by Brian Concannon Jr.
Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest from Haiti, just does not know when to shut up. In the 1970’s he saw his people starved and persecuted while Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier lived in opulence, so he organized for change. The Duvalier regime responded as dictatorships do, and kicked him out of the country. When he reached Miami, Fr. Gerry saw that the safety he found there did not extend to immigrants locked up in detention centers or sent back to face torture or worse in Haiti and countries like it. So he organized there for change. He founded Florida’s Haitian Refugee Center to bring the struggle for justice to the U.S. courts, and coordinated demonstrations to bring the struggle to the streets.
The United States responded as democracies should: it let Fr. Gerry do his work, as long as he did not break the law. He did not win all the battles here that he should have- our laws and our courts are not perfect. But he was at least able to criticize and mobilize without fear of persecution, and sometimes even win.
Bill Quigley, a Catholic law professor from New Orleans, cannot stop helping people organizing for change. He has been a leading advocate for the victims of Katrina since he weathered the storm in a New Orleans hospital where his wife Debbie, a nurse, works, trying to help. The hospital patients did not need a lawyer then, but the families still without homes and the kids still without good schools need one now, so Bill is busy. In 30 years of public interest lawyering, Bill has stood up for a whole spectrum of people fighting for social justice, including peace protestors, death-row inmates and advocates for fair education, healthcare and housing.
Fr. Gerry brought the lessons he learned in the U.S. about non-violent organizing for social change back to Haiti. In early 2004, when the brutal, unconstitutional and U.S.-supported interim regime took over from Haiti’s elected government, Fr. Jean-Juste became the most prominent and respected political dissident. He denounced the killing of political opponents, the political arrests, the looting of public coffers and the tax breaks lavished on the wealthy while the poor starved. People listened, so the regime responded as dictatorships do, and arrested Fr. Gerry on trumped up charges, jailing him for over seven months. The authorities accused him of many things over the next two years- three murders, treason, gun possession, plotting against the state and criminal conspiracy, all without a shred of evidence or a single witness.
There was one charge — made by the police at one of Fr. Gerry’s arrests, but never in court — that might have stuck: disturbing public order. Where public order meant poor kids dying of hunger and young men massacred for living in a politically-active neighborhood, Fr. Gerry disturbed the order. He fed hundreds of children at his church to show that it could be done. He used his pulpit, the radio waves and the streets to denounce the repression, and remind people that there was a better way.
When Professor Quigley found out about Fr. Gerry’s first arrest, he could not help but go down to Haiti to help. Bill appeared in court alongside Fr. Gerry’s Haitian lawyer, Mario Joseph, and stood at Fr. Gerry’s side during particularly dangerous times. Bill was roughed up once trying to shield Fr. Gerry from a crowd before his second arrest, which he recounted in a July 2005 Common Dreams article. But the police and the courts always treated him with respect, always allowed him to do his job.
The American professor’s presence in court and at the police station was a potent reminder of how a government should respond to its critics. The police, prosecutors, judges, lawyers and even the defendant saw Bill as representing a justice system that rejected punishing people for their political opinions, tolerated dissent as long as it was expressed legally, and respected the right of lawyers to assist their clients.
Bill’s presence had a tangible impact. It helped give one judge the courage to release Fr. Gerry provisionally (the judge was forced off the bench the next month; Fr. Gerry was re-arrested eight months later). It helped bolster Attorney Joseph, who managed to obtain another provisional release, which is still in effect, in January 2006.
But despite Bill’s efforts, Fr. Gerry’s legal struggle continued, even after the restoration of democracy to Haiti in 2006. The latest chapter was an appeals court hearing on November 26, to decide Fr. Gerry’s challenge to his indictment. Bill had planned to go to Port-au-Prince for the hearing, but a few days before, he cancelled. He was needed even more in New Orleans, to represent public housing tenants in their struggle against the Bush Administration’s plan to destroy 4,500 units of desperately-needed housing (see HUD Sends New Orleans Bulldozers and $400,000 Apartments for the Holidays, December 3).
In Haiti, Fr. Gerry’s hearing went fairly well. The judges allowed him and his lawyers ample time to make their case, and appeared to be under no inappropriate pressure. Hundreds of Fr. Gerry’s supporters packed the courtroom for the hearing or protested outside, but there were no incidents, and no one was arrested (see My Rosary Is My Only Weapon, Fr. Jean-Juste Goes To Court, Again, San Francisco Bayview, December 5, 2007). The court has not yet issued its decision, but the fact that a politically-charged hearing was held fairly and peacefully was a welcome sign of Haiti’s increasing democratization.
In New Orleans, Bill’s work went less well. He was brutally arrested by a New Orleans deputy sheriff. The arrest was caught on video, which shows Bill quietly standing by as his clients explain why they should be allowed to enter a public New Orleans City Council meeting. Suddenly a deputy grabs Bill from behind, slams him against the wall and roughly handcuffs him. The charge: disturbing the peace. The fact that the lawyer whose protests had been tolerated by Haiti’s dictatorship was brutally arrested for standing outside a hearing room in Louisiana is an unwelcome sign of America’s decreasing democratization.
After the arrest, Bill tried to deflect attention from his experience to the persecution of his clients. He noted that “we live in a system where if you cheer or chant in a city council, you get arrested. But you can demolish 4,500 people’s apartments, and everybody is supposed to go along with that. That’s not going to happen.” He added that “there’s going to be a lot more disturbing the peace before this is all over, I am afraid.”
Although the video footage of Bill’s arrest is disturbing, the meager press coverage of it is even more so. If a nationally-known professor having his head slammed against a wall on film for peacefully helping the victims of the most notorious natural disaster of our times ask their City Council for help defending their homes against a discredited Bush Administration does not generate outrage, what will?
The attack on Bill was clearly designed to intimidate New Orleans’ political dissidents. The attack itself, and the lack of an outcry about it, will encourage more attacks. Even more people will hesitate before standing up to the Bush Administration and its local allies.
But the attack will not stop the New Orleans tenants, or their lawyer. Today, International Human Rights Day, they went before the city’s Historic Conservation District Review Committee, bringing over 100 protestors to the meeting. They won one: the Committee agreed to stop the demolition of one of the three developments. The tenants will keep fighting the other demolitions, and they will keep exercising their Constitutional rights to speak, to cheer and to chant, to disturb a peace that tolerates the destruction of public housing during a housing crisis. Let’s hope that New Orleans can treat its dissidents and their defenders at least as well as Haiti now would.
Human rights lawyer Brian Concannon Jr. directs the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, www.HaitiJustice.org.