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New documentary ‘When Liberty Burns’ is stark reminder of death and destruction from 1980 Miami riots

PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – As protests and angry demonstrations continue across the country, we must remember that South Florida has seen its share of racial violence.

It's an ugly chapter of local history many would like to forget.

A new documentary called “When Liberty Burns” takes us back to the painful time National Guard troops were on the streets of Miami. 18 people died, hundreds more were injured and over $100 million in property damage.

It all happened 40 years ago, in 1980.

From its darkness, the documentary takes you by the hand, guided by the timeless words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

For three straight days in May of 1980, Miami's Liberty City, Overtown and Brownsville neighborhoods burned following the acquittal of eight Dade County Public Safety Officers for the savage beating death of 33-year-old Arthur Lee McDuffie, an ex-Marine and insurance agent.

Dudley Alexis produced the documentary.

"It wasn't one death, it was so many things that caused it to explode all at once," he said.

Alexis lays out in his documentary, using old news clips, the road to Miami's 1980 riots, from the 1950s building of Interstate 95 right through Overtown, displacing dozens of black residents and destroying livelihoods, and the late 1970s Larry Shockley case, a Hialeah police officer who shot and killed a 21-year-old black man.

(Below: Listen to Local 10′s The Florida Files Podcast: Just Before Super Bowl, Police Shooting Sparks 1989 Overtown Riots)

Then, a white state trooper receives only probation for molesting a 10-year-old black girl in the back seat of his patrol car, the wrong house drug raid on a black school teacher and the guilty verdict of grand theft for Johnnie Jones. Many of Jones' black supporters felt the charismatic Dade County School Superintendent had been targeted.

And so, the police beating death of McDuffie, the cover-up and the acquittal would be the tipping point.

The documentary premiered at the Miami Film Festival and has already won awards.

An online screening is scheduled for next Friday.


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