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U.N. Expert Investigates Racism in Florida

Muslima Lewis,
ACLU of Florida
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June 3, 2008

During his 1-1/2 day visit to Miami, Mr. Doudou Diène, U.N. Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, race discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, was presented with a detailed, and frequently emotional, picture of the many forms and textures of race discrimination and racism in Miami and Florida, generally.

The visit began with a tour of urban Miami, during which he saw the stark juxtaposition of affluent communities and the communities of color that were deliberatively and systematically destroyed to make room for condos, art galleries and commercial retail developments. Mr. Diène saw and heard much about Overtown. Famous performers like Count Basie and Billie Holiday were frequent visitors to Overtown and stayed there after their Miami Beach performances (since Jim Crow laws barred them from hotels on the Beach). As Mr. Diène witnessed the blight, disappearing stock of public and affordable housing, and the boarded up businesses, he heard about the efforts to destroy this once vibrant African-American community. Not only was it was dissected by I-95 (one of our tour guides pointed to a concrete support pillar for I-95 which now stands on the site of the home she grew up in), but neglect, aggressive (but unequally enforced) code enforcement practices, aggressive policing, and the fraudulent siphoning of tax dollars to private developers all were tools used to undermine the community’s infrastructure and displace its residents. Overtown activists and residents described their dedicated fight to preserve and regain control of this historic neighborhood.

On Monday, Mr. Diène conducted a series of public hearings.

The first presenters painted a picture of Miami from all perspectives of the African diaspora: Afro-Cuban, African-American, African, Haitian, and English-speaking Caribbean.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Diène heard compelling testimony from Latino and African American domestic and agricultural workers. A third generation farmworker told how the ground near Lake Apopka that she literally crawled on for decades had been contaminated by pesticides; she spoke emotionally about the resulting deaths of Lake Apopka farmworkers and how the government is pouring resources into addressing the impact that the decades of pollution have had on the alligators and birds of the region, but no resources at all are being used to address the deadly toll that the pesticides have taken on the women and men who worked the contaminated land.

A domestic worker described the inhumane treatment experienced by the many women who leave their families and home countries lured by false promises. She talked emotionally about how she and others were denied adequate food and water and forced to work 16-17 hour days with very little time off.

Prize-winning author Edwidge Danticat told the story of her uncle, Joseph Dantica, the family patriarch and a leader of his Haitian community and congregation. In 2004, at the age of 81, he was forced to flee Haiti when U.N. soldiers chose to use the rooftop of his church to wage a fire fight with gang members, who later sought retribution against him. Despite having a multiple-entry visa that allowed him to come in and out of the U.S. freely for 30 years, Joseph Dantica was detained upon his entry in the U.S. and his medicines for high blood pressure and heart problems were taken away. He died in DHS custody. (Independent medical experts attribute his death to the fact that he was not allowed to take the medications on which he had relied for years.)

Mr. Diène’s visit ended with a description of the rise of Islamophobia, and the overt (and often officially sanctioned) hate-mongering that flourishes in the U.S. during this post-9/11 era.

Most compelling and moving was the testimony from and about the strong and unyielding women and men directly impacted by racism and race discrimination in Florida – people who refuse to be victims or defeated, but instead use their own experiences to fight for the dignity of all and for the empowerment of their communities.

(Note: to ensure the privacy of the people who spoke with Mr. Diène, their stories are described here only with their express permission.)

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