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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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."