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Published on Sunday, April 2, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Haitians Feel 'Under Siege' in Brooklyn
by Josh Getlin
NEW YORK - In Haitian culture, a body is not properly buried until mourners touch the coffin or hearse as it leaves the church. Without this farewell, the religious ritual -- and a family's cycle of grieving -- is interrupted.

That's what happened last weekend when Patrick Dorismond was laid to rest in New York and thousands were prevented from paying their respects to the 26-year-old security guard who was gunned down by police in a drug bust gone wrong. Officers nervous about security escorted his coffin through a side exit, sparking a melee with crowds who had been massing for hours in front of the Brooklyn church.

"This was the crux of the violence, the feeling that the police had unfairly shot a man and now we couldn't even say goodbye to him," said Garry Pierre-Pierre, editor of the Haitian Times, one of four newspapers serving the community. "It symbolizes the sense of violation that a lot of people here are now feeling: We're under siege from police, and so is our tradition. It's a very tense moment."

In a city teeming with immigrant cultures, New York's Haitian population has typically kept a low profile. Yet now, Dorismond's death and the case of Abner Louima--a Haitian who was brutalized in 1997 with a broomstick in a police precinct--have forced the community to focus on its day-to-day life in New York and to grapple with a rising sense of indignation.

Beyond the trauma of recent events, Haitians face problems similar to other newcomers. Leaders say the generally conservative community needs to mobilize itself politically for the long haul rather than for fleeting but dramatic street demonstrations, and there is a growing divide between older members, who stress the values of hard work and religion, and younger Haitians, who are more attuned to American urban life. Finally, there is the ever-present issue of race.

"We are really stigmatized, more so I think than African Americans," said Rosemanie Saint Elien, a 29-year-old graduate student in social work who emigrated when she was 14. "We have three strikes against us: We're black. We're Haitians. And some people think we're just an ignorant and poor community. They're so wrong."

Many of the greater New York area's estimated 500,000 Haitians fled persecution in their Caribbean homeland, one of the world's poorest nations, and most are greatly relieved to be living in the United States. Still, they have seemed far more focused on news from Haiti--which was rocked last week with protests over demands for new elections--than on news about fraying police-community relations in Brooklyn.

As the attention shifts, initial efforts to mend fences in New York failed. Members of the Haitian clergy walked out of a meeting with Police Commissioner Howard Safir on Thursday, angered that he refused to apologize to Dorismond's family for the shooting, which police called an accident. Leaders also wanted to open a dialogue on policing practices in their neighborhoods.

"We told him the credibility of our negotiations hinges on his [giving an] apology, to mark a new beginning," said Msgr. Guy Sansari of St. Jerome's Catholic Church. "We expected for him to admit there were some mistakes made."

For some, one irony is overwhelming: Several years ago, President Clinton tabbed former New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to supervise the training of a new Haitian police force, with special emphasis on neighborhood policing.

On a recent morning, shoppers along Nostrand Avenue in the heart of Brooklyn's Haitian neighborhood went about their business, and the aroma of fritay, fried pork with plantains, filled the air. But some also stopped to stare at banner headlines on the Dorismond case. One man glared at a front page, then spat angrily on the street; others watched warily as police cars cruised the area.

The unease is underscored by the fact that Dorismond and Louima came from prominent families. Dorismond's father, Andre, is a well-known singer of Caribbean pop, and Louima's uncle, Philous, is an influential reverend in the Haitian Evangelical Church. Both sons were seen as examples of a new generation of Haitians in America; the idea that they could be treated so brutally has created shock waves.

"What happened to Patrick Dorismond could have happened to my 21-year-old boy. . . . It's a Haitian parent's worst nightmare," said Lola Poisson, who runs a community service center and is working with other parents to educate their children about dealing with the NYPD. "Sometimes my imagination goes overboard and I have images of my son shot dead on the street. . . . He tells me that he knows how to take care of himself, but Patrick Dorismond probably felt the same."

Dorismond, an unarmed security guard, was shot two weeks ago in a scuffle with plainclothes officers, who approached and asked if he had drugs to sell. He became angry, and an officer's gun went off during the altercation, police said. The shooting is under investigation by the Manhattan district attorney's office, and several officers have reportedly told investigators that Dorismond may not have known he was struggling with police officers. Meanwhile, tensions have escalated in the wake of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's attack on Dorismond's character. Although the mayor has softened his stance in recent days, he has refused to apologize for releasing the dead man's rap sheet, nor has he apologized to the family.

The case has been a severe jolt for Haitian Americans, many of whom live in Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood, along with immigrants from Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and other West Indian countries. While Haitians have resided in the city for decades, their numbers swelled in the 1960s, when Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier took over the Caribbean nation in a bloody coup; the exodus grew in the 1980s, when new violence erupted and boatloads of Haitians came to New York, as well as Miami, Boston, Montreal, Toronto and parts of New Jersey.

Like many newly arrived New Yorkers, Haitians have had difficulties adjusting to their new world. Older Haitians speak French and Creole and read foreign-language newspapers, but the Haitian Times and other publications are appealing to a more upscale, English-speaking readership. The Haitians run the gamut from taxi drivers and construction laborers to shopkeepers and a small but burgeoning professional class of doctors, lawyers and educators.

"We are a very conservative community, by and large, but we have to accept that our children are being integrated into the American experience," said Francoise Pierre-Louis, director of the church-based Community Action Project. "In the future, there will be a need for us to get much more involved in American affairs and make our voices heard."

There's no shortage of media outlets: Haitians are served by a multitude of radio and TV stations broadcasting in English, French and Creole. Community members belong to a range of church and community organizations that look out for their interests on immigration problems, Haitian political conditions and social service needs. Many residents live in neighborhood clusters similar to the villages and cities they left back home, and leaders often tap this network for contributions to help with floods and other natural disasters in Haiti, plus charity drives.

They also use the network for political organizing, said Ricot Dupuy, manager of Radio Soleil, a popular FM station. When church or political leaders want to mount a demonstration, he said, they contact members of these groups through telephone calls and Sunday sermons, asking them to spread the word.

"We Haitians love the streets, and we know how to use them for peaceful demonstrations," Dupuy noted.

The community used these tactics in New York to fill the Brooklyn Bridge with demonstrators--in 1990 to protest the Food and Drug Administration's stigmatizing of Haitian blood donors in the AIDS crisis and in 1997 to vent their anger over the Louima case.

"We let our guard down after the attack on Louima, when the police promised to make reforms and the court trials took place," said Poisson. "We all kind of went to sleep and then we all woke up when the Dorismond shooting happened."

In the Louima case, two officers were convicted of the assault and three others were found guilty of conspiring to cover up the crime. When the attack came to light, Giuliani and Safir replaced the top brass of the 70th Precinct and assigned more minority officers to the area.

Many Haitians voted for Giuliani three years ago, praising his crackdown on crime, according to Pierre-Pierre. In doing so, they overlooked a controversial 1982 incident when Giuliani was a high-ranking official in the Justice Department under President Reagan. Giuliani said there was "no political repression" in Haiti following a brief visit with President Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier; he testified in a court hearing against 2,100 refugees in U.S. detention camps who claimed they had come to this country to flee persecution.

"People remembered that, but they were willing to forgive," said Pierre-Pierre. "We come from a dictatorship back home, and we understand that people sometimes have to say things and follow orders. But now the mayor has made us very angry--and this is one community he cannot abuse."


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