Sunday, January 01, 2023

2022: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By




Though much of my year was wrapped up in working on my new book, I did publish a few articles that I thought were worthwhile during the last 12 months. 

My Articles


Restoring Glory to a Baltimore Neighborhood for Newlines Magazine (29 March 2022)

Freedom Soup and the Liberation of Haiti for Newlines Magazine (31 May 2022)

Haiti Is At War for Ozy (14 August 2022)

Interviews 

Former Haitian PM sanctioned by Canada denies wrongdoing in The Globe and Mail (30 November 2022)



In 2023, it will be a new year and a new book, this one examining the tenure of the great U.S. abolitionist Frederick Douglass as U.S. ambassador to Haiti and the tangled regional politics of the Caribbean in the late 19th century.

May the year 2023 leave you all feeling loved and appreciated. As the sun sets on 2022, I think the words of Pablo Neruda are apt for this moment.

Y una a una las noches 
entre nuestras ciudades separadas 
se agregan a la noche que nos une  

(And one by one the nights 
between our separated cities 
are joined to the night that unites us)

Con mucho amor.

xo

MD

Books in 2022: A Personal Selection

 

Henry Miller on the Greek island of Hydra, 1939.


Athens In Poems: An Imaginative Map of the City


An absolutely gorgeous selection of poetry celebrating the Greek capital given to me by the manager of a cooperative bookstore in the neighborhood of Exarcheia when I was there this past autumn.


Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel


A picture of a vanished place and people, these stories by the great Ukrainian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel (who later was arrested and executed by the security services of Joseph Stalin), this interlocked collection focuses on the world of a crime boss in Odessa called Benya Krik, known as the King, and the human

fauna the move within it in 1920s Odessa.


Young Skins by Colin Barrett 


Gripping, taut and often bleak stories about mostly young people in contemporary Ireland. 


The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout

A searing dystopian vision by an eminent Algerian writer who was slain by Islamist radicals in that country in 1993, this novel (originally written and published in French as Le Dernier Été de la raison) depicts a nation overtaken by intolerant religious fanatics. A beautifully written, poignant and prescient book, the author can write lines about how "Today, everything was heralding fall, with its tender light, benevolent even in its sadness" even as he depicts a place descended into madness. 

Insurgent Cuba Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898 by Ada Ferrer

An enlightening book look at the complex racial dynamics of Cuba's long struggle to free itself from Spanish rule.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins


A mob story depicting the underworld of then-contemporaneous early 1970s Boston, this book crackles with good and often profane dialogue as the plot heads to its inevitable dénouement.


Milton and the English Revolution by Christopher Hill


A book that gets to the heart of the extreme political commitment that informed Milton's life and work and chronicles in detail a life of dizzying triumphs and bitter disappointments that gave the world some of its greatest poetry.


Desert People: A Study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia Book by Mervyn Meggitt


A story of the Walbiri people scattered through Australia's Northern Territory by the anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt, I found this book very interesting in its depiction of a people and culture very foreign to many readers yet still informed by great complexity and a deep bond with the land where they live.


The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller


A book chronicling the American author Henry Miller’s travels through Greece as World War II and his own unwanted return to the United States loomed, this is a beautiful tribute to the country, its culture and its history, as Miller finds himself inspired and rhapsodizing about a new locale in way he hadn't since his early days in Paris a decade earlier. There is a poignancy to the loveliness of his descrpuitons made more so by both the impending conflict and his realization that, at nearly 50, he himself was steadily getting older:


There was the air outside and the sky full of stars. I had promised myself on leaving Paris not to do a stroke of work for a year. It was my first real vacation in 20 years and I was ready for it. Everything seemed right to me. There was no time anymore, just me drifting along and a slow boat ready to meet all commerce and take whatever it came along. Out of the sea, as if Homer himself had arranged it for me, the islands bobbed up, lonely, deserted, mysterious in the fading light. I couldn’t ask for more, nor did I want anything more. I had everything a man could desire, and I knew it. I knew too that I might never have it again. I felt the war coming - it was getting closer and closer every day. For a little while yet there would be peace and men might still behave like human beings. 


In Love with Hell: Drink in the Lives and Work of Eleven Writers by William Palmer


An unsentimental look at the often destructive role that alcohol played in the lives of 11 authors, including  John Cheever, Malcolm Lowry, Flann O’Brien and Jean Rhys, Flann O’Brien, this book makes one all the more appreciative of the brilliance the writers that it covers produced considering the ferocious demons many of them were battling.


The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks  


A first-person account of the life of a working shepherd in Cumbia in the north of England, this book may be a little too in love with its subject (the folks up north are inevitably wily, hard-working and resourceful, everyone not from that circle rather less so), but it still manages to paint an evocative picture of a alternately harsh and abundant landscape and the people who work it and cater to their animals who live there.


Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone


A magnificent anti-fascist and anti-Stalinist work set in Benito Mussolini's Italy (where the author was in exile from), the novel introduces us to the memorable revolutionary character of Pietro Spina, whose own ethos can be summed up by his declaration:


One can be free even under a dictatorship on one simple condition, that is, if one struggles against it. A man who thinks with his own mind and remains uncorrupted is a free man. A man who struggles for what he believes to be right as a free man. You can live in the most democratic country in the world, and if you are lazy, callous, servile, you are not a freeman, in spite of the absence of violence and coercion, you are a slave. Freedom is not a thing that must be begged from others. You must take it for yourself, whatever share you can.


The Hill Bachelors by William Trevor


A finely-honed collection of short stories by a renowned Irish writer depicting people who, in a number of ways, are haunted by decisions they either took or didn't take and where those choices have led them in their lives.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Haiti Is At War

Aug 14, 2022

Haiti Is At War

By Michael Deibert

Ozy

Haiti has a long, troubled history of politicians using local gangs for political muscle and influence. But what’s happening now is strange and new — the gangs are moving into the power vacuum created by a failing state to exert more autonomy and authority in what’s quickly becoming the biggest crisis in the Americas. 

