Miami Boycott Leads to ‘Quiet Riot’ : Protest: Black leaders say the city snubbed Nelson Mandela. The peaceful revolt has resulted in $5 million in lost convention funds.


It’s being called the “quiet riot.” No shots have been fired, no inner-city buildings torched, and no arrests have been made. The streets of Miami’s predominantly black neighborhoods are calm.

Yet, for business leaders in this city that has been rocked by three bloody civil disturbances in the past 10 years, this disciplined revolt may be the most wrenching of all. It has certainly been the toughest to quell.

Over the past four months, at least 13 national organizations have canceled plans to hold conventions in Miami in support of a boycott called by black leaders to protest officials’ refusal to honor anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela during his visit here last June. Among groups that have scrapped plans to meet here are the National Assn. of Black Social Workers and the American Civil Liberties Union.


The boycott has cost at least $5 million in lost convention and tourism business, Dade County officials say, and the figure could be as high as $14 million.

But damage to the economy and national image of South Florida is not all the boycott has produced. Black leaders also point to a surge in African-American pride as a minority population that for 30 years has seemed to lose ground to the influx of Latinos, especially from Cuba, begins to appreciate its potential.

“For a long time it was thought that the only way for blacks to get attention in Miami was to strike matches,” says Marvin Dunn, a sociology professor at Florida International University and a black activist. “But now we are seeing the potential for political gains. Right now there is a lot less anger and a lot more pride, and that speaks to a certain maturing in the black community.”

Establishment leaders do not dispute that blacks, who make up about 20% of greater Miami’s population, have--by any measure of economic, political or social power--long been depressed. But, they say, gains have been made, especially since the devastating 1980 riot in Miami’s Liberty City and Overtown sections.

Some have been stunned by the boycott’s effects. “We are being held hostage,” says William O. Cullom, president of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, “and we don’t deserve that. I have congratulated (boycott organizer) H.T. Smith for his well-conceived plan. But there is only so long you can rub someone’s nose in the dirt. He should declare victory . . . before more innocent people get hurt.”

The boycott was proposed by the Black Lawyers Assn., of which Smith is a founding member, after what many viewed as a snub of Mandela when he addressed a labor convention in Miami Beach last summer. Although Mandela was widely honored elsewhere during his 10-day U.S. tour, the mayors of Miami, Miami Beach and Hialeah withdrew an official proclamation of welcome after the African National Congress leader praised support given him by Cuban President Fidel Castro.

In predominantly Cuban Miami, where a failure to denounce Castro is often considered suspect, saying anything positive about the Cuban leader is traitorous.

But in spurning Mandela, the Latino and non-black leadership of Miami touched off a backlash of nonviolent protest that has not only proved expensive, but has united the black community as never before. On Election Day last month, black activists called for a school and work boycott to protest the choice of a Cuban-American over a veteran black educator for the vacant Dade County schools superintendent’s post. Thousands stayed home.

“There is such a sense of pride in our community right now,” says the Rev. Victor Curry, a supporter of both the school and tourism boycotts.

In recent weeks, Miami’s power brokers became even more concerned after Smith previewed a 14-minute “Boycott Miami” video, which includes footage of police clubbing Haitian demonstrators and compares the treatment of blacks here to their treatment in Selma, Ala., in the 1960s. The tape includes a snippet from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech, and points out that while Mandela was denied an official greeting, a key to the county was recently awarded to Robocop, a fictitious movie android.

Smith has announced plans to send the video to some 1,000 businesses, convention planners and even travel agents. It could also be sent to the National Football League, which has already been asked by Smith not to consider Miami for the 1993 Super Bowl.

Many see the video as extortive. Smith denies that. “That videotape is nothing more than a compilation of news stories that have happened here,” he says, adding that a date for distributing the video has not been made. “It is not meant to be a threat.”

But the video is viewed as a threat, especially by Cullom and others monitoring the boycott’s economic effects on tourism, Miami’s major industry. Last year tourism brought $5.6 billion into Dade County. “In three of four years,” says Cullom, “the damage this is doing to the community will be in the billions of dollars.”

James K. Batten, chairman of Knight-Ridder Inc., which owns the Miami Herald, told a business group last week that the boycott was responsible for “poisonous messages about Miami (being) pumped out into the rest of America and the world, (which) cannot be retrieved once the boycott is over.”

Smith and other black leaders have set several conditions for ending the boycott. They are asking for:

--Increased opportunities for black professionals, especially in tourism.

--Immigration reform that would benefit Haitians.

--A review of police procedures in the black community.

But before any negotiations on those issues can begin, Smith insists that the mayors or city commissions of the three cities that snubbed Mandela must apologize.

Cuban-born Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez flatly refuses to do that. In recent weeks, Suarez has spent hours being interviewed and writing newspaper op-ed pieces about the controversy, emphasizing city programs aimed at black economic development.

But while allowing that he “regrets” the offense taken by many blacks over the lack of official welcome of Mandela, Suarez insists that Mandela’s “visit to Miami Beach did not require, did not request and did not provide for any official reception. What, then, is there to apologize about?”

Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud has also refused to issue an apology, saying he wasn’t even invited to meet Mandela. But it is Suarez, a Cuban-American who is beholden to a large constituency of staunch anti-Castro voters, who is considered key to breaking the impasse.

As popular as the boycott has been among blacks, it has not received unanimous support. T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, has urged the national organization to go ahead with its convention, beginning here Wednesday. But at least 18 chapter presidents have declined to attend, saying they will respect the boycott.

Smith, a 43-year-old trial lawyer, says he is surprised and encouraged by the impact of the boycott, which was aimed at tourism not only because it is the largest industry here but because “they’ve been boycotting us for years--they just never called a press conference to tell us.”

“We have got the power brokers’ attention. I believe they underestimated us,” he said. “But we were well prepared with a calculated campaign that we thought would take four to six months. We are making progress.

“We are not out to destroy the economy,” Smith says. “We want to share in the economy. We are not vindictive. We would like to see this thing over. But it has got to end with dignity. The boycott will end when the apology is made and other conditions are met. There will be no surrender.”