Liberty City’s 7th Avenue has become an activist hub

Dr. Armen Henderson’s career almost went in a totally different direction.

In the summer of 2013, he was interning at a Houston hospital with a dream of one day being its CEO. Then George Zimmerman was acquitted of a charge of murder in the death of Trayvon Martin. For the North Philadelphia native, the acquittal and subsequent protests made him question his purpose.

“I was really upset that I chose the path of becoming a CEO of a hospital and yet people get trauma and die and they’re not even in the hospital,” recalls Henderson, a physician with the system. University of Miami Health and Founder of Dade County Street Response.

In an effort to provide medical services to communities that need them most, Henderson recently opened a free clinic in Liberty City, the latest addition to a growing activist enclave around Northwest 54th Street and 7th Street. av. The clinic is inside the Black Men Build Hub, next to the Village Free Community Refrigerator (dge), three doors down from the Roots Collective Black House, and across from the Miami Workers Center and Power U.

Given the block’s history and its destruction in the Arthur McDuffie race riots of 1980, this type of transformation is a “big game changer”, Dexter Gunder said, a Florida organizer at Black Men Build.

“I never thought it would be rebuilt,” added Gunder, who grew up in Liberty City. “If you walk up the street, you can see that some places still look demolished.”

From commercial corridor to militant hub

In December 1979, several white Miami Metro Police officers brutally bludgeoned a handcuffed McDuffie, a former Navy and insurance agent, to death. Officers then attempted to stage the incident as if McDuffie, who was riding his motorcycle, had run over his bicycle.

Six officers were charged with the murder, then five months later an all-white jury found them not guilty. Liberty City quickly erupted in riots. For four days, 18 people were killed and over $100 million in property damage occurred.

Marvin Dunn, historian and professor emeritus at Florida International University, was in Liberty City the day the riots began.

Much of the looting took place on 7th Avenue, which was a commercial corridor that included a supermarket, a furniture store and a Harley-Davidson franchise, he recalled.

“The riot was due to the injustice in the case and not the murder itself,” Dunn said.

Despite funding from the federal government, 7th Avenue never truly recovered. About $22 million was loaned to small business owners following the riots. Nearly 90% of the money went to white or Hispanic business owners, according to Dunn’s book, “Black Miami in the Twentieth Century.”

“A lot of businesses that were there before the riot moved out using government money to get out of there,” Dunn said. “The intention was to help them rebuild where they were.”

There’s a connection between this kind of divestment, the violence that once gave Liberty City its notorious reputation, and the organizations now moving into the area, Henderson said.

“If you look at funding social services for people who have traditionally been neglected in this country, we are the way we are because of government neglect,” he said. The only way to counter the lack of government involvement is to provide these services. Neighborhoods “that have low crime have libraries, green spaces, respite and all those services that we don’t have. We just get the police.

Village Free (CEO) founder Sherina Jones said the various organizations lining 7th Avenue show “we don’t need a savior.”

“We are here to heal, to help and to bring people to a better place in life,” she added.

When Jones launched the Village Free (dge) in August 2020, she saw a void that needed to be filled during the pandemic when people lost jobs. What started as making 300 sandwiches in her mother’s kitchen is now an operation that feeds more than 200 people a day, has two additional locations in North Dade, and distributes clothing and shoes.

“It is what it is,” Jones said. “We are showing up for our people.”

The Roots Collective built a garden on their back wall to aid Jones in his food endeavors. It will also serve their spring break program where local children will learn about cooking and the importance of healthy eating. while eating.

“We’re in a food desert in Liberty City,” said Roots Collective co-founder Danny Agnew. “Healthy fruits, vegetables and herbs are not only necessary, but also a tool to help us educate people on the importance of having fresh food.

Phrases like “institutional racism” and “anti-capitalism” mean little when you’re worried about your next meal, said Isaiah Thomas, another co-founder of the Roots Collective. Through block parties, their collection of black empowerment apparel, and providing spaces for businesses, the Roots Collective name speaks to its mission to stay “rooted in our community,” he added.

“We have to be that bridge because our people aren’t going to get where they need to be until the social justice world meets this guy around the corner,” Thomas said. “We always have this open door policy for the community.”

Since 1999, the Miami Workers Center has focused on issues ranging from fair housing to the rights of domestic workers. Their location on 7th Avenue, purchased in 2012 according to general manager Santra Denis, was intentional.

“We had to be in black communities because that’s where the work is done, but that’s also where people experience the most injustice and we wanted to be able to respond quickly,” Denis said, noting that their proposed tenants’ bill of rights designed to create some protection for tenants as the cost of living continues to rise throughout Miami-Dade, was drafted with input from residents of Liberty City and other black communities .

Miami Worker Center tenant, Power U tries to develop the next generation of community leaders.

“Young people, historically, have always played a huge role in movements,” said James Lopez, executive director of Power U. One. goal is to ensure that as Miami continues to evolve as an international tech hub, the city’s “progressive activist community is actually made up of working-class youth and working-class families who are in made from here,” he said.

While Power U focuses on local youth, Black Men Build tries to involve more black men in the community.

“The number of brothers participating in movement spaces and activities was decreasing,” said Phil Agnew, co-founder of Black Men Build. “The brothers didn’t seem enthusiastic about being part of the movement.”

Black Men Build, which has centers in Detroit, St. Louis and Oakland, seeks to provide political education as well as vocational training in part through deconstructing popular narratives of masculinity. His weekly circle of men aims to encourage vulnerability as the group discusses day-to-day issues. His magazine WARTIME offers a creative outlet for black expression. And his social media posts highlight the diversity within the black community.

That Phil Agnew of Black Men Build and Danny Agnew of Roots Collective are brothers with organizations within a block of each other shows how intertwined this community is. And Jones and Thomas are cousins.

“Nothing will happen without partnerships or coalitions,” Phil said. “We need partnerships, we need to be in coalition with others, otherwise we won’t be effective in what we do.”

“There is power in us to be in coalition”

As these organizations continue their work, Gunder believes data collection will be the most important aspect. Each organization serves a specific niche, but creating a database of people who frequent their various departments will allow them to better show how people struggle.

“If we can show donor stats from Black Men Build, Village Free (dge) and Roots Collective, we can influence change,” Gunder said. If the community served grows, this could lead to more funding.

In the meantime, Henderson is already thinking about expansion. A sobering-up center to help people in a state of intoxication find a clear head will soon be part of the clinic. He plans to set up a mobile Freedom House crisis line as an alternative to the ER that will dispatch mental health professionals rather than police.

“No one is going to direct all the work,” Henderson said. “It’s stressful, but we all rely on each other to do what we need to do. There is power in us to be in coalition.

This story was originally published March 17, 2022 12:31 p.m.

C. Isaiah Smalls II is a reporter covering race and culture for the Miami Herald. Previously, he worked for ESPN’s The Undefeated as part of their first class of Rhoden Fellows. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Morehouse College.

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