(Read the original article here)

No safe way out 

The burned-out hulk of the car belonging to the former senator and his driver rested beside a bucolic mountain road that cuts through the hills above Port-au-Prince. The bodies of its former occupants, as charred and desecrated as the vehicle itself, lay inside.

 

For much of the past year, motorists attempting to leave Haiti’s capital for the southern peninsula — an area dotted with undulating hills, shimmering beaches and picturesque colonial towns — would traverse the lanes though Laboule 12 in an attempt to avoid the warring gangs that operated along the other route that led through the sprawling slum of Martissant, a take-your-life-in-your-hands proposition that saw motorists kidnapped or shot dead with terrifying regularity.

 

By the time Yvon Buissereth — a former senator who had been appointed head of the government’s social housing division by former President Jovenel Moïse (himself assassinated in spectacular fashion in July 2021) — opted to try his luck on the road last weekend, Haiti was in the throes of a state collapse the likes of which has rarely been experienced in the Western Hemisphere this century.

 

The gang that allegedly murdered Buissereth is led by a criminal known as Ti Makak (Little Monkey), one of dozens of armed groups currently operating in Port-au-Prince. The gang emerged to fè dezòd (make disorder) in the zone just as the forces of the Police Nationale d’Haïti (PNH), the country’s beleaguered national police force, was launching an offensive against another gang, the 400 Mawozo (400 Hillbillies), who run a kidnapping ring based in the city’s northeastern suburb of Croix-des-Bouquets, but whose territorial control extends all the way to the border with the Dominican Republic. This past spring, a failed attempt by the 400 Mawozo to seize the territory of a rival gang, the Chen Mechan (Mad Dogs), in this area, known as the Plaine du Cul-de-Sac, killed at least 191 people, according to the human rights organization Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH). Thousands more were displaced.


What links these two apparently unrelated episodes of violence on opposite sides of the capital also tells the story of state collapse in Haiti. An implosion that has rapidly accelerated since the assasination of Jovenel Moïse, the first Haitian president killed in office since 1915.


The deep roots of gang rule 

Though Haiti has a long history of politically motivated militias — from the Zinglins and Piquets of Faustin Soulouque the mid-1800s, to the Tonton Macoute of the Duvalier family dictatorship (1957- 1986) — the modern-day roots of Haiti’s gang rule can be found in a catastrophic interweaving of events in the 1990s.

 

A strangling economic embargo designed to return to power Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, ousted in a coup in 1991 after only seven months in office, all but destroyed what was left of Haiti’s manufacturing sector. A subsequent IMF and World Bank-sponsored structural adjustment, made with U.S. President Bill Clinton’s support, lowered Haiti’s tariffs on imported rice from 50% to 3%, turning Haiti into the world’s fifth-largest importer of U.S. rice and breaking the backbone of its peasant economy. Those who fled the countryside to the cities found few jobs waiting for them.

 

It was the children of these news arrivals — as many of the capital’s poorest neighborhoods are populated largely by country people new to the city — who became the first generation of the modern youth gangs in Haiti, a phenomenon encouraged with ruthless efficiency by Aristide and his party Fanmi Lavalas (formed in 1996) to ensure their grip on power. Aristide returned to the presidency in 2001 only to be overthrown again in a 2004 rebellion that began when a formerly loyal gang in the northern city of Gonaïves, the Lame Kanibal (Cannibal Army), turned against him in retaliation for allegedly killing their leader.

 

I knew many of these young, first-generation gunmen personally, and spent countless hours speaking with them in Cité Soleil, the sprawling seaside slum they called home. Although they were not typical of the inhabitants of the capital’s slums — most of whom, then as now, have no connection to guns or violence — they represented an unavoidable political force. Before their early deaths (all but one died before his 30th birthday), some spoke eloquently to me about a desperate desire to blast Haiti out of its inhuman squalor and inequality. At a certain time, one could see the good they might have done for the country. But Aristide got to them first.


Politicians have long used gangs 

In the last two decades, the armed groups in the slums — who generally call themselves baz (base, in Haiti’s Creole language) — have metastasized through generations of slain leaders and opportunistic politicians of various political stripes, seeking to monopolize the forces of arms and the votes they bring come election time. The Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK), the country's dominant force since 2011 — to which both Moïse and former President Michel Martelly belonged — embraced the baz model as enthusiastically as the Lavalas party (now, like founder Aristide himself, a historical footnote) ever did.

 

But over the years, something new began to happen, although it wasn’t immediately apparent. During a 2015 lull in the nearly 20-year tit-for-tat violence, two baz in the Martissant communities of Ti Bois and Grand Ravine waged war against each other. I went to interview the leader of the Ti Bois baz, a somber-face man then in his early 30s named Chéry Christ-Roi, known as Krisla, who had improbably succeeded in maintaining his grip on the neighborhood since the early 2000s— an extraordinary period of longevity for someone in his line of work. As we sat inside his hillside nightclub, in a spray of day-glo colors contrasting with the sweeping view of the Bay of Port-au-Prince, he said the gangs were sick of politicians using them as cannon fodder, and they might some day form a sort of alliance for good, or so I hoped.

 

Haiti’s tortured politics had different plans. In 2016, Jovenel Moïse, a businessman from Haiti’s north, was elected president after a markedly low turnout. The political opposition — consisting of opportunistic career politicians who gave themselves grand names like the secteur démocratique et populaire despite being neither democratic nor popular — flatly refused to accept the election results. The battle lines hardened.

 

Though Moïse oversaw the construction of miles of roads, and a nascent effort to restructure Haiti’s faltering energy grid — lashing out at “a corrupt oligarchy” and vowing to free from their grasp a “captured state — an audit of the Venezuelan low-cost oil program, PetroCaribe, claimed that firms linked to Moïse cashed in on an embezzlement scheme. A civil society movement, under the slogan Kot kòb PetroCaribe a? (Where is the PetroCaribe money?), demanded accountability for the funds, along with an end to corruption and other government abuses. Striking a modus vivendi with the political opposition whose first demand was that Moïse resign so they could get in (opposition lawmakers twice vandalized Haiti’s parliament in the company of their partisans to prevent Moïse’s choice for Prime Minister from going to a vote), the civil society, perhaps unwittingly, became part of a drama bigger than themselves that was unfolding.


