The Catalyst

Marleine Bastien -- activist, social worker, songwriter, mother -- is helping to lead the resurgence of South Florida's Haitian political agenda

"At this point I'm not feeling like you're listening to me," Baxter said, appearing close to tears. "I'm trying to take all this back to my boss and have a discussion."

Again the aide asked what additional compromise the Haitians would be willing to make if that were necessary to save the bill. Again they told her they couldn't accept any change.

Everyone stood up and pulled the clustered chairs away from the table to make room for Baxter to leave. Several in the group remarked on the distress they had unintentionally caused her. "All those black people around her made her feel threatened," one observed, and the others nodded. Their mood, amid the bantering workers bustling by with loaded trays, was subdued. They were tired after two days of walking and talking, and they didn't know what they had to show for it when they caught the flight back to Miami that evening.

A few hours later Bastien, Lafortune, Broward activist Aude Sicard, and Little Haiti businessman Georges William encountered Ernesto Ramos, a veteran aide to Carrie Meek, at the Washington Convention Center. Meek was appearing on a panel at the Congressional Black Caucus's annual convention. Ramos excitedly motioned the four into an empty meeting room. Top Democrats, he said, including House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, were actively pushing the bill, and support within the conference committee (for the legislation passed by the Senate, not a compromise) now looked almost certain. "This morning [Bob] Graham and Gephardt were talking only about that legislation," Ramos added happily. "They're pushing for this. Gephardt said, 'I'll be with you.'"

"Wow," Bastien said warily, still mindful of the bill's seesawing fortunes. "That's the best news we've heard since we've been working on this thing."

In the taxi to the airport that evening, Bastien and Sicard reminisced about a December 1997 mass lobbying trip to Washington, an event meant for visual impact, unlike the more frequent, smaller delegations better suited for person-to-person contacts. Scores of Haitians from Miami, Chicago, New York, and Boston split up and poured into the congressional office buildings. The Miami contingent included dozens of factory and nursing-home workers sent by the labor union UNITE! whose membership is heavily Haitian. "There were all kinds of Haitians going down the halls of Congress," Sicard recalled. "A hundred people going from one senator's office to another. Older people, young kids, a six-month-old baby."

"Then we went to see a debate on the floor of the Senate," Bastien added. "People were so proud -- it was the first time they had lobbied for themselves. In the past somebody would come back to the [Haitian] community and say, 'I went to Washington and did this and that,' and that's the last anyone heard. This movement is like all civil rights movements. The people are at the heart of it."

Back in Miami on September 22, Hurricane Georges was approaching; in Washington, the legislation was still in conference committee. The Grassroots Committee decided to call a candlelight vigil in Little Haiti as a statement of resolve. Inside the Veye Yo (Watch Them) center on NE 54th Street, committee members passed out form letters of support for the bill. A loudspeaker pumped out ra-ra, a form of Haitian popular music, as the street filled with people. Hand-lettered signs dotted the crowd: "Jeb Bush Be Our Champion!" "We Support Meek's Bill," "Equal Treatment for Haitians." The people, about 300 in all, were solidly working class: mothers in shorts and tank tops toting babies in lacy dresses, men in brightly patterned shirts and pressed trousers.

As the sky turned from azure to indigo, the vigil organizers gathered around the center's entrance. Framed by yellow light from inside, Lafortune, Sicard, Bastien, and Tony Jean Tenor and Lavarice Gaudin of Veye Yo passed around a microphone. Bastien spoke last.

"For months now we've been fighting," she said. "Since December we've traveled to Washington, we've written thousands of letters to members of Congress telling them that Haitians will not sit down, Haitians will not rest, until we get justice." As she continued, alternating between Creole and English, her speech became rhythmic, sermonlike. "We will resist. We will continue to fight, because our fight is right. We will continue to fight until we get our green cards. Lamar Smith told us that Haitians are treated better than other groups. Have we received what we deserve? No!"

And as they had done in many rallies over the months, the crowd began chanting in response to Bastien's calls.

"Have we received equal treatment?"
"Are we treated better?"
"What do we want?"
"When do we want it?"

Over and over, Bastien called and the people responded. Then she and others grabbed bunches of candles of all lengths and colors, and they were passed from hand to hand. Little flames began to bob through the thick hot air. "We're going to do the procession in an orderly way," Lafortune instructed the crowd. "Three by three, follow Marleine."

The line spread east down 54th Street and then curled back like a snake, with Bastien, flanked by two elderly women in flower-print dresses, at the head. Finally the singing began, accented by high-pitched cries and whoops from the women. The first song was the one sung at nearly every rally for the past year. The tune is a Haitian folk melody, but Bastien had replaced the words with a simple refrain in Creole. "No, no, no, we're not going back," it begins. "If we go back, we will come back/America is ours, too.

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