When Miami's black communities need help from the federal government, local black leaders are accustomed to calling the U.S. Justice Department's Community Relations Service. Since the days of the civil rights movement when it brokered deals to avoid confrontations between protest marchers and racist state governments in the South, the CRS has had a good record of mediating potentially violent situations.
But two weeks ago, the relationship was reversed: The CRS called a handful of community activists, asking them on two days' notice to convene at the federal building downtown. The subject, according to attendees, was the Clinton administration's treatment of Haitian and Cuban refugees at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo, Cuba. Tom Battles, a senior mediator in the local CRS office, read a prepared statement asserting that the separate camps of Haitian and Cuban refugees were being treated equitably. The new policy ending open-door immigration for Cubans, Battles added, meant there would be no Mariel-style influx of Cubans into Dade, and thus no loss of social services or job opportunities for blacks living in the area.
The local participants left the September 1meeting asking the same thing they'd asked when they arrived: What are we doing here?
"Why do you come to me for foreign policy?" chuckles Rev. H.C. Wilkes, executive director of the African American Council of Christian Clergy. "Heck, I am having a hard time trying to feed these folk on the street."
Ozell Sutton, the CRS's Atlanta-based regional director, says he requested that the local CRS office arrange the meeting, which included five blacks and one Haitian, along with two representatives from Gov. Lawton Chiles's office. (Besides the Reverend Wilkes, invited to the meeting were John Due, Metro-Dade's director of Black Affairs; Ray Fauntroy, president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Fauntroy's assistant Bernie Meyers; Sherwood DuBose, director of the Metro Miami Action Plan; and Reine Leroy, from the Transition and Education Center for Haitian Refugees.) The CRS was simply making sure area leaders were getting the facts about Clinton's policy and the conditions in Guantanamo, Sutton says. And, he adds, he was there to listen. "I wanted to know what is on their minds," says the CRS chief. "It's just that simple, nothing earthshaking."
The Earth didn't shake, but the air got hot, the participants assert, when most of them realized the meeting was spurred not by a desire for dialogue, but by the feds' fears that the Clinton administration's new policy might stir up a violent reaction in the black community.
Though Sherwood DuBose saw the meeting as "an important first step in sharing information with the community," his fellow attendees didn't see it that way. To begin with, says the Reverend Wilkes, "We were far from convinced of what they were telling us is happening and what will happen. We don't believe the Haitians are going to be treated fairly. It has not happened in the past and those guys are not going to convince us it will happen now." On the same day Tom Battles told them there would be no new Mariel-style influx of Cuban refugees to Dade, Wilkes adds, the administration was negotiating with the Castro regime to speed up the legal-immigration pipeline. "When they talk about speeding up the [visa] process, that still means that you end up with a flood of grown folk that got to be absorbed by the system," he says.
John Due arrived late, as Battles was asking for names of local Creole speakers who might be available to go to Guantanamo to calm Haitian detainees. "I felt the CRS was acting like the CIA, pushing the agenda of the government," says Due. "We were manipulated to push the government's interest, which is, 'We need some people to go to Guantanamo to shut the Haitians up.'"
For Ray Fauntroy, the credibility limit was reached when the group was told that the number of Haitian refugees, which had reached 14,000, was decreasing because Haitians were asking to go home. "The Haitians don't want to go back to Haiti when they know we are about to invade," Fauntroy grumbles. "And the Cubans are doing fine because they know they will get in [to the U.S.], anyway. So we said, 'Why are you playing this game?'"
The primary conflict between blacks and Cubans is not in Guantanamo, Due argues, but in Miami, where the two groups do not talk to each other. What they should be doing instead is working together for the human rights of all the refugees detained at the military base. Yet no Cubans were invited to the CRS meeting. "The Cubans are over here and the Haitian community is over there," says Due. "I was hoping the CRS would try to bring us together."
Instead they got a lecture about the party line, presented with an undercurrent of anxiousness about how the black community would take it. "Those who are supposed to have answers come to give you their agenda and then when you reject their agenda and [people] react violently to the agenda, they call you thugs," says the Reverend Wilkes. In the event of a Mariel-style Cuban influx, he adds, the leaders of the black middle class will not be there to maintain everyone's cool.
"I think Wilkes speaks for the alienation in the black middle class, who do not want to provide community leadership to keep people quiet, because we ain't gettin' nothin' out of it," John Due stresses.
At age 61, the CRS's Ozell Sutton is himself a veteran of the civil rights movement. Having been hired in 1950 as the first black journalist at an all-white metropolitan daily newspaper in the South, he chuckles at the concerns of the Miami leaders, most of whom he knows personally. Sutton says local CRS officials had indeed reported that tension was building in Miami, because of what blacks here saw as the Clinton administration's favorable treatment of Cuban refugees at the expense of Haitians. Though he denies there was any hidden agenda for the meeting, he says he isn't surprised that the group was looking for one. Their suspicions, Sutton adds dryly, represent the customary stance a civil rights leader adopts toward any government policy. His job with the Justice Department, he emphasizes, is to listen to the leaders' concerns and report back to Washington. "I have enough confidence in the black community that if I came back next week, they would come," Sutton laughs. "They might curse me out but they would come, and that is all I ask."
Reverend Wilkes suggests that next time the CRS bring something more to the table than the administration's forgone policy. "If you are going to try to make a fool out of somebody, you have to give them something," Wilkes counters. "They had me down there for an hour and a half right at dinnertime without any food in sight. A preacher always gets a dinner.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.
- Local Entrepreneurs Create New, College-Only Social Network
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:30pm
Sat., Oct. 17, 12:00am
Sat., Oct. 17, 10:00am
- ACLU at 50 Names Its Dozen Most Significant Cases for New Times
- Angry Florida Woman Arrested for Stealing Boyfriend's Fake Teeth