“I’m very fortunate and blessed to be alive today,” said Abner Louima, 54. “I embrace every second, especially with my family.”
Those were Louima’s opening words during a June 16 special-edition community conversation hosted by The Haitian Times. Louima, known for surviving the 1997 brutal attack by police that made international headlines, spoke about his experience and views on police reform.
A quiet man, Louima moved to Florida in the years after the 1997 attack, in part to shield his then-young family from the media spotlight. But he has not retreated from the fight for police reform and racial justice. And, as a survivor of police brutality, Louima has a valuable role educating community members.
Haitian Times founder Garry Pierre-Pierre, who covered Louima in the aftermath of the assault as a New York Times reporter, joined Louima in the discussion about survival and social justice. That evening in August 1997, Louima was taken into a police car and beaten following his arrest outside a Flatbush nightclub. At the 70th police precinct, officers beat him further and sodomized him with a stick, per media reports.
The experience still influences Louima, who continues to speak out against brutality and racial injustice around the country. He also delivers talks to police departments, often illustrating for officers what it’s like to be pulled over and what to know about Haitians culturally with an aim toward improving police-community relations.
Lasting impressions of 1997 assault
Pierre-Pierre still vividly remembers visiting Louima in the hospital, days after the beating occurred. During the June 16 conversation, Pierre-Pierre said Louima was “courageous” to speak with reporters and share his story, as he has continued to do over the years.
In response to the news of Louima’s treatment by law enforcement, the larger Haitian community would plan marches and rallies, speaking up at a time when many were timid about civic engagement, Pierre-Pierre also said.
“A lot of people came out and said, ‘this is unacceptable, we are going to march and we’re going to send a strong message to the city and to the world,’” Pierre-Pierre said. “It will continue to happen until we have significant changes to the way policing is done in America.”
Louima received a civil settlement from the city, and two of the officers involved in his case received prison sentences. Yet, Louima continues to speak out, working to make sure that what he went through does not happen to anyone else. He has met with police officers to educate them about how Black communities perceive law enforcement and also said he educates Black Americans, on how to interact with law enforcement.
Almost 24 years after the police brutality incident in Flatbush, Louima said he still worries about the safety of his children, when interacting with police. Yet, he sees reason for hope in the Black Lives Matter movement of recent years, that intensified after George Floyd’s May 2020 murder.
“I believe that’s one of the greatest movements, that’s [brought] awareness to the entire world, not only the United States,” Louima said. “I believe that’s one of the movements that really makes others that [don’t] know how it feels [to] be a Black or brown person, at least have a feel what we have to go through daily.”
Pressing for change
When it comes to changing police-community relations, Louima said that the movement needs to be consistent, not just something that arises in response to an incident. But on a more concrete level, he said change is needed in the judicial system, among police leadership and from individual community members.
Police, he said, need to be held accountable for their actions and face jail time and lose their pensions when they violate people’s rights.
People detained also need to know how to deescalate tense situations with law enforcement by calmly complying with officers’ requests. He also suggested that Haitian community leaders and elected officials should take an active role educating people about systemic racism.
“As far as I’m concerned, they’re not really looking out for their people,” Louima said. “Use your office to make a difference for your community. Those that don’t speak English, create some program for them at least to teach them about the society they live in, what to expect, where their rights start, where they end.”
Significant changes have come to law enforcement in the past 24 years, to be sure. Facing serious community pressure, city leaders began to diversify law enforcement in the late 1990s, Pierre-Pierre said. The community in Brooklyn saw the continuing evolution of that diversity this year, as the borough now has three precinct commanders of Haitian descent. Still, departments have to be more particular about making sure the right officers join the force, he said.
“The problem is that departments have to weed out the bad cops,” Pierre-Pierre said, noting how cops nationwide have switched departments after committing violations. “There’s a system in place now where these cops hop from one police department to another.”
As it has in numerous conversations since the George Floyd incident, the question of whether to defund the police came up during the conversation with Louima. Yet, Louima appeared lukewarm about the slogan, saying that the police are still essential, despite the desperate need for reform.
“We cannot police for ourselves, we definitely need the police,” Louima said. “It’s the way they’re policing that’s the problem, it’s the way they’ve been training … they don’t treat everybody the same way.”
Click here to view the full video conversation with Abner Louima.