Donald Trump’s latest authoritarian outburst was a Friday morning tweet that Twitter flagged as violating the platform’s rules “about glorifying violence. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.”
The tweet, which was then quote-tweeted by the official White House account, which itself was then flagged by Twitter, read: “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
That phrase, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” isn’t just a strong hint at adopting a policy of extrajudicial killings. It’s a direct quote from 1960s Miami police chief Walter Headley, whose tenure carried echoes of today’s institutional racism, and whose officers, as well as the force across Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach, helped turn Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali.
Arriving in Florida in 1960, Ali trained at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach, but stayed in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami because there was no place that black people could stay in Miami Beach. Even though Ali fought Sonny Liston in Miami Beach in 1964, when he announced his name change, that city’s police actively worked to keep blacks from even crossing the MacArthur Causeway to reach it.
“On a few occasions, Clay was stopped along the causeway by police,” Linda Robertson wrote in a 2016 Miami Herald retrospective that referred to Ali by the name he went by at the times of his life that corresponded to the piece. “‘The cops would call me and ask, ‘You got a tall fighter named Clay? He says he trains with you, but it looks to us like he’s running from something,’ (trainer Angelo) Dundee said. … Living in Overtown, being treated like a suspect by police, being shunned by the Burdines clerk, Clay was drawn to the separatist message of the Nation of Islam.”
It was Headley’s segregated Miami where Ali served a 10-day jail sentence in 1968, and also where he lived for most of the 1960s, and it’s not hard to see how that experience would be transformational.
In The New York Times’ obituary for Headley in November 1968, it was written that he “attracted national attention 11 months ago when he announced that he would use shotguns, dogs and a stepped-up ‘stop-and-frisk’ policy to reduce crime in the city’s Negro area.” Meanwhile, when The Associated Press summed up his life, right after the “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” quote, it was noted that “when riots struck the city during the Republican National Convention last summer, while Chief Headley was vacationing, looters were not fired upon by police. Three Negroes were shot to death, all during incidents involving shootouts with police.”
Headley also once said, “Felons will learn that they can’t be bonded out of the morgue. We don’t mind being accused of police brutality. They haven’t seen anything yet.” Still, according to the AP obit, “when a 16-year-old Negro accused two city policemen of dangling him by his heels 75-feet over the Miami River, Headley suspended both men immediately. One officer resigned from the force and the other was dismissed. They later pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating the boy’s civil rights. Negro leaders said the chief’s quick suspensions of the men probably averted a racial disturbance.”
But even with that as part of his legacy, Headley’s police force and the cops of Miami Beach were perpetrators of the same pattern of racist policing being protested now. In 1966, and again in 1967, Miami police stopped Ali, who eventually spent 10 days in Dade County jail over an unpaid ticket -— one month after Headley’s death from a heart attack in 1968.
Ali’s legal trouble in Miami was lesser news at the time than the trial he was facing for refusing to join the Army. In fact, when Ali went to jail, he said, “I might have to do five years for that other thing, so this will be conditioning for me.”
As an AP story noted at that time, Ali’s “petty troubles with Miami Traffic Court began May 17, 1967, when Ali was tooling along an expressway in his Cadillac with his chauffeur beside him.”
The trouble didn’t quite start in 1967, though, but really five months earlier, when Ali was stopped for making an improper left turn. According to the United Press International account of Ali’s 1967 arrest, which referred to him as Cassius Clay against his wishes, Ali had “been in Miami the last few days. A motorcycle policeman spotted (Ali) driving his car this morning. The policeman, Robert Elliott, recalled that he had arrested Clay on a charge of making an improper left turn last Oct. 19 and that (Ali) had not shown up for a court date.”
Ali got stopped for driving while black. Ali got stopped for running while black. Amid racial unrest, word came down that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The deeply racist Miami of the 1960s is right at home in the America of 2020.