Haul of Shame

Across Hialeah in the early morning darkness of October 21, more than 125 people awoke with the same purpose and pulled themselves from bed. Drawn from the ranks of the elderly and the unemployed, they shared a 7:00 a.m. rendezvous and, unknown to them at the time, a full day of "work" ahead of them. Several were infirm and walked with difficulty; for some the outing would be a welcome break from days filled with a steady regime of medical checkups. Arriving by car and foot they converged on the parking lot in front of a boarded-up supermarket in a plaza ringed by shopping centers and apartment complexes in western Hialeah. Those who drove left their cars there for the day.

Three buses idled in the lot on West Eighteenth Avenue and 49th Street, waiting to whisk the group downtown to the seat of county government, the chambers of the Board of County Commissioners, for a public hearing.

Before the commissioners that day was a controversial zoning application. It would determine whether a 360-acre dump near Miami Lakes, owned by a company called Peerless Dade, would be allowed to grow in height from 12 feet to 90 feet. As an incentive the company was promising eventually to build a neighborhood park atop the giant landfill. The deal involved big money and consequently attracted high-powered interest. If the commission voted in favor of expanding the landfill, politically connected backers of the zoning change stood to earn roughly $270 million over 30 years. Opposition to a bigger dump was also fierce, coming from neighborhood associations bankrolled in part by the billion-dollar company Waste Management, Inc. (The Texas-based conglomerate and Peerless are the two largest private landfill firms that dispose of construction and demolition material in Miami-Dade County.)

Although they were organized to favor the Peerless dump expansion, most of those boarding the buses had little clue what they were supporting, and why. What they did know was that they were promised $50. All they had to do was show up.

"We have no idea what this is about," said one woman, who requested anonymity. "This is the way politics are done here."

In Hialeah it is an open secret that people are paid to be instant supporters of politicians and issues. One politician of Cuban origin who is disdainful of the practice says such people often are called claques, Cuban slang that can mean "garbage" or "the lower class." But the practice of manufacturing -- and paying for -- grassroots "support" is so prevalent and long-standing in South Florida that the slur is hardly fair.

On the bus the "instant supporters" were given dark-green T-shirts and baseball caps. Some put the shirts on over the clothes they wore. Others stripped down in the bus, leaving their undergarments behind when they went to the commission. Written across the front of the jerseys in white letters was the slogan "We're for the park." On the back was printed "A park is in our future. Let's work together."

Organizers told the bus riders little about what those sayings signified. They were informed they were assembled to support the noble idea of a park for children. The whole process would take only three hours, one recalls the organizer assuring them. A man who a participant identified as Hialeah activist Carlos "Cuco" Carcas also advised the people in green not to talk to any outsiders once the bus riders arrived. (Carcas says he only helped bring his friends from Miami Lakes, North Miami, and the edge of Hialeah. He denies paying them or telling them not to talk.)

By 8:30 a.m. the three buses had pulled in front of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center; they were joined by another that had fetched people from South Miami and West Miami. In addition a number of employees of Peerless and their families were on hand. They filed into the government center. Only some were allowed into commission chambers, where they filled a far-right section of seats. Because they were so many, others waited patiently on the ground floor for the hearing to begin. Eventually folding chairs were produced for those outside the chambers.

Opponents of the dump also arrived in equal numbers, dressed in white T-shirts that read "Miami Lakes Country: Keep it Clean." Those in white were furious about the possibility of a larger garbage dump in their neighborhood; they derided their green-shirted opponents. We weren't paid to be here, insisted Gerri Fontanella, although some who supported the Peerless effort disputed that claim.

When pressed, participants in green were vague and confused about the relationship between a landfill and a county park. A young man from West Miami who declined to be named explained it like this: "They are going to tear down a park in Miami Gardens and put up a waste dump."

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Jacob Bernstein
Contact: Jacob Bernstein