The Rise of "Barbecue"


In November 2017, a police raid in Grand Ravine ended in the deaths of at least two police officers and 10 civilians in what some called a police massacre. One of the policemen involved, Jimmy Chérizier— better known by his nickname, Barbecue — abandoned his post and returned to his power base in the capital’s Lower Delmas quarter, where he founded an illegal armed group, allegedly with ties to the Moïse government —a claim Moïse and Barbecue both denied. In 2018, Barbecue was accused of participating in a massacre in the Port-au-Prince slum of La Saline that killed 26, according to a United Nations report. Barbecue and two officials of the Moïse government were sanctioned by the U.S. State Department for their alleged roles in the killings.

 

While the Moïse government negotiated with the PNH over the police department’s quest to form a union, a gang called Fantôme 509 (Haiti’s country code) emerged, claiming to be dissident police. The group wore masks and shot their guns in the air, at vehicles and into government buildings. Fantôme 509 was widely viewed as a wing of the opposition. In June 2020, Barbecue, dressed in a suit and carrying a machine gun, held a press conference to announce the formation of the G9 an fanmi e alye, an alliance of armed groups around the city, including Krisla’s Ti Bois baz. Though Barbecue stated that he was not “pro-government or pro-opposition,” he released several videos of himself surrounded by an armed, masked cadre and expounding on the political issues of the day. His Twitter account, which had a large following, has since been suspended. 


Gang war goes viral on social media 

But Barbecue was hardly the only boss in town, and not the only one to grasp the power of social media.

 

Across Route Nationale 2 from Grand Ravine and Ti Bois, in the Village de Dieu slum, Arnel Joseph, a politically connected gang leader, who reigned over the 5 Segonn (5 Seconds) gang until fleeing in an attempt to avoid arrest, was killed by police in February 2021. The following month, Haitian police tried to storm the slum in a raid that ended with six police officers dead: their final moments recorded by gloating gang members who shared the footage on social media.

 

Arnel Joseph's successor at the helm of the 5 Segonn (5 Seconds) gang was a different character altogether, and  the footage of the slain policemen was only the beginning of his social media war. Going by the nom de guerre Izo, the new strongman of 5 Segonn presides over a kidnapping empire, the proceeds of which he uses to fund slick videos of himself and his gunmen as he spits rhymes while strutting through the slum and snorting copious amounts of cocaine (He is, at it happens, a lyricist of no small talent). Beyond his musical pursuits, however, Izo has used social media and apps like WhatsApp to boast of his battlefield success and terrorize his rivals. Last month, while bragging about weapons acquired during fighting with gangs from the rival G9-affiliated - slum of La Saline, 5 Segonn displayed the firearms perched on the dead body of one of their enemies. In another video, Izo dismembers the cadaver of a rival he had purchased from the gang in Grand Ravine, and then begins to cook the viscera in a pot.

 

The 400 Mawozo have also shown a fondness for social media. The gang’s leader, Joseph Wilson, alias Lanmò San Jou  (Death Comes Unannounced), recently recorded himself and his gunmen (who appear to be in their early teens) requesting the “paperwork” of motorists traveling between Port-au-Prince and the Dominican Republic. Last month, 400 Mawozo gunmen murdered a police officer inside a church, spirited the body away and disseminated footage of themselves mulitalitng the corpse.

 

Wilson, believed to be a houngan, or vodou priest (vodou, despite its reputation in the West, is a religion like any other, combining both light and dark elements), has availed himself of the authority of such a role. I have seen videos of him and other 400 Mawozo members at fêtes involving coffins and other accouterments of death. The possible spiritual elements of the violence in Haiti today in some ways echo the gruesome public displays of Charles Taylor, during the 1989-1997 Liberian Civil War of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), who cannily co-opted some of the trappings of the Poro Society — a male secret society in West Africa — to add an aura of authority to his military might.

 

The violence has more immediate ways of revealing its interconnection. In the shantytown of Canaan, whose population exploded when thousands of Haitians displaced by the 2010 earthquake resettled there, a gang recently filmed themselves firing in the air as they referred to themselves as “the Taliban.”


The gang state 

Although the government of Prime Minister Ariel Henry — who assumed power under controversial circumstances after the assasaniation of Jovenel Moïse — has frequently been accused of having ties to gangs, the gunmen are now making direct attacks on the symbols of the state. In June, 5 Segonn gunmen stormed Port-au-Prince’s Palais de Justice, seat of the highest judicial authority in the capital, and have occupied it since, chasing off judges, clerks, prosecutors, police and staff. The authorities have made no attempt to retake the building, as its armed occupants strut about its rooms destroying files. In July, 400 Mawozo gang members set fire to the Croix-des-Bouquets prosecutor's office. Government services — customs, the central bank and other entities once housed in downtown Port-au-Prince — are abandoning the center of the city to the gunmen and moving to more secure locales, such as the airport or to far-flung suburbs.

 

“They're trying to establish some kind of recognition as a force or a state within the state,” said a conflict resolution specialist, and friend, who works in some of the capital’s most marginalized neighborhoods. “Any talk of elections without taking care of these guys doesn't make sense.”

 

More than the politically allied “posses” of Jamaica, which the Haitian gangs once most closely resembled, the armed groups in the country look more and more like the all-demolishing whirlwinds of the Islamic State, for whom killing publicly and ritualistically is as much an affirmation of power and mission as the success of any geopolitical goals.

 

In a very direct way, the violence also connects Haiti to its giant neighbor to the north, the United States.

