His name has been invoked by street protesters and mayoral candidates. He has been the focus of outraged editorials and national news coverage. For many immigrant and minority New Yorkers, he is the latest victim of a criminal-justice system that is too often a foe, not a protector.
But at the center of this storm, Abner Louima’s main concerns are more immediate, and more ordinary. When will his body stop hurting, and when can he leave the hospital? When will he be able to go to the bathroom normally? When will his wife stop crying?
”When I see my family in pain, I have to stay strong,” Mr. Louima said yesterday as he lay with tubes stuck on his side.
Not that Mr. Louima, the 30-year-old Haitian immigrant who prosecutors say was brutalized by police officers from the 70th Precinct in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is unaware of the larger issues his plight has raised.
”What keeps me going is that even if I don’t get anything out of this, that my children can grow up in a new society — a society where no one else is victimized like I was,” he said, speaking in Creole. ”I believe there are other victims who are either ashamed to come out or did not know how to speak out for themselves.”
Video recap of Louima’s story and the fight for social justice. By Leonardo March
The nature of the charges — prosecutors say police officers who arrested Mr. Louima in a scuffle outside a nightclub beat him and then, in the station bathroom, shoved the handle of a toilet plunger into his rectum and his mouth — has stirred widespread anger. But Mr. Louima’s voice, soft and weak, seemed to reflect more pain and weariness than anger.
”The best way to apply anger is to go to the march,” Mr. Louima said, referring to a protest planned for Aug. 29 by the Haitian-American Alliance and a coalition of other community organizations. ”It will send a strong signal to people in charge that we deplore police brutality. Hopefully that will not happen again.”
”It’s intolerable,” Mr. Louima said quietly. ”I think everyone should be an advocate against police brutality.”
A quiet and unassuming man, Mr. Louima is an unlikely candidate for political symbolism. He is the oldest of four children who grew up in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, where their father was a tailor. In the early 1980’s other family members left Haiti for New York, uprooted by the political trouble of the Caribbean nation.
But Mr. Louima stayed to complete his education, receiving a degree in electrical engineering from the Ecole Nationale des Arts Metiers.
He rejoined his family in Brooklyn in 1990, married in 1994 and settled into a typical immigrant’s life: working nights and weekends as a security guard, and helping raise his 1-year-old son, Abner Jr. (His 7-year-old daughter remained in Haiti with her mother when he emigrated.)
Even before the events of recent days, he said, he had also endured an immigrant’s hardships. ”Haitians have to come to the United States to really appreciate their country,” said Mr. Louima, who said he hopes to write a book about his ordeals. ”When you come here you have to endure humiliation and other indignities, like people calling you all kind of racist names. In Haiti, with all of the troubles, you are respected as a human being.”
Still, he said, the lack of economic opportunities back in Haiti makes it difficult or impossible for most people like him to think of returning.
Mr. Louima spoke in an hourlong interview at his bedside at Brooklyn Hospital Center, where he is protected by two plainclothes officers. A Bible sat on a lamp table surrounded by flowers sent by friends and strangers.
But on the advice of his lawyers and family members, Mr. Louima would not discuss details of the events outside the Rendez-Vous nightclub, where he was arrested after a melee, nor what happened inside the precinct station house.
He did not address some politically charged aspects of the case, including his assertion, stated by his lawyers, that one of his police attackers said, ”This is Giuliani time, not Dinkins time” as they assaulted him.
The criminal investigation continues and Mr. Louima’s lawyer, Sanford A. Rubinstein, has said he will file a civil lawsuit against the city.
While Mr. Louima said he would forgive the men accused of torturing him, he said he was not so sure what he would tell them if they were to meet. He said he would not ask them why they beat him so savagely or what he did to deserve it. To him, it does not matter.
”It’s been done,” said Mr. Louima, who has undergone surgery twice for a torn bladder and other injuries and will probably be hospitalized another month or more. ”Right now that’s not important.” Doctors say it is still unclear when or if he will regain normal bowel function.
Mr. Louima, like most Haitian immigrants who came here fleeing political turmoil or economic hardship, said he had always wanted to stay as far away as possible from the police and other authorities. And for more than six years, he had done just that.
But early on Saturday, Aug. 9, Mr. Louima found himself in a swirling crowd outside Club Rendez-Vous on Flatbush Avenue as the police arrived to break up a fight. According to witnesses, Mr. Louima was arrested after a man in the crowd knocked Officer Justin A. Volpe flat in a fistfight in front of other officers; some witnesses said that Mr. Louima had struck Officer Volpe. (The charges against Mr. Louima, including assaulting an officer, were dropped.) Investigators are now looking into the possibility that another man hit Officer Volpe.
Prosecutors have charged two officers with beating Mr. Louima en route to the station, and two others with attacking him in the bathroom.
As the blows rained down, Mr. Louima said, he winced, braced himself for the beating and prayed for it to end. Every hit, every racial slur and every indignity was somehow softened by the hope that at least he would see his wife and son again. And when it was all over, his prayers were answered, Mr. Louima said, because he had survived.
”I kept saying, Please, God, don’t let me die,” he said yesterday. ”I was praying to protect my life because if I died, I did not know who would take care of my children.”