MIAMI — Local activists in the fight against racism tag-teamed with an international expert who’s expected to shed light on a social ill plaguing South Florida – racism.
On June 1 and 2, United Nations Special Rapporteur Doudou Diène headed south to Miami for a fact-finding mission on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance.
The invitation, extended by the U.S. government, was met with open arms by scores of agencies excited that their mission has been moved to the top of this country’s agenda.
“The UN Special Rapporteur is bringing international attention to racial dynamics in the United States,” said Sushma Sheth, director of programs at the Miami Workers Center, who spoke directly to Diène. “We’re also focusing on the new face of racial dynamics around islamaphobia.”
Sheth was one of many leaders of social organizations who discussed the volatile topic of racism with the special rapporteur.
Other organizations included the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Florida, American Muslim Association of North America (AMANA), Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (FANM) / Haitian Women of Miami, Farmworkers Association of Florida, Florida ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), Florida Immigration Advocacy Coalition (FIAC), the Florida State Conference NAACP-Miami-Dade Branch, Haitian American Grassroots Coalition (HAGC), Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence, Inc. (H.O.P.E., Inc.), the Miami-Dade County Office of the Public Defender, the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, the Miami Workers Center, Power U, and South Florida Jobs with Justice.
From May 18 until June 6, Diène has gathered facts, interviewed activists and compiled statistics regarding racism in America. In addition to Miami, his tour of duty took him to Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Omaha, Washington and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Stories of Racism Unravel
In Miami, the native of Senegal listened intensely and took notes as witnesses poured out personal and professional occurrences of horrific racially-charged incidents.
Edwidge Danticat, a noted author, got an opportunity to shed light on an unfortunate situation that affected one of her family members.
“On October 24, 2004, U.N. troops and Haitian police used the rooftop of my uncle’s church as a military staging point because of its high elevation,” Danticat said. “The troops attacked people in his neighborhood. After the troops left, the neighbors turned on him.’’
Danticat continued, “My uncle was able to escape to Miami where he had relatives. When he asked for temporary asylum, they detained him and took him to the Krome Detention Center. His medication for high blood pressure was taken away. He became ill and was transferred to Jackson Memorial Hospital. He wasn’t able to see a doctor until 24 hours later. Later that day, he died.”
One by one, community leaders presented facts and figures about human rights, criminal justice, racial profiling, and housing violations. But while those testifying tried to make their statements clear and concise, the special rapporteur also raised questions to ensure that he had a clear understanding of the overall issues in Miami.
“Are there any tensions between Haitians and Latinos?” asked Special Rapporteur Diène of Marleine Bastien, an advocate of Haitian rights.
“Haitians and Cubans have been able to collaborate because both groups come from the Caribbean,” said Bastien, founder and executive director of FANM/Haitian Women of Miami, Inc. “But when you grant (immigration) status to one group and not the other, this is what causes tension. It is disparate treatment. This is the kind of policy that causes friction and it must end.’’
Local agency leaders came seeking an end to other injustices that disproportionately affect people of color. Keenya Robertson, president and CEO of the Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence, Inc. (H.O.P.E., Inc.) noted that the largest civil rights crisis is the enormous amount of foreclosures. She also told of the blatant disrespect for African Americans, even when they are financially capable of purchasing the American Dream.
“In 2004 or 2005, three black families gave a down payment to have homes built in Miami Gardens,” said Robertson, who runs the agency that ensures fair and equal housing opportunities. “But when it was time to move into the homes, there were other non-black families living in the homes.
She added: “The families filed a federal lawsuit. Although they were given a settlement, it wasn’t enough for them to pursue purchasing another home because the price of housing had escalated out of their reach.’’
Report Due Next Year
The mandate of the special rapporteur on racism and related intolerance was established in 1993 by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and further extended by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
“I will do my best,” said Diène to everyone giving testimony. “If there is any type of action you would like to see, don’t hesitate to send those to me.”
The United Nations Special Rapporteur will submit a final report on his U.S. visit to the Human Rights Council in the spring of 2009.
Photo by Khary Bruyning. United Nations Special Rapporteur Doudou Diène