 

In July, a ship arriving from Florida at Haiti’s Port-de-Paix was discovered to be carrying 120,000 cartridges, three handguns, 30 magazines, 20 Ak-47s and $3,890. That same month, seven illegal pistols were confiscated from another ship from the U.S., stopped at the same port. The government responded by freeing two of the men who had been arrested for alleged involvement in the scheme and firing the government official who’d overseen seizure of the weapons. Meanwhile, several suspect containers at a wharf in Port-au-Prince were found to contain 9mm pistols, 14,646 cartridges, 140 magazines and 18 assault rifles.

The gangs are coordinating 

As the country roils amid criminal anarchy, the government of President Ariel Henry has remained largely silent, apparently secure in the support of such foreign actors as the U.S., France and the U.N. Mission in Haiti. The fact that both RNDDH and a now-stalled investigation by the Direction Centrale de la Police Judiciaire (DCPJ) into the murder of Jovenel Moïse showed that Henry had spoken twice to Joseph Félix Badio — believed to be a key link in the plot to murder the president — on the night of the assassination, appears not to phase them. The government’s detachment from the trauma of its citizens was also vividly illustrated when, during a regular bout of gang violence, the prime minister spent a glittering evening at the posh Hotel Montana to celebrate “Europe Day'' with various foreign diplomats. The elegant hotel also serves as the base for the Montana Accord, a group of civil society actors and veteran politicos who “elected” a president and prime minister last year, yet whose authority barely extends beyond the lobby.

 

Last month, an attempt by the G-9 to take over the Cité Soleil, under the control of baz leader Gabriel Jean-Pierre, aka Ti Gabriel, who heads a rival coalition of gangs called the G-Pèp, failed. It was foiled when 5 Segonn rushed to Gabriel’s aid ferrying gunmen in motorboats along the coast, one of at least three instances that the group has used boats in recent months. The attack failed, but not before more than 200 people — mostly civilians—  were killed and many thousands displaced. The onslaught, most observers agree, was unleashed to acquire territory in order to control voting centers should Haiti’s long-delayed elections ever be held.

 

It was around this time that the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince tweeted a photo of Chargé d’Affaires Eric Stromayer (the U.S. has not had an ambassador in Haiti since October 2021) grinning broadly behind a stoney faced Ariel Henry, saying the two had “discussed recent security gains.” This must have come as news to Haitians desperately trying to flee the abattoir of gang violence.

 

Stromayer’s meeting with Henry occurred the same week the RNDDH accused Henry of “continuing to supply the gangs with weapons and ammunition to put an end to the lives of the police, to discourage them in their work and to block justice.” And just weeks after the Episcopal Conference of Haiti demanded: “Why does the State not act?" A few days after the meeting, clashes between the G9-affiliated gang Krache Dife (Fire Spitters) and its rivals turned downtown Port-au-Prince into a war zone, with gunmen wearing police uniforms participating in the fighting and a cadre of “barefoot child soldiers” — as one local media outlet called them — firing automatic weapons. Around the same time, when a delegation of evangelical Protestants showed up one afternoon to clean the streets of the Pont-Breya section of Grand Ravine, gunmen shot the pastor's wife dead. Gang coordination seems to increase by the week. Sensing a common enemy, when police began a sustained campaign against 400 Mawozo this month, the gang sent word to Ti Makak, who helpfully distracted them with his own eruption of violence miles away — ending the life of Yvon Buissereth.


Foreign ‘help’ is making everything worse 

More than 550 people were murdered in greater Port-au-Prince between January and June, according to the Commission épiscopale de l’église catholique romaine Justice et Paix. An additional 200 victims from Cité Soleil were added to that death toll last month. More than 100 police officers were slain between June 2021 and June 2022. And the bloodshed appears to be spreading. In late July, clashes between armed groups in rural Petite-Rivière-de-l’Artibonite, nearly 75 miles from Port-au-Prince, left at least 20 dead and several buildings burned. The OAS recently issued a mea culpa, saying that Haiti’s crisis was “a direct result of the actions taken by the country’s endogenous forces and by the international community,” and arguing that “the international community’s presence in Haiti has amounted to one of the worst and clearest failures implemented and executed within the framework of any international cooperation.” But it, as well, seems to have little idea how to stem the tide of violence.

 

“Every day, the insecurity in Haiti grows and the population becomes more imprisoned,” Haitian sociologist Laënnec Hurbon recently told me. “The prime minister is deaf and blind and the international community does not show the slightest empathy in the face of the country's tumble toward the abyss.”

Michael Deibert Speaking To Al Jazeera on Anniversary of Assassination of Haiti's Jovenel Moïse

Freedom Soup and the Liberation of Haiti

Freedom Soup and the Liberation of Haiti 

The cuisine, a combination of African and European influences, also tells the story of this complex country’s revolutionary heritage

By Michael Deibert 

Newlines Magazine

(Read the original article here)

On the first day of the year in 1804, at the Place d’Armes in the dusty city of Gonaïves, gazing out onto the turquoise waters of the Golfe de la Gonâve off Haiti, a 46-year-old military leader who had been born into slavery on a plantation near Grande-Rivière-du-Nord unveiled a text that still cries out from across the centuries.

“Citizens,” it began,

it is not enough to have expelled the barbarians who have bloodied our land for two centuries; it is not enough to have restrained those ever-evolving factions that one after another mocked the specter of liberty. … We must, with one last act of national authority, forever assure the empire of liberty in the country of our birth; we must take any hope of re-enslaving us away from the inhuman government that for so long kept us in the most humiliating torpor. In the end we must live independent or die.

Independence or death… let these sacred words unite us and be the signal of battle and of our union.

With those words, Haiti declared its independence from France after a 13-year war of liberation and abolished slavery, the first nation to do so. The military leader who had overseen this victory, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, had taken up the torch of Haitian liberation after its after its most charismatic initial proponent, Toussaint Louverture, was kidnapped by the forces of the dictator Napoleon Bonaparte and died in a lonely prison cell in the Jura Mountains (a fate possibly abetted by Dessalines’ own political maneuvering). The formerly French colony of Saint-Domingue would heretofore be known as Haiti, its original Taíno name.

