When ten to twenty thousand protesters poured across the Brooklyn Bridge on August 29 to voice their rage about police officers' alleged torture of Haitian-American Abner Louima, they were following a well-worn path–both literally and figuratively. By most estimates, more than half of them were Haitian. And many had been there before.
In April 1990, thousands of Haitian marchers closed down the bridge to denounce the federal Food and Drug Administration's ban on blood donations by Haitian and African nationals. (The ban, rooted in a fear of AIDS, was lifted a few weeks later). And during the 1980s and early 1990s, Haitian organizations in New York City held dozens of large rallies denouncing federal detention of their refugees and challenging Washington's support of brutal Haitian dictators like Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
Population figures vary according to whoever is doing the accounting (70,000 foreign-born Haitians in New York City according to the 1990 Census, or about 600,000 people with a Haitian background in the New York metro area according to community leaders), but the fact remains: This immigrant group knows how to be heard–it is an organizer's dream when it comes to turnout for an action. What is it that the Haitian community is doing right?
“Haitians love being in the street. It's like the street is their press, their opportunity to show the world injustice has been done,” says Ricot Dupuy, station manager at Radio Soleil, which presents news and music by cable subscription to Haitians in the New York region. Part of this is a culture brought from Haiti, where brutal political repression generated a street-level response. Once in this country, refugees seized the chance to change U.S. government policies toward their Caribbean nation, and regular protests became the norm. Another factor is more basic, however: Haitians have faced an inordinate amount of injustice in recent years, and they have learned to respond quickly and as a group.
“Because we feel threatened all the time, we have a tendency to get together as one,” says Florence Bonhoumme-Camou, a longtime activist and coordinator of the Haitian Affairs Committee, a civil rights group. “If we were not learning anything from all those marches, we would not be moving forward.”
The Haitian community is served by several newspapers, more than a handful of cable television shows and two 24-hour radio stations that pair metro New York news with news from home, which Haitians are always eager to hear. Dupuy estimates that Radio Soleil has more than 400,000 Haitian listeners in the region. The station regularly broadcasts calls for communal action. “Radio is the lifeblood of Haitian people,” he says. “There are many homes in our community where the radio is never off, day or night.”
In the New York area, there are hundreds of Haitian groups–each with roots in one hometown. They raise money and desperately needed supplies to send back to relatives and friends, and they are another vehicle for efficient organizing. “If we are having a march, there is a list of all the grassroots organizations. When we call them, we say,