After the murder of George Floyd, thousands of people across the United States and around the globe protested against police brutality, racism and injustice. Marches were held in more than 2,000 cities and towns, and some places worked to dismantle their police departments and repeal laws keeping police disciplinary records secret. In Miami, however, many people marched, but change is still lagging.
In Miami-Dade County, non-Hispanic Black citizens experience 2.2 times greater rates of arrest and 2.5 times greater rates of conviction and incarceration than others. For Hispanic Blacks, these rates double for arrests, and almost triple for conviction and incarceration.
To change this scenario, some actions were taken not only by civil rights organizations and commissioners but also by the Miami-Dade County Police Department (MDPD).
This past June 11, MDPD banned the use of chokeholds on suspects, while the City of North Miami passed an ordinance to establish a civilian review board that would allow civilians to assist in following up on complaints about the police department and officers.
As for Miami-Dade County, a civilian oversight ordinance was approved by commissioners, which would put in place an Independent Civilian Police Oversight Panel, where people can file complaints against police officers and allow investigation on these matters by county staff.
The new civilian panel was supported by 30 civil rights groups, 6,000 petition signatories and 17 candidates running for county offices. However, it was vetoed on July 17 by County Mayor Carlos Gimenez; he claimed he would support a review panel without power to subpoena police officers. (Gimenez recently won a primary election and is running as a Republican for Congress.)
A measure to put an Independent Review Panel was also passed by commissioners but then vetoed by Gimenez.
For many people in Miami, the fight is far from over. Dwight Bullard, an educator, community activist and former Florida senator, has worked toward and supported a number of bills to help the Black community and proposed changes to anti-discrimination policies.
“I think oftentimes things are passed to deal with anti-discrimination but it’s often ignored by the government, meaning they’re not taking real consideration on that,” he said.
Bullard said that the main obstacle in the way of progress is political will and the inability of people to recognize that minorities are being harmed by certain policies.
“For people who are not Black or for people who suffer a level of privilege, it’s easy to assert that everything is bad or that the group that is being discriminated against is making it up because you’re not experiencing yourself,” he said. “Discrimination and racism, for non-discriminated groups, doesn’t feel tangible. People hardly experience it themselves, whether it be microaggressions or direct impact in certain policies, so they are very quick to say ‘well, is it true?’ or ‘are you sure?’”
According to Jeanne Baker, chair of the police practices committee of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Greater Miami chapter, there is a lot of work that police need to do – from training on de-escalating situations; to limiting use of military weaponry and learning about implicit bias.
“It’s not enough to just train a police officer once when he is at the police academy,” she said. “It’s like teaching a child to say ‘thank you’ and ‘please.’ You don’t say it to them once and expect that it sticks. You say it over and over and over again. Training people to be aware of and counteract their own implicit bias is a process that takes repeated training.”
During the protests in late May in Miami, the ACLU provided legal observers and appointed attorneys to peaceful protestors who were arrested.
Journalist and activist Jess Swanson, who attended the protests, said there is not a lot of empathy for victims of police brutality.
“Usually the first stories in the media of these cases label the victims as suspects of a crime or you see pictures of their mugshots,” she said. “It’s not a really easy way to show compassion towards these victims and it’s very easy to assume that the officer was justified. We’re also taught to believe in school that the officer is just trying to protect you and you just kind of have this idea of who the bad guy is and who the good guy is from the very beginning.”
Swanson created an Instagram account called “Names You Don’t Know” following the death of George Floyd to publicize the victims of police brutality in Miami and their stories.
When she attended the protests she realized that a lot of the names on signs were from out-of-state. She wanted to pinpoint local victims who need attention and justice.
“I think officials should be with the families affected and they should learn their stories. I think we should keep a close eye on every single case, not just as a community but from local leaders and commissioners,” Swanson said.
Swanson plans to turn “Names You Don’t Know” into a podcast and a film.
Victims of police brutality are at times wrongfully convicted, mainly due to mistaken eyewitness identification, according to Craig Trocino, the director of the Miami Innocence Clinic of the University of Miami School of Law.
“We know wrongful convictions happen, but the question is will policies change? I think there is a system issue that needs to be handled by the systemic level, like problems in the investigations, in the police, in the prosecution, with public defense and appointed counsel who are horribly underfunded, overworked and underpaid,” he said.
The majority of the clients from Miami Innocence Clinic are serving lifetime sentences and law students get to work with them when new evidence is discovered, investigating the innocence claims and reexamining their cases entirely.
The way towards seeing change in racial crimes and the lack of efficiency by officials is to start voting and advocating, according to Baker.
“People need to vote particularly within the county,” she said. “They need to vote to get the people that serve as commissioners to be responsive to the community’s needs. I think people should speak out, protest, sign petitions and contact their commissioners and other appointed officials.”
Bullard said that it’s not enough to just vote and be an advocate- people must also work to be anti-racist, which is someone who acts in the face of racism.
“It’s great that more people are comfortable saying the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ and really understanding the core of what that means,” he said. “It’s not a superiority thing, it’s about recognition of Black lives that have been in danger for hundreds of years in this country and in saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ there has to be actions behind those words.”