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Miami-Dade Knows Riots Too Well; Plans For Zimmerman Verdict

Elvert Barnes/Flickr

Miami-Dade County's Community Relations Board -- peacekeeper for the last half-century among the region's raucously contentious cultures and between the people and the police -- is getting ready for the aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial in Sanford.

Zimmerman is the man who shot and killed black Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin under disputed circumstances last year, polarizing most of the country along racial and political lines. The CRB worries that the outcome of Zimmerman's second-degree murder trial, particularly if it's an acquittal,  could set off a violent response if it doesn’t find a way to lower the temperature in the meantime.

And the fact is, says Ed Shohat, the noted defense attorney and CRB member in charge of developing the action  plan, it's "highly likely" Zimmerman will be found not guilty.

"There is physical evidence to support (Zimmerman's self-defense) story," Shohat told members of the board's criminal justice and law enforcement committee. "We have to be on target with what the CRB is going to do if there's a verdict the community doesn't like."

Formed in the early civil rights era, the Community Relations Board has witnessed and learned from its share of blood and thunder during four bouts of riots in Miami beginning in 1968. They included what's remembered as the worst race riot in U. S. history, a violent response to the 1980 acquittals of Metro-Dade police officers accused of beating black motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie to death the year before.

'We have to be on target with what the CRB is going to do if there's a verdict the community doesn't like.'

One lesson from its experience is the value of early preparation. The CRB has been at work practically since the day Martin was shot. It's been brokering meetings among law enforcement, prosecutors, educators and ministers, identifying influential opinion leaders in the community and trying to gauge the possibility of a violent response.

Miami-Dade Police Detective Robert Garland says the indications, so far, are not alarming. Last April, during a countywide gathering of high school students at Sun Life Stadium, he polled them on their feelings about the Trayvon Martin case and their likely response to a not-guilty verdict.

"As far as civil unrest they didn't think anything was going to happen," Garland told CRB members this week.

Still, the board is going ahead with a messaging campaign and a media strategy that will rely on community meetings, outreach by an "advisory group" of youth leaders and the creation of a nonviolence campaign that uses Trayvon Martin's name.

A major thrust will be the spin it puts on the verdict if Zimmerman is acquitted. According to Shohat, it can be demonstrated as reassurance.

"If they were on trial, they would want the same rights and same process that is being afforded George Zimmerman."

The targets of the plan may not be the likely rioters, members concede.  But CRB member Vicki Jackson says it can be effective if it reaches and influences people who influence other people.

"You get the message out and then, hopefully, you are trusting the community will say, 'Hey, we want this to be a peaceful time,'" Jackson said.

Shohat says there will be several possible flashpoints that may occur even before there's a verdict in Sanford. For instance, if the court seats an all-white jury, that could set trouble into motion. And there could be a violent response even if the verdict is "guilty as charged." In 1984, he recalls, fans set fires and overturned police cars in the streets of Detroit the night the Detroit Tigers won the 1984 World Series.

Whether it’s a victory riot, or the regular kind,  Shohat and Miami-Dade's Community Relations Board will be trying to keep a lid on it.

"We have a strong level of confidence that, regardless of the outcome at the trial, we will have a nonviolent response. There will be a response, but it will be a nonviolent and peaceful response."