Friday, November 22, 2002

Guess who photographed Rev. Al Sharpton today? That would be me. There are all kinds of civil rights violations here, and he was here as part of a protest.

I don't know if I can tell you this without crying, and as much as I would like to go to bed tonight and not think about this, I think I have to get this out. This is scary, and it's all true, as far as I or anyone else at the Hiami Merald knows. I couldn't make this up; it's too horrible. Ya'll might want to skip this one and reread the NASCAR stories. (rueful smile)

A boat of Haitian refugees arrived here about a month ago. The immigration laws are really biased and bizarre here. Essentially, if you are Cuban, and you make it to shore without "help" from the Coast Guard, you receive a "Credible Fear" hearing within three days. If you can demonstrate that you have a "credible fear" of persecution in Cuba, you are released into the community with an 8-month window of opportunity in which you are assigned "alien status." In those 8 months, if you apply for a job and find housing, you have the opportunity to get a green card. If you get a green card, you study and work and become a U.S. citizen. If you are "helped" by the Coast Guard before you reach the shore, the Coast Guard will usuually just turn right back to Cuba and drop you off.

If you are Haitian, and the Coast Guard gets to you before you get to shore, they may return you to Haiti or they may arrest you and bring you into the States. IF they arrests them, in theory, the Haitian refugees are entitled to the same opportuities as Cuban and other Carribbean refugees. However, it has never happened that way.

FIRST, A QUICK BACK STORY- A year ago, a boat from Haiti was "helped" by the Coast Guard. The refugees were brought to the U.S. mainland. The men and women were taken to a high security prison. The children were separated from their parents and taken 12 hours away to Tallahassee. 90% of these refugees proved they had a credible fear. They were held for four months without being released. No one told them, the press, or human rights' groups why they were not released.

After four months, thirty women claimed they were beaten and raped. They were transferred to a maximum security prison. Only one guard was found guilty "by internal sources" and dismissed. The women were not allowed to see lawyers, and those who were were only given one hour- ONE HOUR- per week for 25 women to meet with one lawyer. Other lawyers were repeatedly denied access.

Remember that these people I am telling you about have not committed egregious crimes, murdered anyone or anything other than come here and try to apply for political asylum.

Neither the men nor the women had any way to call back to Haiti to tell their loved ones if they made it, where they were, or what happened, until local politicians procurred calling cards for them. The women were only allowed 1 hour of "recreation" every three days. If they had to go to the bathroom during "recreation," they were not allowed back into the recreation area. The phones in the waiting area did not work, so if they wanted to speak with any visitors, including their children and spouses, they had to lay on the floor and talk through the three inches of space against the floor. If they were on the floor, they could not make eye contact; however, visits were seldom permitted anyway. At first, the women were not allowed to contact their husbands still at the high security prison.

The priosners were supposed to be allowed private visits with their spouses once a week. They were supposed to be in a monitored, private room (no windowns, but sound proof with a guard outside but no security cameras). When advocates finally got the department of corrections to allow the women to visit their spouses, they were forced to have the visits in a public hallway. They were not allowed to contact their children, (still held 12 hours away). All prisoners, including convicted felons, in this maximum security prison are allowed two hours a week of time to meet with court-appointed clergy people. For six months, the women were denied this right, until advocates demanded it.

Naturally, politicians, advocates and celebrities got really, really angry. After the Haitian refugees had been held in these unexplained, unnecessary, really f*cked up conditions for 8 months, they were put on maximum suicide watch. The one time I was allowed to go with a group of press, politicians and advocates, it was... I have never been so frightened by any human being's eyes the way I was that day. They kept saying that they wished the boat had just capsized so they could have drowned with their loved ones [in shark-infested waters] and been spared this indignity.

Then Danny Glover got involved. The INS of Florida said the decisions to do all of this were coming down from the "very highest levels of government." Danny Glover said he would go to Washington the following Monday. That very night, all of the refugees were wakened and without warning of any kind, sent back to Haiti. The government will still not confirm or deny whether the children in Tallahassee were reunited with their families.

This all happened in September of this year.

A month ago, another boat of refugees arrived. They were from a town that's quite close to where the refugees whose story I just told you came from. They knew this story, but the situation in Haiti is so desperate that they decided to risk it anyway. Their boat ran ashore off the Rickenbacker Causeway, the main artery from a frighteningly wealthy island attached to Miami proper by suspension bridges. About 300 refugees saw the Coast Guard coming and tried to make a break for it.

Elderly people were throwing cans of food and clothing overboard. Parents were jumping in and having thier infants tossed to them. They ran onto the bridges. The Coast Guard closed the bridges for four hours in order to "catch" all of the Haitian refugees. The refugees were running up to taxicabs, begging drivers to let them in.

The refugees were nearly all caught, shackled and forced to line up on the side of the highway. The children were taken from their parents. They are in a hotel in Ft. Lauderdale. Their parents are in the prison where the previous 30 women were raped less than a year ago. The children, some of them only 8-months-old, are being held in the hotel. They are not allowed to play outside. They have not seen or spoken to their parents since they saw them shackled by the side of the highway. The INS will not tell the press, or anyone else, who is caring for the children.

Human rights groups are trying to take educational toys, letters from the parents reassuring the children that they are okay, and familar foods to the children. The human rights groups are denied.

The human rights' groups are trying to send people who speak Creole in to talk to the children, because they can't be certain that whoever is caring for them even speaks creole. They are trying to send bilingual teachers into the children, so they can at least spend the time while they are detained learning the basics of English and math. They are denied.

The human rights' groups ask if the children, who went for four days without little to eat or drink on the way here and who do not own shoes, including when they ran ashore and up onto the highway- a highway with gravel and broken glass and all the things highways have- have had medical exams. No one will tell them, OR the press, for that matter anything.

So Al Sharpton is here. The Nation of Islam is here. Trans-Afrika (formed to end apartheid and free Nelson Mandela) is here. Every Human Rights watchdog group you can think of is here. Gov. Bush says that "we must guard our borders from invasion." He said that we must be careful because terrorists might use similar methods (coming from Haiti disguised as desperate refugees? Really? You think?) to get into the U.S.

Welcome to America, the "best nation in the world," says the governor's brother. Honestly, the screaming children being taken from their shackled parents, the refugees being filtered into two lines- to me, it's really remniscent of "Schindler's List."

I just don't know what to do, except go out and cover every protest, working every situation I shoot so hard, knowing that the stronger the images I shoot, the better play they will get in the newpspaper, hoping my four columns tomorrow will help educate someone, anyone who might be able to help in a tangible way, and show 400,00 readers that there are people protesting this, using their voices, shouting that they can't take anymore, that until there is justice, there will be no peace.

And I called H. I wanted to record the sounds of nonviolent protesters using their voices for justice onto her voice mail, as she has recorded sounds of musicians who inspire me performing in concerts onto my answering machine in the past, because I know she can pray, and I just can't.

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