protest haitian flag
A protester unfurls a Haitian flag, at a June 2020 demonstration for racial justice in Brooklyn. (Photo by Vania Andre)

In the 1990s to the early 2000s, the Haitian community was de guerre, or on a warpath. In less than a decade, we held two of the largest protests New York City had ever seen. We snarled traffic along lower Manhattan protesting the FDA’s false labeling Haitians as HIV/AIDS carriers. 

We took to the streets for Abner Louima and Patrick Dorismond, both of whom were victimized by the police. Louima was assaulted inside the 70th Precinct in Brooklyn and Dorismond was accidentally shot to death by an undercover officer who tried to sell him drugs during a tussle near Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.

While we were marching and protesting, our numbers were growing and there was a sentiment that as a community, we needed to get off the streets and ascend to the various suites of power in the city. So when Yvette Clarke won her seat in Congress in 2006, the 40th District, which she and her mother Una Clarke had represented, everyone agreed that it was time that a person of Haitian ancestry held the seat. 

The Clarkes rallied around Mathieu Eugene, who ran a community center on Ocean Avenue. After a few wrangling among us, everyone fell in line behind Eugene, who made history by being the first Haitian-born person to be elected to the City Council in New York. 

The idea behind choosing a Haitian to lead the district is that the person would be sensitive to the issues facing the community, provide resources to the organizations and slowly empower themselves.  

It was heady stuff for the community and great things were expected. But it wasn’t going to be. Eugene, for his part, dressed sharper than the Wall Street lawyers near City Hall and drove around in a Mercedes Benz. I don’t hold that against him, but that’s hardly the look of a humble public servant, representing a community improvising its way into the mainstream of New York life.

But Eugene’s almost 16-year tenure in the Council chambers was beyond optics. Eugene used his office’s discretionary funding, a tune of $1 million a year, to support organizations outside the community. The Haitians and largely Caribbean residents of the district were disenfranchised by Eugene’s neglect. 

Last week, I was heartened to have received a flier advertising a virtual meeting called “FY 23: The non-profit discretionary application workshop” featuring council members Farah Louis, Chi Osse, Rita Joseph and Justin Brannan, who represent districts in Brooklyn.

This is the right thing to do and long overdue. It is refreshing to see that the community’s interests are being defended. I think that these and other elected officials have a duty to help build the capacity of community organizations, which are struggling to provide vital aid to residents.

Last Fall, New York City had to settle some Haitian migrants who were seeking asylum into the United States by crossing the Rio Grande River in Texas. Haitian organizations were ill-equipped to provide the necessary help because of a lack of capacity after years of little to no resources. 

Beyond helping compatriots resettle here, Haitian residents face daily challenges that are not being met. 

Over the last two years, The Haitian Times has been aggressive in its coverage of the community. We have objectively produced stories about ways the Haitian community was being shortchanged when the city tried to exclude Haitians from the list of undocumented workers that the Open Society Foundation had provided cash assistance at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We took a deep dive into the whole issue of discretionary funds and how Eugene had abused that system to the detriment of the community. We examined council members who represent districts with significant Haitian residents.

Of course, our reporting was met with strong pushback.  But we stood firm because we were driven by a sense of communal purpose that Haitians were being left behind. We felt that was wrong and that keeping quiet about it would be akin to journalistic malpractice. 

I hope that in retrospect the members who felt targeted and aggrieved understand that our motive was not to target people, but to report fairly and point out forcefully when bad actors are trying to harm the community. 

The discretionary funding meeting is the first time, to my knowledge, such a session has been promoted in the community, and I’m almost certain it would not have been held without our scrutiny. This is the basic tenet of democracy and community building. 

The media find wrongdoing, expose it and push officials to act. The system works as intended and I’m delighted Councilmembers Louis, Osse, Joseph and Brannan have shown leadership in empowering the community. 

More is expected. Some of these council members also chair powerful and important committees that should help bring some resources in the community, particularly Joseph, a former teacher, heading the education committee.  

These paths forward are why I’ve been feeling an air of optimism that despite some bad leadership in the past, we’re heading in the right direction. The current crop of leaders realize that the job is about empowering the community, Haitian and otherwise, rather than being drunk on power. 

This is great that we’ve arrived where we are at this moment because many of the folks who led these marches back in the day are tired and can’t march anymore. But their street organizing got us to where we need to be, albeit a tad later than anticipated. 

Garry Pierre-Pierre

Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer-prize winning, multimedia and entrepreneurial journalist. In 1999, he left the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times, a New York-based English-language publication serving the Haitian Diaspora. He is also the co-founder of the City University Graduate School of Journalism‘s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a senior producer at CUNY TV.

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