By Sam Bojarski and Vania Andre
Whether in Haiti or the United States, Haitians are no strangers to protesting injustice.
Najela Drice, a Haitian-American woman who lives in Harlem, has been involved in Black Lives Matter since 2013 and marched this past weekend to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“I have seen changes through marches while living in Haiti, and it’s something I’ve done with my parents, it’s important for voices to be heard. But I do feel a global consciousness, a global connectivity with black people,” said Drice, who is in her mid-30s.
Over the last 50 years or so that Haitians have been settling in the U.S., they have in many ways formed their own identity, exemplified in the distinct Creole language and the numerous Haitian businesses and churches throughout central Brooklyn, southeast Queens and beyond. Yet the Haitian-American experience is closely tied with that of African-Americans, and Haitians are playing an active role in the George Floyd protests and the larger Black Lives Matter movement.
“We have a long history of protesting injustices, especially with respect to the Patrick Dorismond and Abner Louima incident with the police,” said Josue Pierre, in reference to two Haitians who have been victims of police violence in New York City. Pierre, a Haitian-American, is running to represent New York’s 40th City Council District in the 2021 election
Pierre himself has led groups of friends and volunteers, who have marched at several protests throughout the city.
“We’re very much interwoven,” Pierre said about Haitians at the protests. “While I’m at the protests, I’ve heard people chanting in Creole. It’s not like we’ve taken it upon ourselves to say ‘this is ours,’ as much as we’ve taken it upon ourselves to say, ‘we are part of this.’”
During the past several decades, Haitians have experienced discrimination and the problem of police brutality in much the same way as African-Americans. In 1997, Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was beaten and later sodomized by New York City police, after officers responded to a fight outside a Brooklyn nightclub. In 2000, Patrick Dorismond was shot and killed outside a Manhattan bar by an undercover police officer, during a scuffle with three undercover narcotics detectives. Dorismond was unarmed.
Haitians in New York organized protests to decry police violence in both instances.
In addition, Haitians have been victims of other forms of discrimination. In the early 1980s, for example, Haitians were labeled “AIDS carriers” by much of the public, after the CDC designated Haitians as a high-risk group. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) later forbade Haitians from donating blood, a ban that has since been revoked in the face of protests.
Historically, being black has meant different things for Haitians and African-Americans, despite the two groups sharing many of the same experiences in America.
For reasons that date back to Haiti’s successful revolution and the establishment of the world’s first black republic in 1804, being black has never meant inferiority or invisibility, as Flore Zephir articulated in her 2004 book, “The Haitian Americans.” Rather, Zephir also wrote, their race is the symbol of a glorious past that led to freedom, nationhood and even equality with whites.
“African-Americans here have been conditioned to be ashamed about their blackness and about their desire to be equal, so there’s a conditioning here to accept the status quo that I feel the black immigrant population is kind of like, having a positive impact on,” Drice said.
She added that different black communities coming together through the recent protests serves as a healing process.
In addition to their conceptions of race alone, there are other realities that Haitians have grown more aware of as they have integrated into American society. While Haiti’s prisons are extremely crowded, America has a much greater number of prisoners, relative to the general population.
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