Hardly alone in his campaign against what was then one of the world’s great military powers — marked by victories such as the Battle of Vertières, outside of modern-day Cap-Haïtien (known then as Cap-Français), in November 1803 — Dessalines was aided by a now-mythic cast of characters. There was Henry (often-written Henri) Christophe, an English-speaking former slave, likely born in Grenada. There was Alexandre Pétion, son of a wealthy French father, and free women of mixed African and European heritage who narrowly avoided death as an infant during a 1770 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince. And, deceased on the long road to liberty, were patriots like Suzanne Bélair, better known as Sanité Bélair, an “affranchi” (free person of color) who took an active part in combat against Napoleon’s forces and became a lieutenant in Louverture’s army. When she was executed by the French she cried “Viv libète! Aba esclavaj!” (Long live freedom! Down with slavery!)

Tradition has it that in celebration of their victory, the victorious Haitian forces sat down to “soup joumou,” a fortifying soup hinting at the promise of abundance that the hideousness of slavery had denied Haiti’s people and which earlier this year was given the distinction of being part of “the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO. The soup itself — an enticing and filling mélange of squash, onions, peppers, beef and pasta — not only has historical resonance but also offers a tantalizing introduction to the rich and varied cuisine of Haiti, something I was able to experience firsthand during several years of living there and a quarter century of visiting the country.

“It is an ode to freedom, a ritual that we participate in saying we believe in a better tomorrow and coming together,” says Dominique Dupuy, Haiti’s delegate to UNESCO. “When you go through this cascade of traumas, resilience comes at a cost, but let’s recognize that we ourselves have the power to push through. We’ve had bad years, but we’re a great people.”

Beset by plotting from foreign powers and what the Haitian author Frédéric Marcelin would later characterize as “civil strife, fratricidal slaughters, social miseries … and idolatrous militarism,” Haiti would soon fall into violent political factionalism. After declaring himself emperor, Dessalines would be assassinated at present-day Pont-Rouge in Port-au-Prince in October 1806. Civil war would break out, with the country divided between Henry Christophe’s Kingdom of Haiti in the north (where Christophe declared himself King Henry I) and Alexandre Pétion’s Republic of Haiti in the south. Following the deaths of both Christophe and Pétion, the nation would finally be reunited under the rule of Pétion’s successor, Jean-Pierre Boyer.

“The revolution is often told in only a victorious narrative, but it involves a lot of bloodshed and intra-group fighting,” says Yveline Alexis, an associate professor of Africana studies at Oberlin College. “But this also not only tells us about how unity and disunity can exist while fighting oppressors but how, in the end, Haiti will be left standing.”

But the dream of Haiti and the singular heroism of its initial accomplishment — defeating a colonial power and eradicating an infernal system — never died, and as the heavy winds of the country’s political struggle blew forward, the people of Haiti — “les enfants des héros” (children of heroes) as the author Lyonel Trouillot called them — carried on that legacy with their food.

When I worked as a journalist in Haiti in the early 2000s, one of my favorite things to do at the end of the week was to leave my flat in the bougainvillea-draped neighborhood of Pacot and head to the Portail Léogâne, the outdoor transit hub used for traveling south out of the city.

There, one could easily find a tap-tap, as Haiti’s brightly colored shared passenger vans are called, heading for the neighborhoods of Martissant, Carrefour and Mariani (a journey that is now very perilous because of the nonstop fighting of politically aligned armed groups called “baz,” or base). After hopping on board, sensuous kompa music playing from the tap-tap’s sound system, one would sail past dilapidated hotels that hark back to the days when Haiti was a tourist destination with outdoor markets where vendors sold their wares under the open sky.

When the tap-tap pauses briefly at a crossroads before continuing south through mountains often fecund after rain and dotted by rainbows, market women run up to the vehicle’s sides, offering travelers tasty snacks such as “douce macoss,” an overpoweringly sweet tricolored candy that, along with Faustin Soulouque, who ran the country first as president and then as emperor from 1847 to 1859, is perhaps the most famous product of the nearby city of Petit-Goâve, a once-beautiful city devastated by Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake. Or they would offer “tablet pistach,” Haiti’s version of peanut brittle.

After an hour or so of the tap-tap’s negotiating serpentine mountain roads, the southern city of Jacmel, where South American liberation hero Simón Bolívar was given shelter by Haiti’s rebel leaders (no one else would take him), appears below, glittering like a jewel next to the tumbling surf.

Once in Jacmel, I would disembark and transfer to a moto taxi to travel the 10 or so miles to the beach cottage that I was renting. There, one could splash in the surf under the gaze of the brooding inland mountains and feast on exquisite “lambi creole” (conch with a uniquely spicy Haitian sauce) and “langouste” (lobster prepared with a distinct smoky flair). In Jacmel itself, on a weekend evening, citizens and stray foreigners would go to and fro between the restaurants and music clubs, the streets lit by the flickering orange glow of the kerosene lamps of the vendors as they offered “griot” (fried pork) to passersby. As the sun set, it was customary to pour a libation of Haiti’s exquisite rum, Barbancourt Cinq étoiles (still, for my money, the best rum in the world) or, for the more adventurous, to sample the various strains of “tafia,” the highly potent raw rum sold in jerrycans at roadside stands (though the best tafia is widely considered to be consumed in the temperate climes of the mountain town of Kenscoff, above Port-au-Prince).

