A Prefab Demonstration

Rev. Al Sharpton was midway through his Haitian/Refugee/Solidarity speech on the steps of the Torch of Friendship at Bayside Marketplace during last Thursday's downtown protest rally, when he began rambling on about "Little Efrain." At first people looked at each other and scratched their heads: "What can the ninny be talking about?"

"We love our Haitian children just like they loved little Efrain," Sharpton exclaimed with thunderous righteousness. "We have to show love for all our children, not just the Little Efrains of the world!"

After some nudges and whispers from someone standing behind him, the Rev corrected himself: "If they can love Elian, then they can love the Haitian children too," the 2004 presidential candidate managed, adjusting flawlessly.

In his next breath, Rev, as he's known by the New York media, flubbed again when he asserted that if President Bush could fight for Elian, then he should fight for the Haitian children, along with their parents and other black refugees being held "illegally" at Krome Detention Center. (Reminder to Al: Bush had nothing to do with Elian. It was the previous administration, led by his buddy and fellow Democrat Bill Clinton, who fought the good fight against el exilio two years ago.)

Sharpton's bumbling references, however, did not deter the hundreds of protesters who marched through the streets of downtown Miami demanding the release of over 200 Haitians being detained at Krome since their boat ran aground off Key Biscayne on October 29. Organized by the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition, the protest march included several different ideological organizations, ranging from the National Women's Political Caucus to Organizacion Hondureña Integrada, to Florida ACORN, to the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. The procession began at the Claude Pepper federal building off Flagler Street and Miami Avenue and concluded in front of Bayside Marketplace.

There Sharpton, along with several protesters, took shots at Bush in their effort to keep the pressure on his administration.

If nothing else, the organized rally signaled the growing political clout of Miami's Haitian-American community, and how politicians like Sharpton and Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jimmy Morales seized the moment to accrue future Haitian-American support in their aspirations for elected office. In addition a skirmish between Haitians denouncing Haiti's president and the rally's organizers revealed that, like Miami's Cuban-American community, Haitians dislike opposing points of view.

It was clear from the moment that Rev joined the marchers, as they rounded the bend from SE First Street onto Biscayne, that he was auditioning his presidential stump rap. "We want Bush to know that this is only the beginning," the Rev hollered at the crowd, putting some vibrato in it. "This is just a dress rehearsal. We can't do this with one march ... we must do more." (Maybe for the big act, Sharpton will actually lead a protest march the entire way, instead of hooking on once the tedium is nearly walked off.)

At least Morales, who's made no secret of his desire to run for county mayor in 2004, walked the entire procession, joining protesters' chants of "No freedom, no peace" and "Free them now!" with his own mellifluous baritone.

Later at the Torch of Friendship, Morales made a Rev-type proclamation: "We just walked two hours and we will walk all the way to Washington if we have to!" He was clearly learning from the master.

His appearance did not go unnoticed by local political analyst Dario Moreno. "I think it helps Jimmy," Moreno opined. "It helps him because the Haitians have a political machinery that is very similar to the Cuban-American machinery. They are a group that can mobilize quickly through their network of radio shows and grassroots activists. So when Morales runs for mayor, by reaching out to the Haitians, it will help mobilize votes in their community. It's a politically astute move for him."

There is another attribute the Haitian-American political apparatus appears to share with the Cuban-American version: scant tolerance for dissension. As the protesters proceeded up SE First Street to Biscayne, a skirmish broke out when Fritz Pierre and Karyne Sylvestre tried to join the procession. The two Haitians were holding signs denouncing Jean-Bertrand Aristide when they were bumrushed by several pro-Aristide protesters. Miami police intervened and removed Pierre and Sylvestre from the street and the mob, as they were being violently cursed in Kreyol. (Aristide's government has been facing mounting criticism both locally and internationally since his second term began 21 months ago.)

"They refuse to acknowledge that Aristide is responsible for the exodus of refugees," a shaken Pierre said of the marchers.

Despite all the buffoonery -- which included black activist Ernestine Worthy throwing a hissy fit because organizer Max Rameau and other leaders barred her from joining the principal speakers on the podium -- real progress among the Haitians, Cubans, and other political groups was evident. Though at rally's end some glaring differences remained. The fact is, the Bush administration's policy toward Haitian asylum-seekers -- one of detainment and deportation -- is much harsher than it is toward any other group.

As Haitian Sonia Hylton put it succinctly: "There are two sets of immigration laws in this country. One for the Cubans; one for the rest of us."