Max Rameau, Activist Behind Umoja Village, Takes His Project To DC

​In 2007, amid the champagne-drenched corporate orgy known as the Super Bowl, a busload of reporters found itself on a very different kind of junket. Rather than locker-rooms full of millionaire fat guys, the journalists tiptoed through cardboard shacks populated by penniless homeless men. Instead of boozy SoBe parties, they snapped photos of a trash-strewn lot on NW 62nd Street.

Their stories showed the world the flip side to Ocean Drive's celebrity playground thanks to the vision of Max Rameau, Miami's best land rights activist. Alas, the Magic City's loss became the nation's gain last week when Rameau packed up for Washington, D.C.

Rameau -- whose move comes after his partner got a civil rights litigation job in the capital -- is already using his Take Back the Land group's fights in Miami fights as templates for similar battles from Wisconsin to New York.

"We've made an impact here," Rameau says. "Obviously, I wish lasting change were easier to come by."

Rameau made his mark early with groups like CopWatch, which pressured the city to establish the Civilian Investigative Panel after a round of cop shootings.

But his true genius was in tackling homeless issues in Overtown and Liberty City. In 2006, after the Miami Herald exposed the corruption behind a public housing morass, he organized dozens of homeless men to build a camp at NW 62nd Street and 17th Avenue. He named the shantytown after the Swahili word for unity and found a loophole in the law that prevented furious commissioners from kicking the men out.

When the village burned down a year later, he helped the homeless squat in vacant housing projects. (Rameau also earned Best of Miami nods for best gadfly and best hero over the years.)

In recent months, Rameau has led similar squatting protests in Rochester, New York; and Madison, Wisconsin. Amid a simmering foreclosure mess, it's important work he'll spearhead from D.C.

In Miami, though -- where just last year commissioners tried to outlaw vagrancy near the American Airlines Arena -- Rameau's debate-igniting stunts will be sorely missed.

"Umoja Village challenged our sense of what was possible here," he says. "People realized you don't have to ask the government to change -- you can force it to change."

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