Over the two-and-a-half decades I’ve spent visiting Haiti, the majesty and ebullient tale told by Haiti’s rich cuisine has accompanied me every step. Haiti’s food evokes its sophisticated and varied roots, from the Parisian-style boulangeries that one can find in the tree-draped squares of areas like the Port-au-Prince suburb of Pétionville to the unpretentious “lalo,” a spinach stew served over white rice and often bought from large pots along the road. And if you have never bought some “marinade” (a seasoned batter patty) from a woman selling them roadside, have you ever lived? The same question could be posed if you’ve never enjoyed delicious “poulet boucané” (smoked chicken) on the terrace of Kay Foun, overlooking the busy street in Saint-Marc, accompanied by a Prestige beer so cold that ice still clings to the glass of the bottle, or eaten “pintade créole” (guinea hen in a spicy sauce served with fried plantains and beans and rice) on a (relatively) cool autumn evening.

Regional dishes also abound, from the unique use of coconut around Jacmel in the south to “poul an sòs ak nwa” (cashew chicken) in the north, where one can eat it during an evening of carousing along the Carenage Boulevard that abuts the ocean. In the morning one can take in the stirring sight of Sans-Souci and the Citadelle Laferrière, a palace and fort combination built by Christophe with views across the plains of northern Haiti. Popular in Jérémie, a lovely town on the northern shore of on the northern shore of the Grand’Anse department and known as “la cité des poètes” (the city of poets), one finds “tonmtonm,” a filling breadfruit-based dish.

Haiti continues to struggle with its demons, systemic and structural problems greater than any one politician or political party. When Haiti’s president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated last July — the fifth president from the country’s north to be killed since independence — and as gang wars and narrow political infighting continue to rack the capital, it’s easy, particularly for outsiders, to forget this culinary lineage, which in a real way has freedom and a revolutionary heritage in every morsel.

“The Haitian kitchen is a concentration of our Afro and European influences,” says Paul Toussaint, a Haitian chef and restaurateur whose restaurant in Montreal, Canada, Kamúy, mixes traditional Haitian cooking with international elements. “When I am cooking Haitian cuisine, I feel like I am combining those heritages. It’s a love story with our history, and there’s a lot of meaning in our food.”

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Restoring Glory to a Baltimore Neighborhood

Restoring Glory to a Baltimore Neighborhood

The Sandtown-Winchester area burst into America’s consciousness with the murder by police of Freddie Gray in 2015. But the struggle to recapture its greatness predates one unhappy Sunday morning

Michael Deibert

New Lines Magazine

(Read the original article here)

Humanity pulses like blood through a vein along West Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue, a whirl of people moving beneath a cloud-dappled winter evening sky illuminated with blazes of crimson fire from the setting sun.

At the Avenue Bakery, Jim Hamlin is dishing out dinner rolls, Jewish apple cake and morsels of the history of the storied Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, whose trajectory mirrors that of many just like it around the United States.

“I was fortunate that I grew up on the cusp of segregation and integration,” says Hamlin, a 72-year-old who grew up in Sandtown and opened the bakery after working for UPS for 35 years. “Pennsylvania Avenue was the business district for this community. The Royal Theatre was still open and there was nothing but nightclubs, restaurants, barber shops, all the staples we needed in our community. Some were owned by African-Americans, some were owned by Jewish folks. It was the thriving entertainment center for Baltimore from the 1930s to the 1960s.”

Recent decades, however, have been less kind to Sandtown. The neighborhood erupted into the national consciousness following the April 2015 murder of Freddie Gray by officers of the Baltimore Police Department and subsequent protests that spiraled into riots that rocked the city. (Though Gray’s death was ruled a homicide by a medical examiner, attempts to prosecute the six officers involved ended in acquittal and dropping of the charges against them.)

But the story of Sandtown’s struggle long predates that early Sunday morning when the 25-year-old Gray’s path crossed with the police outside The Gilmor Homes, a now largely demolished public housing facility named after a wealthy merchant family that included a Confederate cavalry officer. Those struggles say much about the attitude of successive city, state and federal governments toward some of the most disadvantaged and marginalized people in the United States and the herculean efforts of those in the community to rescue it from the jaws of despair.

Settled by Europeans on what was largely a traditional Native American hunting ground in the second half of the 1600s, Baltimore soon boomed thanks to extensive trade with Britain’s sugar-producing Caribbean colonies in products such as grain and tobacco, the commerce facilitated by the extensive use of an economic model based on slavery. Decades after the U.S. won its independence from Great Britain, in September 1814, during the Battle of Baltimore fought during the War of 1812, a local lawyer, Francis Scott Key, penned the words to what would later become “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States. Among its lyrics is one line, from the third verse and thus not performed often today, that gives a hint of the flavor of society there: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”

Despite its northern location, Baltimore was a city that, culturally and politically, in many ways remained part of the slave-owning Deep South. Though it also boasted shipbuilding yards, sawmills and other factories, an undercurrent of violence and chaos rumbled beneath the hum of industry. In 1835, the Baltimore bank riot saw a three-day spree of pillage and looting after the collapse of the Bank of Maryland resulted in the overnight evaporation of millions of dollars in depositors’ savings. In October 1849, the author Edgar Allan Poe was plucked “in distress” from its streets wearing clothes that were not his own and died a few days later. In April 1861, at the very beginning of the Civil War, Confederate secessionist sympathizers attacked members of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania state militia regiments en route to Washington, sparking a clash that left four soldiers and 12 rioters dead. As the war progressed, Abraham Lincoln found it expedient to clap George William Brown, the city’s secessionist mayor, in jail for more than a year. After the war, the city again saw riots in 1877 when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad cut the wages and reduced the hours of its workers, leading to a clash between civilians and the National Guard, federal troops and local police in a melee that left at least 10 dead.

But the postwar period and into the first half of the 20th century also saw a flourishing of Baltimore’s African-American community in general and in Sandtown in particular. Factories like the Mount Vernon Mill, a cotton textile mill in nearby Jones Falls, provided plentiful employment and Pennsylvania Avenue itself became a glittering mecca for Black culture, with the nearby Royal Theatre (built in 1922) and the Penn Hotel serving as anchors for the area’s artistic milieu. Thurgood Marshall, who as an attorney successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court (which ruled that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional) and later became the court’s first African-American justice, lived in Sandtown. So did jazz musicians like Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway (whose songs such as “Minnie the Moocher ” and “Reefer Man” in some ways encapsulated the district’s libertine appeal) and Chick Webb. For a touch of the bucolic, the horse-drawn carts of the arabbers, or street vendors, plied the lanes of the neighborhood carrying vegetables, fruits, blocks of ice and other necessities. The economic development of the city was frequently spoken of in terms of a “black butterfly,” with its majority African-American population spreading like a butterfly’s wings on either side of a highly moneyed white corridor of real estate running through Baltimore’s center.

