Special to South Florida Times
For those who do not associate black people with the rapidly growing Occupy Wall Street movement, some followers in Miami want to set the record straight.
“From the very beginning there have been black people with Occupy Miami,” said Michael Thilome, 26, a Haitian American who plays a key role in organizing and conducting the group’s daily assembly meetings at its base in downtown Miami.
Thilome also handles much of the formal business, including getting a permit to pitch tents outside County Hall, the Stephen P. Clark Government Center, 111 NW First St.
“Blacks have been very vocal and very visible,” said Thilome, who has a business degree from Florida Memorial University.
With 14,000 fans on its Facebook page, Occupy Miami has attracted hundreds of people who are donating time, money and food.
The Miami group is one of several offshoots of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which began on Sept. 16 in Liberty Square in Manhattan’s Financial District over a range of issues, including lack of jobs and what are seen as excesses on Wall Street. The movement has spread to 1,500 cities around the world, including 100 U.S. cities.
Other cities in the tri-county area have also launched “occupy” efforts. In Fort Lauderdale, 300 people marched on Oct. 8 to support the national movement. Another march took place on Oct. 15 and a third is planned at the boat show on Oct. 27.
Although protestors have used Bubier Park, 32 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, and Equality Park in Wilton Manors for daily gatherings, this group has yet to set up tents as “occupiers.” Last week Broward County Mayor Sue Gunzburger met with the group, after which she formally proclamed Oct. 22 “Occupy Fort Lauderdale Day.”
Occupy Palm Beach is headquartered in Flagler Park in downtown West Palm Beach. Occupiers do not yet have a permit to erect a tent city but some protestors have camped out in the park on weekends with no interference from police.
No matter the location, occupy protestors blame major banks and multinational corporations and the Wall Street infrastructure, at large, for creating the nation’s economic problems. They include the frustrated unemployed and underemployed, college graduates who have degrees but no jobs and people who have lost or are about to lose their homes because they no longer can afford the mortgage.
The Miami group, which organizers say includes about 65 to 75 regulars, formed a couple of weeks after the New York City movement. As in most big-city protests, supporters have pitched tents at their base location and are pledging to “occupy” their
positions until the demonstrations end.
The core group comprises people in the 18-30 age range from a variety of professions and economic circumstances. “Some of the most active members are African Americans,” said a group facilitator who asked to be identified by his business name, Kevin Kage.
“It’s such a mixed bag,” said Kage, who is not black. “I’m a small business owner but we have people here who are employed by banks, we have real estate developers, even registered lobbyists, working with us. And then we have quite a few people who are unemployed and laid off for whatever reasons.”
Jermaine Ford, 29, is black, unemployed and homeless. He was a restaurant steward at the Villa By Barton G., a boutique luxury hotel in the former Versace Mansion on Miami Beach. He started working last November and was fired in September after missing work for a few days to attend to what he said was a family emergency. Ford lives in the Harbor House homeless shelter at Northwest 10th Street and Third Avenue, in walking distance from County Hall.
He spends each day helping another black organizer, Michelle Wade, in the kitchen and returns to the homeless shelter before his daily 9 p.m. curfew.
Black participation in the occupy movement should not be viewed as a case of blacks joining a white movement, Ford said. “We’ve been struggling for a long time,” he said, referring to the Civil Rights Movement. “These white folks are starting to see what we have been talking about and marching about for years.”
Ford said it is important for black people to lend their voices and support the cause.
“We need our voices to be heard. We need to speak for ourselves,” he said. “We’ve been suffering the longest.”
Wade, 21, is one of the black college students who have become occupiers. During the day, she attends nearby Miami Dade College’s Wolfson campus, where she is a first-year psychology major. Before returning to work at the tent city kitchen, she checks on her daughters, Journey, 3 months, and Chyanne, 4, who are staying with a relative.
On Saturday, Wade prepared pancakes for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch. While she was deciding on dinner, a donation of 30 containers of hot vegetable soup came in from Tap Tap, a Haitian restaurant on Miami Beach.
“We get donations from everywhere,” said Wade, who records each donation and the donor’s name on a yellow notebook pad. “People are thinking that blacks are not involved in this. It’s not even like that.”
Wade estimates up to 20 people, about a third of the occupiers living in tents, are black. Even more blacks are helping out, she said.
Among them is Terrence Dagher, 39, who provided two portable toilets for the Miami tent city. The facilities are welcome at Occupy Miami, where, as of Oct. 25, occupiers had pitched 55 tents that scores of them now call home. When the occupiers first moved in earlier in October, there were only about 10 tents, Kage said.
At the camp, occupiers read, play chess and checkers and talk about what they regard as their mission. They repeatedly refer to the one percent of Americans who own 60 percent of the nation’s wealth. It is an equation the occupiers want to change.
The movement’s black participants also want to change the notion that African Americans are sitting on the sidelines.
“We are welcoming and affirm everybody,” Thilome said. “We are here to represent the 99 percent.”
Gee Yawson, 28, a second-year PhD student at Florida International University, travels back and forth from the university, where she is specializing in legal anthropology. She goes home to shower and study and has been a part of Occupy Miami for a week.
“Black people should be involved,” Yawson said. “It’s not a Latino issue, it’s not a white issue, it’s an American issue. After the Civil Rights Movement, black people have become silent. This is a great opportunity to continue the strategic and progressive civil rights that have been started for us.”
Renita “Biggy Mama” Holmes, 49, hails the efforts of the occupiers at the group’s daily meeting, she calls on the occupiers to “keep it real.”
“These kids mean well but I’m not going to watch this occur without our input,” she said, referring to the black poor who live in struggling communities. “I don’t want people to mediate on my behalf without my inclusion. Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Miami. How about occupy 61st Street?”
Holmes has given the occupiers tours of Liberty City and Overtown, pointing out dilapidated housing, contaminated waste sites and neighborhood pockets frequented by the homeless.
Paulette Darow, also a community activist, said she too insists on being part of the occupy effort.
“I have been a community organizer for 26 years and I have been with them since day one. They are young, they are children,” Darow said of some of the participants. “I feel I have to help them.” Darow, who lives in Liberty City, spends some nights in a tent.
Like Holmes, Darow said the occupiers need to be aware of the communities surrounding them.
“They need to occupy the ’hood,” she said, referring to black neighborhoods.
But Thilome said the occupy movement is not about taking over any one area. He said that while some of the occupiers are young, many others have what he called “a strong activist presence.”
“We have had people who have helped us and have been active for decades. We don’t want to limit ourselves to any particular community,” he said. “Yes, we are targeting young people and college people. And black people are part of that. We don’t feel the need to specifically target the black community alone. We are too busy targeting everyone.”
Photo: JAMES FORBES/FOR SOUTH FLORIDA TIMES
FEEDING TIME: Michelle Wade, right, gets ready to feed Occupy Miami participants with the help of Yuleidy Gonzalez on Oct. 22 outside the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown Miami.