxes to its housing department, which mostly relies on federal dollars and a special filing tax from real estate transactions to support its $522 million yearly budget. That pays for 8,400 units of public housing and rental subsidies for another 15,000 households.
With federal dollars making up the vast chunk of Miami-Dade's housing budget, Liu said, the system doesn't have the money to boost services in certain areas without straining resources across the board.
"Do I do it for all properties?" he asked. "Who is going to write that check?"
Liu said the county has boosted maintenance efforts at Liberty Square in recent years. At a meeting with county and city officials on gun violence Thursday, he said Miami-Dade has spent about $1.5 million on security guards and equipment at the complex. In April 2015, there were 1,188 outstanding work orders at Liberty Square. Liu, who joined the administration in 2014, said there are 21 today.
Federal dollars apparently don't go far enough to cover Miami-Dade's costs to run public housing. Liu said federal funding falls short about $20 million each year. "We have to make up the difference with rents," he said
He emphasized that the long-term solution to keeping the grounds clear is finishing the redevelopment. New complexes are cleaner, easier and cheaper to maintain. “They’re more efficient,” he said.
On the malfunctioning surveillance camera, Liu blamed an apparent power outage, which, once electricity was restored, allowed the camera to continue beaming footage to monitors but was not saving the video. The county is in talks with the company that provides the cameras to try to fix the issue, which requires a manual reboot of the recording system after a power outage.
"It's an unfortunate thing it wasn't recording," he said. "That camera might have been able to pick up what happened."
Juan Perez, the county's police director, said a working camera wouldn't necessarily have captured the fatal shooting, which remains an unsolved crime. "Even if the glitch wasn't occurring on that camera, I don't know if it would have caught something," he said, noting Miami police are investigating the shootings.
Officials from the county and city met with community representatives Thursday to discuss the limits of police work in Liberty Square. Historically, the relationship between the black community and police in Miami has been strained. Tensions peaked during the 1980 McDuffie riots, sparked by the acquittal of four Miami-Dade officers who brutally beat a black handcuffed man to death.
Perez recalled the aggressive enforcement policies of the 1980s and 1990s, when he said patrols focused on charging as many offenders as possible.
"For many years, we arrested the hell out of a lot of people," he said. "For minor offenses. And crime was much worse back then than it is now. Today, we're trying to focus on the worst of the worst."
Nowadays, the worst of the worst can often stem from a simple social media post.
Leroy Jones, president of the Neighbors and Neighbors Association community group, said violent crime often spreads quickly from social media to real-life violence as kids and their friends get agitated from perceived slights and take action.
"A lot of this stuff is going on on Facebook," he said. "There's no cooling off period. All of these kids have phones. As soon as something happens, everyone sees it."
Taking to the streets
Waniye Higgs looked dazed in the glow of red and blue police lights that lit up Liberty Square on Monday night. The 15-year-old was one of dozens gathered near the porch where the boys were shot on Sunday. She said Green was a "good kid" who was mourned by so many of his classmates at Northwestern HIgh School the day after his death.
"I was crying all day," she said.
The grief was channeled into a demonstration the following afternoon, when a mass of Northwestern students walked out to honor Green. Hundreds marched to the memorial at Green's porch in an outpouring of sadness and anger from students who are demanding justice, peace and gun control. Student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland were supportive, sharing the Northwestern students' message on social media.
"The only thing these streets soak up more than our blood is our tears. And we're tired of crying," said Northwestern freshman Rockelle Noel.
Wednesday night's peace walk made its way to the center of Liberty Square with a strong theme of encouraging parents to take larger roles in their children's lives and imploring anyone with information about shooters to come forward.
"If you see something, say something," marchers yelled.
But it's not that simple for youths who fear blowback. Echoing Davis, Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon told the Miami Herald there needs to be a greater focus on using more tools to identify criminals. The fear witnesses feel, he said, is real and needs to be considered.
"Would you feel comfortable living in a place where someone takes an AR-15, any other assault rifle or a handgun, and shoots down four people, and you see them every single day? They come to the neighborhood every single day. And you have nowhere to go," he said. "They know where your parents live. They know where you live. They know your children's route to school. Would you feel comfortable going to put your name as a witness to accuse them in court?"
Hardemon, the commissioner for the district that includes Liberty Square, said as long as people feel that fear, it will take authorities leaning on other other methods — perhaps upgraded camera systems — to prosecute these cases.
Tangela Sears, an anti-violence advocate who lost her son to gun violence in 2015 and runs a support group for parents who have lost children in the same way, said more people need to trust the witness protection law passed in 2017 that keeps the identities of murder witnesses sealed and exempt from disclosure in public records for two years after the crime.
"Turn them in!" she yelled during the peace walk.
Standing with fellow community organizers at Wednesday's event, youth mentor Ronnie Lillard wondered how much of the crowd's energy will translate to true changes in the community. Working with youths who have been in and out of jail, he's learned the depth of the problem with youths settling disputes with guns.
"This out here is a teenage neighborhood war," he said.