“The community then, when it came to economic opportunity, there were many options for young people,” says Jim Hamlin, whose bakery features photographs of Sandtown’s notables and a mural celebrating some of its famous figures. On the first Saturday of each month from May to September, the bakery hosts concerts in its small courtyard.

When the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was slain on the evening of April 4, 1968, the shots that killed him may have been fired in Memphis, Tennessee, but they were heard in many other U.S. cities, including Baltimore. The city was marked by a week of rioting after the assassination, unrest that hit Sandtown particularly hard (Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew — later Richard Nixon’s vice president — responded by sending the National Guard to the city and then publicly lambasting local Black leaders for their supposed “failure” in the face of the unrest). The Pennsylvania Avenue business district was devastated, with many businesses opting not to reopen, and by 1971 the Royal Theatre had been demolished, a sadly symbolic act for a community rocked back on its heels. Eventually, hundreds of homes would be abandoned and fall into various states of disrepair.

Baltimore was not spared from the violence associated with the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, nor, along with it, the glaring inequality of law enforcement and sentencing that targeted poor, urban (frequently African-American and Latino) communities. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 led to the notorious “100 to 1” ratio in sentencing, which meant individuals faced far longer sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine than for offenses involving a similar amount of powder cocaine, and leading to African-Americans often serving an equal amount of time in prison for nonviolent drug offenses as arrested whites did for violent offenses. This disparity was not corrected until President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law in August 2010.

A level of intergenerational poverty began to afflict neighborhoods like Sandtown. According to the 2017 Baltimore City Neighborhood Health Profile, the median household income in the neighborhood is $24,374, a little more than half of what it is in the city as a whole, while the poverty rate is 50.3%, as compared with a citywide rate of is 28.8%. Progress often seems tenuous. According to a 2015 study by Loyola University’s Peter Rosenblatt and Johns Hopkins University’s Stefanie DeLuca, after an uptick in home ownership at the beginning of the millennium, the 2008 housing crisis led to 350 foreclosures in the neighborhood in just a two-year period.

“There are people who cannot take care of their families or ever get out of their current situations, so they participate in the street economy, and those rules are totally different than the roles we play by, if you make a mistake, it could be your life,” says Ashiah Parker of the No Boundaries Coalition, a resident-led advocacy organization based in Sandtown. “There are people in this city who are fourth or fifth generation impoverished, who have never had a member of their family go to college or live outside of the housing projects.”

Nor has law enforcement been blameless in this dynamic. A 2016 probe by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the Baltimore Police Department had engaged “in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law” including “making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests; using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans; using excessive force; and retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally protected expression.” The report found that the practices were “driven by systemic deficiencies in [the department’s] policies, training, supervision, and accountability structures that fail to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively and within the bounds of the federal law.”

Many in the city believe these practices solidified during the 1999 to 2007 mayoralty of Martin O’Malley, who went on to become governor of Maryland and ran an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. Though homicides fell during O’Malley’s tenure as mayor (and arrests increased dramatically), the systemic, structural causes behind crime remained stubbornly resistant to correction. In 2010, the city settled for $870,000 a lawsuit brought against it four years earlier by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on behalf of 14 who said their arrests were part of a systematic policy of arrests without cause.

“In Maryland, if you are convicted of a felony, even as a 15-year-old, it can never be expunged from your record,” Ashiah Parker explains. “Walmart checks that. We’re not even talking about becoming a top tier accountant. You can’t have a criminal background and go into senior housing, for example. … We need to do something radical because we talk about second chances, but we don’t really offer them.”

Much of the violence, however, comes from within the community itself. In January 2022, Baltimore’s Child Fatality Review, which brings together various city agencies and experts, released a report on 208 child fatality cases over the previous five years, finding that homicides are the leading cause of death of children in the city, with 90% of the fatalities involving children of color (in a city in which people of color make up about two-thirds of the population). One of the victims was 13-year-old Maliyah Turner, who was shot and killed outside the Lillian Jones Recreation Center in Sandtown, where she had arrived for band practice, this past November.

“It’s painful for me to be a person who God has selected to be a servant to the people to see the suffering of those who God created in his likeness and his image to be a little lower than the angels,” says lifelong Sandtown resident Elder C.W. Harris, the founding pastor of Newborn Community of Faith Church, who, along with jazz musician Todd Marcus, established an organization called Intersection of Change to address and ameliorate poverty-related challenges. “It is inhumane. God is crying because of the way we are treating one another.”

“We are reconcilers,” says Harris. “And those who have lived here have to receive the encouragement and belief that they can do it. The nation should be ashamed of the way this side of central West Baltimore is being treated. We can stop all this if we show some humanity, but we’re not showing any.”

Among those on the front lines of combating violence are men like Wayne Brewton. A 61-year-old released from prison in March 2017 after serving a 31-year sentence for murder, Brewton is what is known as a “violence interrupter” with Safe Streets Baltimore, a violence prevention program operated by Catholic Charities in collaboration with the Baltimore City Department of Health and the Mayor’s Office for Neighborhood Safety and Engagement.

“The nature of civilization doesn’t change. There’s always going to be some version of greed, jealousy and hate,” says Brewton in his spare, tidy apartment as he reaches down to pet a cat purring around his ankles. “And I was led down a path of total destruction.”

It is a fate he hopes to help today’s young people avoid, along with the lure of images of success that can confront them on a daily basis.

