Hours after a Minnesota jury convicted police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd, a group of Miami organizers and activists who advocate against police brutality and anti-Blackness gathered at their monthly general meeting, where they’d planned to discuss Florida’s new “anti-riot” legislation.
But once the verdict came down — a rare conviction of a police officer in the killing of an unarmed Black person — local organizers with the Dream Defenders turned their attention to the historic decision, saying that Chauvin’s conviction is reason to double down on the movement to shift resources away from police departments and pressure politicians who stand in their way.
“Now more than ever... nothing stops. It’s about actually having accountability,” said Jo Martinez, an organizer with the Dream Defenders Miami who was at the meeting. “It’s a long struggle and we have to be committed to that long struggle.”
Nearly one year after Floyd’s death set off a wave of protests around the country, Chauvin’s conviction could set the stage for yet another tug-of-war over policing and politics in Miami. Activists and progressive groups in Miami-Dade suggest that they’ll reject calls for moderate reform or police training, and continue to back more aggressive efforts to redirect funds away from police departments.
But while left-leaning, Miami-Dade is not like other major metropolitan areas, and there is potential for backlash: Last summer’s anti-policing protests — some of which were accompanied by communist graffiti and imagery — likely contributed to a red wave that tossed progressive Democrats out of office.
“If [Democrats] keep going down that path, I think they’re too far gone, to be honest with you,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Rene Garcia, chairman of the Republican Party of Miami-Dade.
Learning ‘the hard way’
For some of the progressive Democrats aspiring to state and local office, last November was glaring evidence that efforts to “defund the police” were at least partly responsible for pushing Miami-Dade voters further to the right.
The political risk was clear for Democrats, who sustained frequent attacks online and on television, some in Spanish, that showed out-of-state images of protesters looting and vandalizing property, exacerbating fears for immigrant-heavy communities who have fled violence in their own countries.
“I learned this the hard way on the campaign trail,” said Melba Pearson, who ran unsuccessfully against Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, a 27-year incumbent and Democrat who, like many of her elected colleagues, has never charged a police officer over a fatal shooting while on duty.
“I think folks underestimated how folks on the right were going to take that argument and twist it,” Pearson added. “We have to be very careful about how we’re communicating these concepts.”
There have been some signs of success for the movement. Though she won, Fernández Rundle pushed state legislation last summer to overhaul police training. Miami-Dade Police moved quickly to ban the controversial choke hold. The county elected a liberal mayor.
But there have also been setbacks.
This month, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law his so-called “anti-riot” bill, which among other things increases penalties for demonstrators and grants certain protections to drivers who feel threatened by protesters.
Fernández Rundle’s legislation to demand “de-escalation” training for cops and bar the use of choke holds in most cases was backed by law enforcement figures at the South Florida Police Benevolent Association, but failed last year.
And at the county level, while last year’s protests in the wake of Floyd’s killing led to a revival of a police oversight board that would review allegations of police misconduct, the board has yet to meet because county commissioners haven’t yet appointed its 13 members.
“We can’t even change the name of Dixie Highway,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, referencing stalled efforts in Miami-Dade County to rename the federal and state road Harriet Tubman Highway in honor of the famed abolitionist who helped enslaved people in the U.S. escape to free states.
A tale of two counties
Jones, whose district straddles the county line between solidly blue Broward and Democratic-leaning Miami-Dade, noted that last year, Broward voters elected the county’s first Black state attorney, who recently announced his office would stop prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana possession cases. Broward also voted for the first time for a Black sheriff.
”The fact that we’re separated by a county line but there’s such a difference illustrates the problem,” he said.
Even in Miami Beach, perhaps Miami-Dade’s most liberal city, Black advocates have been concerned with policing. During this year’s spring break, police enforced a curfew in South Beach at times by shooting pepper balls into predominately Black crowds and, in at least one case, charging a man blaring music from a speaker with inciting a riot.
“The anti-Blackness is real,” said Francesca Menes, co-founder and chair of the Board at The Black Collective, a local group that advocates for the political and economic power of Black communities. She added: “You can’t reform something that is working the way it was intended to work. Minority people are under the thumb of law enforcement.”
Some progressives say the lesson to learn from last year’s results isn’t to stop advocating for the same solutions, but to improve on messaging and tactics. When it comes to language, Menes says she believes the messaging from activists and public officials needs to be more about positively changing how Black communities are kept safe and less about taking money away from police.
“We don’t necessarily say ‘defund,’” Menes said. “We have to talk about reimagining public safety.”
Democratic strategists, like Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, agree, saying Democrats will lose if they approach 2022 with the same goals and messaging as 2020.
“We Democrats have good hearts. However, we are terrible marketers of our message. We let others define who we are,” said Pérez-Verdía, who focuses on messaging to diaspora communities. “If we want to win in 2022, we must be conscientious of words that bring us together versus words that make voters reject us.”
Modest reforms not enough?
Whether the message changes remains to be seen. What seems clear to activists in Miami, though, is that the pace of reforms has been too slow, and that the push to rethink policing and criminal justice in Miami has to continue. Many are also wary of supporting broad reforms around training, which activists argue often lead to more funding for law enforcement and little change.
“We have all these important races coming up and we need to start doing our due diligence now to see where all these people stand in terms of police reforms,” said Pearson, the policy director at the Florida International University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “If we see they’re not making real moves toward real change, we need to vote them out.”
Martinez, the organizer at Dream Defenders, which helped organize last summer’s marches after Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes while bystanders filmed, argued there’s a wide disconnect between politicians and Miami-Dade residents. Rather than discarding proposals because they don’t fit a consensus, Martinez said there’s real value in connecting with voters who don’t see themselves represented in the current system.
“Most folks don’t see the importance [of voting] because they’re either criminalized or disenfranchised. Who’s asking for HB 1? Not the people who were out protesting,” said Martinez. “Most of the communities we’re organizing in are feeling numb or emotionally drained. And it’s because, again, we understand that this [Chauvin verdict] brings a momentary amount of relief but it doesn’t bring people back to life.”
But Garcia, the local party chairman, disagrees, as do many Republicans in Miami-Dade.
Garcia said the Miami-Dade Police Department is doing a good job of enacting reforms, and that the city has come far since the riots in 1980, after four police officers were acquitted in the brutal beating and killing of Arthur McDuffie. García also said that while Democrats won the presidential election, local races “tell a different story” of what voters feel. It was not just the calls for “defund the police” that he believes shifted the county to the right in the 2020 election, but growing qualms among conservatives that they are not allowed to say what they think without being attacked.
Garcia noted that only days ago, in the purple suburb of Coral Gables, in a non-partisan race, voters elected a Republican mayor, Vince Lago, despite a flurry of news stories and attack ads noting that he’d signed a collective letter reproaching his daughter’s Catholic school for adding Black history to their curriculum and embracing other inclusive initiatives.
He lost endorsements. Supporters of his Democratic opponent, Patricia Keon, attacked him as a racist. And Lago still won in the majority-white Hispanic city by 20 points and is widely seen by his colleagues as the future of the GOP.
“That’s the perfect example,” said García, noting that Keon faced attacks that sought to link her to Venezuela’s socialist regime. “The Democrats went all in. The party went all in for his opponent. So it motivated us to go all in.”
This story has been updated to clarify Francesca Menes’ quote on the use of the phrase “defund the police.”