By Sam Bojarski and Vania Andre
From Haiti to 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.
Haitians have also become aware of realities like mass incarceration as they integrate into American society. While Haiti’s prisons are extremely crowded, America has a much greater number of prisoners, relative to the general population.
“The excessive amount of jailing that happens in American society does not happen in that way in the Caribbean,” Pierre said.
“In America you have a disproportionate number of (prisoners) to the population, and the prison population is disproportionately black and brown,” he added.
Gepsie Metellus, executive director of the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center in Miami, said the Haitian American and African-American experiences are one and the same, distinguished only by language. The same challenges, from racial profiling, to discrimination in the workplace, face both groups. Being black is also a symbol of pride for Haitians.
“It’s a reaffirmation that we have a history that we will not allow people to deny,” Metellus also said.
Haitians as a whole have experienced racism regardless of social class, and Metellus cited examples of prominent Haitian physicians who have been singled out and stalked by police officers.
“There are professionals of all sectors who experience this racism, this discrimination, who experience the same systemic barriers,” she added.
In a statement released June 6, Haitian Americans United for Progress (HAUP), a social services organization with offices in Queens and Brooklyn, published a statement expressing solidarity with communities across the country grieving over the death of George Floyd. The statement was also a reminder that Haitians have been victims of police brutality.
“Haitians and other members of our community are no stranger to police abuse and brutal behavior. Victims have included Patrick Dorismond, the father of two children, killed on March 16, 2000 by a NYC police officer, and Abner Louima arrested and tortured in a NY police precinct in 1997. We stood then to demand justice for them. We stand today to demand justice for Floyd and the many others throughout the nation (who have been) victims of arbitrary police killings, brutality and torture,” read the statement, which was signed by HAUP’s chief executive officer, Elsie Saint Louis.
“HAUP is a multi-service community-based institution firmly dedicated to lifting the well-being of its constituents in New York City and on Long Island. This includes calling on the authorities to treat people with dignity. The NYC police has responded to the rallies and marches held in NY to express publicly grief and outrage at Floyd’s murder with repressive measures, conflating opportunistic looters with peaceful marchers. This must stop immediately,” the statement also read.
As a participant in the protests, Pierre said he has sought to tie in the protests with tangible action at the policy level. When asked about police-community relations in central Brooklyn, he noted that there has been improvement.
For instance, he said the New York Police Department (NYPD) has become a much more diverse force in recent years, even employing a number of police officers of Haitian descent. Still, he said that the upper leadership of the NYPD does not represent the diversity of the community.
As “Defund the Police” has become a rallying cry for protesters nationwide, Pierre has called for a $1 billion cut to the NYPD’s budget.
City officials have already proposed cuts to the Fair Student Funding program amid a budget crisis wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Cuts to this program “would disproportionately impact youth of color,” said Pierre.
“Now we have an opportunity to say, rather than cut $100 million there or $120 million there, we’re going to reduce the funding for the NYPD, and we’re going to shift it over to these programs which actually benefit youth of color and in particular black youth,” he said.
Pierre also echoed protesters’ demands for social workers to take over some of the functions of police officers.
He said he supports “the idea that we should have more mental health professionals in our public schools, as opposed to just policing our kids.”
In Miami, Metellus herself has supported calls for justice for George Floyd and affirmed the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center’s commitment to working with social justice organizations demanding the same thing.
She views Black Lives Matter as a broad movement that is forcing individuals to examine themselves and how they promote structural racism.
“This has become a movement where everyone is called to reexamine their values,” she added.