“Picture yourself as a child, going to school. You probably haven’t eaten in a couple of days. The teacher probably doesn’t care much about you. You have to walk past nine or 10 blocks of abandoned homes, so you admire the ones who get up and fight through that,” says Brewton. “The main important factor when you deal with the youth of today [is that] you have to listen and stop trying to make decisions for them and they are going to tell you what they need. But you have to earn their trust.”

It is not an approach that comes without risks. In January, 29-year-old DaShawn McGrier, a Safe Streets violence interrupter, was slain as part of a quadruple shooting in the McElderry Park neighborhood east of Sandtown. He was the third member of the organization to be shot and killed in the past year. Nevertheless, Brewton believes it is important to push on.

“A lot of the kids have never been out of Sandtown-Winchester,” Brewton notes. “We might take them to baseball games, to basketball games, to the Museum of African American History & Culture. … For about six hours, we’ll be saving some lives, maybe their own. We need the richness of community back. We’re the change we’re looking for. If you want change, you’ve got to take the initiative to make that change.”

Historically, Baltimore’s politicians themselves have often seemed unable or unwilling to confront the great challenges of communities like Sandtown. For more than a decade, from 1947 to 1959, Baltimore’s mayor was Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., the father of current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. While mayor, D’Alesandro oversaw the dedication of a large statue of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, seditous traitors who defended the infernal institution of slavery. The statue stood in Wyman Park until it was ordered taken down and put in storage by the Baltimore City Council in August 2017. Pelosi’s elder brother, Thomas D’Alesandro III, served as mayor for a single term that overlapped with the 1968 riots. Baltimore saw its first Black mayor, Clarence H. Burns, ascend to the office in 1987 when he took over from William Donald Schaefer following the latter’s resignation after being elected governor of Maryland. Buns was succeeded by the first elected Black mayor, Kurt Schmoke, who served from 1987 to 1999.

In more recent years, the city’s political class has been buffeted by a series of scandals. Sheila Dixon, who served as Baltimore’s mayor from January 2007 until February 2010, was convicted of embezzlement in connection with a scheme to purloin gift cards meant for Baltimore’s poorest residents. Catherine Pugh, who served as mayor from December 2016 until May 2019, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and tax evasion. In January, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby was indicted on charges of perjury and making false statements on mortgage applications.

Baltimore’s current mayor, 37-year-old Brandon Scott, previously served as president of the city council and ran on a promise that he would lower Baltimore’s murders to fewer than 300 a year during his first year in office. But in Scott’s first year, 2021, the city experienced 337 homicides and 726 shootings. Scott has often seemed overwhelmed by the violence afflicting the city, in January 2022 telling a reporter that he was “pissed off” about the violence and that “if folks have something to say, get your ass on the streets, walk with us, do something. Don’t tweet, don’t talk.”

It is hard to spend any length of time in Sandtown, though, and not come away with the impression that many in the community are indeed doing something, although often away from the glare of the cameras and rather in the deep, daily work in the trenches of community-building.

“It’s rough, but I do think things can turn the corner,” says Ashiah Parker. “And I think people are still holding hope that a renaissance era can come back.”

Some in Sandtown’s younger generation hold out that same hope.

“I think a lot of youth aren’t fortunate enough to have the ability to see past the obstacles that other people put in front of you,” says 23-year-old Keyarra Johnson, an artist born and raised in the neighborhood and now a program manager with Jubilee Arts, a community arts program based in Sandtown. “But there are a lot of people in the neighborhood trying to reconnect the community with this rich history and encourage the artistic and entrepreneurial side of Sandtown.”

Midway between Pennsylvania Avenue and Presbury Street, where a fenced-in mural shows Freddie Gray’s face gazing soulfully out at the neighborhood he left seven years ago, Bryan Wright trudges an acre and a half of Sandtown under a slate-gray sky, where neat rows of tarpaulin-wreathed tunnels shelter an unexpected bounty.

On land that was initially reclaimed by Intersection of Change, Wright and other members of the Strength to Love farm cultivate a variety of mustards, kale, spinach, lettuce, bok choy, dandelion greens, arugula, turnips, carrots, garlic, onions, scallions and other victuals that they sell from their own stand at the front of the property to farmer’s markets and a variety of restaurants in the Baltimore and Washington, DC area.

A native of Tennessee, Wright had been traveling back and forth to Baltimore for the better part of 20 years before he moved there permanently to become the farm’s manager at the beginning of 2021. Built on land once occupied by row houses that were demolished in the 1990s, Strength to Love works both to be a place for returning citizens – formerly incarcerated people — to come to get job training and also as a workforce development program that provides 18-to-24-year-old Sandtown residents with agricultural training.

“In our community we talk about all the negatives. But food insecurity to me is a major crisis that no one is really dealing with,” Wright says as the “hoop houses,” as the miniature greenhouses are called, flutter in the chill breeze. “And it affects a community on multiple levels from an economic level to a health level to mental health to environmental justice to mental development in kids. This is really a project of empowerment for trying to create food security,”

It is not an easy task. It is not uncommon to find sex workers using the larger tunnels as places of work or to find addicts securing their fixes inside a tunnel. In the colder months, homeless people sometimes seek out the tunnels to get out of the biting wind and find a warmer spot.

“I don’t think the people sleeping in the high tunnels are being disrespectful to us,” Wright says. “They’re homeless and they’re looking for a warm place to sleep. But at the same time, there is a need for us to make our footprint in the community more profound.”

Across the street from an asphalt plant, the farm uses 100% organic compost and envisions expanding in the near future to include a meditation garden along with its current agricultural project.

“Why wouldn’t you put a farm here?” Wright asks rhetorically. “Doesn’t it make sense to put food where the people are at? A library or a farm, it’s all nourishment. Being able to be self-sustainable is a major weapon and I think there’s a true effort to keep people from being beggars and asking for handouts. Gardens and farms are healing places. There’s no coincidence the majority of creation stories begin in a garden. Growing your own food is a revolutionary act.”