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1980 - Crisis at Ft. Chaffee

Overcrowding and frustration lead to riots by Cuban detainees, and a national spotlight on Arkansas.

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The biggest Arkansas story of 1980 - not counting the defeat of up-and-coming Bill Clinton at the hands of Frank White that fall - was undoubtedly the riot of Cuban detainees at Fort Chaffee. Refugees of Castro's infamous Muriel Boatlift, over 19,000 Cubans were detained at Fort Chaffee that spring, making the camp the 11th largest city in the state (Fort Chaffee's history had often seen it used to hold detainees and prisoners, from German POWs during WWII to refugees from the fall of Saigon). Brought to the fort in early May, the Cubans had been promised a quick processing by immigration and medical authorities and then resettlement with their families, many of whom had been separated during the exodus from Cuba. Plagued by bureaucratic setbacks and rumors that Chaffee was full of Cuban criminals released from prison by Fidel Castro, however, camp life ground on for a month, with few Cubans released. Then, on Sunday, June 1, the frustrated detainees rioted, clashing with State Police and National Guard troops, destroying 4 barracks, and turning the eyes of the world on Arkansas for the first time since 1957. Sixty-two refugees were injured - some by gunfire - and 46 others were arrested. As Arkansas Times reporter Bob Plunkett wrote then: "Before El Domingo (Spanish for 'Sunday'), the term used by the refugees to refer to the June 1 riot, Fort Chaffee's only containment barrier was a limp cotton rope draped over a line of sawhorses place around the Cuban housing area." After the riots, Gov.Bill Clinton and President Jimmy Carter ensured that the lightly fortified camp was turned into a prison, encircled with miles of concertina wire and 2,000 heavily-armed federal troops. It wasn't enough to keep White from triumphing with twin issues of "Cubans and car tags," the latter a hated fee increase. Clinton apologized in 1982, beat White in a re-match and says the first loss was instructive in political victories later.

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