At about one o’clock a.m. last night, I got a call that the Umoja Shantytown had burned to the ground. The call came from an a friend, someone tied into the haphazard network of activists that came together around the common cause of the shantytown. “I’m in for the long haul,” she said. “I’ll stay all night to help out.”
But when I got there, between 1:30 and 2:00 a.m., there wasn’t much helping out to do. Umoja Village had been built out of thin wooden palettes and cardboard – the whole place had burned to the ground; there wasn’t a scrap left. The lot– which had once housed the Scott Carver Homes, then nothing, and then the ambitious, defiant shantytown – had been soaked down by the Fire Department and the air for blocks smelled like wet, burnt wood.
Across the street from the scene of the disaster, the residents were gathered in a parking lot. The Homeless Assistance Center’s Al Brown was on the scene with a van, offering transport to the HAC’s shelter. A few people took it, most didn’t –Umoja’s idealistic core was a do-it-yourself mentality that rejected Miami’s inadequate solutions to the housing shortage. In that spirit, the residents wandered the parking lot comforting each other and declaring every now and then their intention to rebuild Umoja. It was a little like a funeral, without the corpse.
And like any Umoja event, the young activist-types were there as well. Although their presence tends to be ignored in the press – earnest college kids don’t make for such compelling interviews as down-and-out homesteaders – they’ve played a big part in Umoja’s successful and clever media campaign. They had come out to the fire in the middle of the night, on a few minutes’ notice, and were busy helping out, coordinating, calling friends -- trying, like the residents, to be hopeful.
Still, it didn’t seem clear to anybody what, exactly, needed to be done – one busy-seeming fellow asked me, less than politely, to find a convenience store and buy some bread to make bologna sandwiches. At that point, it was past two o’clock in the morning: I declined.
In the midst of it all was Max Rameau, the founder of Umoja Village, the logistics man behind the day-to-day survival of the shantytown and the mastermind and public face of the movement that Umoja represented. At first, Rameau seemed to be impossibly calm about the whole thing. He mingled with residents, activists, and journalists; when a prayer was called, Rameau wandered up alone out of some corner of the lot, and joined the circle, clasping hands with two Umoja residents.
But Rameau wasn’t as calm as he looked. When asked what he was going to do, Rameau looked back with gleaming eyes, and said without flinching, “What do you mean?” It was as if he had been asked what his plans were for next winter.
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“We’re sleeping here,” he finally said, looking out towards the soaked, burnt, empty lot. “We’re sleeping here tonight and rebuilding in the morning.”
His words – which he fully intends to carry out – belie the real challenge that faces Umoja and its newly homeless residents. The excuse that the city has been waiting for to remove the shantytown has come. Today, police had taped off the area and arrested several activists – Rameau included – for putting up tents on the lot in defiance of police orders. Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, who was initially against letting the shantytown remain where it was, seems more ready than ever to turn a cold shoulder to the project for good. ''Thank God nobody was hurt,'' she told the Herald. "This has always been my concern. The first time I went out there I saw those candles in these cardboard and wood boxes and it concerned me."
Reverend Richard Dunn of the Cathedral of Hope Church, a prominent figure in Liberty City politics, says he’s against the rebuilding of Umoja as well. “We support in principal what the Umoja village has done. We think they’ve made a tremendous effort, and shown in a very open way that the problem with Miami-0adade housing is deplorable. Millions of dollar has been squandered, and I think Max has done a marvelous job. . .but when you look at safety issues, especially in light of the fact that hurricane season is right around the corner, you will continue to have these kinds of things. And the next time around we might not be as blessed. It was a miracle that one lost their lives.”
Max Rameau is no fool -- it will take more than plywood, cardboard, and nails to rebuild Umoja, and he knows it. --Isaiah Thompson