By Sam Bojarski
Caribbean flags of all colors filled the streets of Flatbush on the afternoon of June 14, as calls for racial justice were punctuated by the sounds of reggae music.
Marlyne Gaston was one of the protesters who marched up Flatbush Avenue, from Church Avenue to Grand Army Plaza, demanding justice for George Floyd and an end to racism and police brutality.
“I was hesitant to come out earlier in the protests because of COVID, but last night another black man was killed in America,” said Gaston, in reference to the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, which occurred late Friday night.
“I was vocal from my house, but now, I see I had to come out here,” added Gaston, a Haitian-American who lives in Flatbush.
Several hundred people, perhaps more than 1,000, attended the Caribbean Americans for Justice march, organized as a show of unity during Caribbean American Heritage Month. The Caribbean Guyana Institute for Democracy, Mount Zion Church of God, Byways & Hedges Youth for Christ Ministry, Ride Along Live and Haitian American community leader Rose Guerrier, of International Cultures United, were among the organizers of the event.
Speakers and marchers called for black unity and solidarity among immigrants, and attendees marched peacefully through the streets, chanting the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Call-and-response slogans like “no justice, no peace,” were regular features of the march.
Jeff Paul, a Haitian American who was in attendance, noted the significance of the event, given Brooklyn’s large Caribbean community.
“I think it’s good for us to show unity with each other, we’re all from different islands and everything, but you know, when we all come together for a cause it’s a beautiful thing,” said Paul, who lives in Flatbush.
Haitians, in particular, have been settling in the U.S. in large numbers since the 1960s. According to Paul, the generation of Haitians who were born in the U.S. have become more in tune with the challenges faced by other black Americans.
“I think the generation that was born here, you know, we pretty much have been in black culture, and we know the different things in black society that affect us,” he told the Haitian Times.
Gaston acknowledged that the past has not always been free of conflict between the different Caribbean communities in Brooklyn. But she said the march represented an opportunity for all people of African descent to come together as one.
“When they said they (were) having a Caribbean protest, I was like, ‘oh yeah, that’s up my alley.’ African Americans, Caribbean Americans, we’re all one and the same,” she said.
The crowd gradually began to swell at around noon, as march attendees, most of them dressed in black, gathered on all four corners of Church and Flatbush avenues. Rev. Terry Lee of Byways & Hedges kicked things off with an electrifying prayer and speech. After acknowledging his own background as a Jamaican immigrant, he called for solidarity among all immigrants during the march.
“Look to your neighbor and say, ‘we want you to be here!’” he exclaimed, before marchers began making their way up Flatbush Avenue, to Grand Army Plaza.
There, organizers set up a stage, and several speakers addressed the crowd. Guerrier, of International Cultures United, led a chant in Haitian Creole.
“We will make sure that we ask our elected officials at the federal level, at the state level, at the city level, they will pass laws to make sure that we stop fighting, and that our rights are respected, that’s why we’ve gathered here. We’ve gathered here for justice,” Rickford Burke, president of the Caribbean Guyana Institute for Democracy, told the crowd assembled at Grand Army Plaza.
March attendees who have been involved in Black Lives Matter and other protests against police brutality, acknowledged that this current moment feels different.
Paul told the Haitian Times that he has supported Black Lives Matter events in the past. According to him, the conditions created by the coronavirus pandemic have added to the strength of the movement over the past few weeks.
“I think they were able to kind of see what was happening, especially from the (George Floyd) video and everything, it affected people in different ways. I think with everybody being on pause and noticing it happening and realizing the inequalities that are going on, it’s kind of like, we’re coming together and trying to change things,” Paul said.
When she was in high school, Gaston attended protests following the death of Patrick Dorismond, a Haitian-American who was killed by an undercover detective in 2000. This time, she said, more people are joining the protests, and elected officials are listening.
Carol Europ, who traces her roots back to Guyana, said black people in America are regular victims of injustice and that the black community can make a change if people stand together and fight for their freedom. “We are being shot, we are being harassed,” she said.
“We want justice, and we want it now,” Europ added.
When it comes to demanding political reforms that address police brutality, calls to defund and even abolish police departments have become a rallying cry nationwide. Many protesters in Brooklyn carried signs echoing these demands.
Gaston herself said the New York Police Department (NYPD) budget of $6 billion is too large and said she supports redirecting some of this money into social programs like the Summer Youth Employment Program. City officials will negotiate funding for the program in the coming weeks, after Mayor Bill de Blasio initially proposed cutting it.
But while she supports reforms, Gaston said she does not support calls to abolish police departments, noting the crucial public safety role that she sees law enforcement playing.
“We just want to see progress. I think the main thing is that we all just want to be able to just go outside, live our lives and be peaceful, and we don’t want our skin color to be weaponized against us,” said Paul.
“If more people start to realize that, we can really bring about change and bring about law enforcement change as well, I think that’s the main goal for everybody,” he added.