In search for justice, Haitians find political voice

Opening arguments begin in New York in another case of alleged police

Two years ago, Haitian immigrant Jude Joseph was more concerned about politics back home in Port-au-Prince than the machinations under way at New York's City Hall.

But last Thursday, defiantly waving a large blue-and-red Haitian flag, Mr. Joseph was at the forefront of a crowd of as many as 10,000 protesters as they poured across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan to the chants of "No Justice, No Peace."

It was the largest protest yet against police brutality in the wake of the recent killing of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo and the alleged beating of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima two years ago.

Both incidents have heightened racial tensions in the city and exacerbated questions about police practices around the United States. The Louima trial has also sparked a political awakening in New York's Haitian community that experts say is reverberating across the country.

"Many of us have this notion that 'I'm not going to die here, I'm going back home.' But that's changing right now," says Ronald Aubourg of the Haitian Centers Council of New York. "Haitians are now saying, 'This is where I'm going to be, and so I have to step up to the political plate and get involved. I have children here.' "

Legacy of freedom

With opening arguments set to begin this week in the case against the officers accused of beating and violating Mr. Louima with the handle of a plunger, immigration experts and historians say the Haitian community is also rediscovering its own legacy. The immigrants, who are centered mostly in New York and Miami, are the descendants of the first independent black nation in the Western Hemisphere, the first people who defeated Napoleon on the battlefield.

"They've suddenly rediscovered what in effect they brought with them - that is, their legacy of self-liberation and the idea they are not a colonial, subordinate people," says James Shenton, professor emeritus at Columbia University here.

In the past two centuries, Haiti has also suffered extraordinary political upheaval, a series of brutal dictatorial regimes, and unrelenting poverty. "They were not reduced to subservience by their poverty," says Mr. Shenton. "It became a mark of their ability to survive and to lay the foundation for a changing identity."

The nascent political transformation now under way could be seen and heard at the protest last week. Haitian flags were interspersed with Puerto Rican flags and protest signs demanding an end to police brutality and calling for justice for Louima.

The rally began in front of the Federal Courthouse, where jury selection was under way for the trial. Four police officers are charged with beating Louima, and two are accused of violating him. The officers deny the charges.

Unifying in protest

Mr. Aubourg, who was one of the first people contacted by Louima's brother after the beating in August 1997, was also at the head of the march, linked arm and arm with other African-American, Asian, and white civil rights leaders.

"I felt good because this thing that was started with the Louima beating was continuing and now has become a national problem that must be addressed," he says.

For other Haitian protesters, the issue went beyond their community. As Max Lartigue of Brooklyn strode toward City Hall, he insisted the Haitian community and the black community are now one.

"It wasn't a Haitian thing, it was a black thing," says Mr. Lartigue of the Louima beating. "Being Haitian, didn't mean anything. It was that he was black."

Other protesters shared that sentiment. But Shenton believes that even as the Haitian community weaves itself into the fabric of the US, it will always keep part of itself separate, in part, because of its distinctive history and pride in its French ancestry.

Challenging status quo

"They are integrating here, but they're also becoming a very serious challenge to the status quo in Haiti," he says. "They haven't really separated - what they are becoming is an articulate expression of Haitian aspirations here."

That could have an effect on Haiti's political future. But in the meantime, the new Haitian immigrants here are staking out their own ground and making those aspirations known here in the United States.

"There is something that all Haitians don't like about the Abner Louima case," says Joseph, still defiantly waving his flag. "It's something that all people shouldn't like."

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