Yet, the origins of the phrase that Trump tweeted reveal the call for racist violence embedded in it. Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, who was white, uttered the phrase in 1967. Like others before and after him, Headley and the police force he oversaw enacted policies to uphold white supremacy. The comment was not some sort of aberration, but rather reflective of the brutality and injustice with which authorities have historically treated black communities.
The ideas and language of Headley expose an anti-black agenda that has contributed to the very ideas and practices that have made George Floyd and so many other black people targets of police violence throughout American history.
Miami, like so many other American cities, was literally built by anti-black and colonial violence. Initially, some indigenous Creeks including the Seminoles managed to survive policies of removal and extermination by retreating near the Everglades. The United States, like most other colonizers in Florida before them, condemned these indigenous people for, among other things, harboring runaway slaves and having interracial relationships.
When the city was formally founded in 1896, it quickly transformed from what outsiders viewed as a frontier to a metaphorical playground. Miami became a place where would-be tourists and settlers could find endless variations of leisure, vice and entertainment. The main caveat was that it was intended solely as a white playground. The black communities that built much of the early city’s infrastructure and serviced much of its tourism industry had no real access to the leisure culture and lucrative enterprises they made possible.
Instead, Miami’s black communities, which included African-descended people from the Caribbean and elsewhere, were subject to greater police surveillance and violence and were habitually arrested for a wide range of ambiguous crimes. All the while, they were forced by segregation to live in substandard housing structures owned by landlords who preyed on them. The white police regularly conducted raids in these neighborhoods to round up black people they discretionarily found guilty of vagrancy, sometimes when the city needed a new source of coerced labor to do things such as build new roads. All this, of course, took place decades after the abolition of slavery.
Headley became police chief in 1948 during a time when the city was booming economically for its white residents and new efforts were underway to change the nature of policing in black neighborhoods. In 1944, members of a black professional class had convinced city officials to hire a handful of black “patrolmen” to preside over black neighborhoods, mostly Colored Town (today, Overtown). These patrolmen could arrest only other black people, however.
These efforts resulted in thousands of new arrests and helped lead to the creation of an all-black police precinct and station as well as a municipal courthouse. Those operated from 1950 until 1963, following orders to desegregate city buildings. Although these efforts created other issues, especially across class lines and tied to the problems of addressing poverty and crime through incarceration, evidence also shows that with an all-black staff on duty, many black suspects experienced the criminal justice system in significantly safer ways than they had with white officers.
Meanwhile, anti-black animus infused attacks on other marginalized groups. During the 1950s and early 1960s, one of Headley’s major preoccupations was with young people and “juvenile delinquency.” When the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held hearings in Miami in 1954, officials including Headley largely found blame in the city’s “large pervert colony,” as LGBTQ communities were known as then. The police regularly harassed and criminalized them using tactics honed in black neighborhoods, such as heightened and militarized surveillance and entrapment.
But what became known as Headley’s “get tough” policy was always aimed at black communities, particularly younger black men. In 1967, when Headley made the comments Trump quoted, he had grown especially concerned about the criminality he associated with the “young hoodlums who have taken advantage of the civil rights campaign.” Rather than accepting uprisings as a form of resistance to white supremacy, he believed people were using the ground gained by civil rights activists to partake in what the police would broadly identify as criminal behavior. He estimated they constituted about 10 percent of the city’s black population.
By then, racial strife and the violence of police action in the growing black neighborhood that became known as Liberty City had boiled over. The long history of state brutality, exploitation and displacement, including the bulldozing of houses in Colored Town for federal interstate programs and the building of I-95, had destroyed an area once celebrated by black people across the country as the “Harlem of the South.” Black communities in Miami, as elsewhere, fought back.
This is the context of Headley’s now-infamous call for anti-black violence. It was an effort to counteract challenges to white supremacy. “Felons will learn that they can’t be bonded out from the morgue,” Headley added. He sent a clear message to eliminate black people who resisted a regime that required either the submission, disciplining or disposal of black lives. Within a year, in August 1968, civil unrest unfurled in Liberty City, coinciding with the Republican National Convention, which was held in Miami that year.
Shortly after Headley’s 1967 statement, Miami’s black newspaper, the Miami Times, demanded that he and others be terminated. Over the years, Headley advocated for the heightened and targeted use of guns, dogs and stop-and-frisk tactics to harass and subdue the city’s black community. Although Trump’s looting tweet received the most attention, he has continued to echo Headley as unrest continues. On Saturday, he tweeted about the use of “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” to protect from the protesters outside the White House.
Today’s protests affirming black people’s lives and dignity, like those Headley sought to quell in the 1950s and 1960s, are a demand to end regimes of power rooted in anti-blackness. They are demonstrations of black-led direct action against the violence wielded by the police and the state in its systemic devaluing and purging of black life.