Your Worst Nightmare

A traveler asks directions to Riviera Beach. The clerk at an Exxon station responds: "Go up I-95 till you hit Blue Heron Boulevard. Then put on some body armor."

Wedged in between the bigger and better-known towns of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens, the port city of Riviera Beach is a place of dividing lines and contrasts. To the west an old stone wall runs for half a mile past several of Riviera's 60 churches. Not so long ago it marked the border between black and white neighborhoods, and hopping "The Wall" after nightfall could bring on dog bites, beatings, or worse; according to elderly residents, it was the site of lynchings, though this may be more legend than fact.

Today The Wall is overgrown with vines, and the social borderline has moved east. Cross the high, fixed-span bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, and Riviera Beach suddenly becomes a pleasant enclave of oceanfront condominiums and million-dollar winter homes.

"Over here a domestic dispute means you show up at a house and the wife points to her husband and says, 'He's not talking to me,'" a black police officer says. "Out west, across the bridge, it means the husband hit the wife with a whiskey bottle and the wife hit him back with an ax handle, and, if the guy's not dead, you calm things down and say, 'OK, no big deal.'"

What lies to the west is, in the words of another cop, "a flat, hot, concrete hell." The median income of Rivierans hovers near the poverty line at $14,674. The town is numerically a small one -- 27,782 residents -- but its crime and drug problems are big-city. According to the current police chief, cops in Riviera answer more calls per capita than anywhere else in Palm Beach County, and more than a few of those calls could qualify as hair-raising. In recent months a dance at a gymnasium erupted into a melee in which combatants took to throwing a vendor's pickle jars at one another, and police had to fight their way out of the brawl in hand-to-hand combat.

The Land of Oz bar, poetically located at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Dixie Highway, was recently boarded up by a federal task force. Before that it was allegedly a combination bordello, crack house, and saloon so notorious that weekend nights occasionally required West Palm police officers or sheriff's deputies to fight their way in and rescue the local cops. Within half an hour of a first visit to Riviera, one can easily stumble over a homicide scene, perhaps the robbery-murder of a motel manager mere blocks from the police station. "Low-level, hard-core," is how another veteran officer defines the beat.

In the spring of 1982, Zedrick Dwayne Barber came home to Riviera Beach to become, like his father, a cop. His larger ambition was a career in the FBI. His hometown hot spot, he thought, would provide an excellent law-enforcement baptism by fire, if not gunfire. In retrospect his reasoning proved correct in unpredictable ways.

Unlike most of Riviera's 90 sworn officers, the 23-year-old Barber had a college degree, and the degree wasn't from just any college. Barber majored in sociology and minored in criminal justice at Morehouse College in Atlanta, the Harvard of black men's universities. One recent notable Morehouse graduate, filmmaker Spike Lee, was a class ahead of Barber. The two didn't mix much. "Kind of a weasel-y guy," Barber says of Lee. "I was playing wide receiver on the football team. I didn't hang out with weasels."

Barber and Lee had at least two things in common, though. Both wanted to be members of Omega Psi Phi, an intensely loyal, intensely traditional elite black fraternity. Barber made the cut; today his upper right arm bears the Greek letter omega as a painful memento of the fraternity's branding ritual; Lee washed out, and later made a painful film, School Daze, about the pledge process.

Barber and Lee also shared an enduring preoccupation with race. For Barber the preoccupation began early on, hearing stories about The Wall, watching his father lead a black policemen's walkout at the West Palm Beach Police Department in the early '60s, and attending a Catholic high school where the full force of his minority status came home to him. The preoccupation flowered in Atlanta, the intellectual breeding ground of America's black upper class. What Smith College is to feminist theory, Morehouse is to racial studies -- an unofficial think tank founded on African-American identity. "It's brainwashing, I'll be the first to tell you," Barber says. "Morehouse teaches you that you're the epitome of black manhood. It's the place where we get together to figure out how to fight injustice in this country."

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sean Rowe