Thousands of demonstrators, many waving bathroom plungers and Haitian flags, massed in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Saturday to protest the beating of a Haitian immigrant at a local police precinct and to assail the Giuliani administration’s record on police brutality.
The protest, the most vocal show of anger yet over the beating of Abner Louima, started at the club where Louima was first confronted by the police a week earlier and was to wind to the precinct where he was beaten. But as the protest gathered steam, the main body of demonstrators began heading down Flatbush Avenue into the teeming heart of the Caribbean community, where many more joined in from the streets.
As the marchers gathered, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, speaking on Staten Island, said that the police officer who had come forward to give information about the attack had been placed under special protection, as had his family, as a precaution to insure their safety.
Louima was picked up in a street scuffle outside a Flatbush nightclub called the Club Rendez-Vous early last Saturday morning. He has since charged that he was dragged into the station house bathroom, where one police officer held him while another jammed the wooden handle of a toilet plunger up his rectum and then into his mouth, all the while screaming racial slurs. Two officers have been charged in the attack.
Saturday, as the march began outside the club, a large show of police greeted the protesters. And the protest seemed to get out of the hands of the organizers, who had pledged a peaceful march to the precinct. Police huddled with protest leaders to keep the march in check.
During the demonstration, police appeared determined not to get into any confrontations. Along the route, marchers climbed up telephone poles and others pelted insults at police, but drew no physical response.
Protest leaders said they wanted the city to realize the seriousness of the police brutality problem.
“We’re trying to send a message to officials in City Hall,” said Ronald Aubourg of the Haitian Center Council, which represents eight Haitian community groups in the area, “to recognize the problem and fix it.”
Eddie Jean, 34, who has been in the United States from Haiti for the last 12 years, said that he had been a supporter of the mayor before this, but that the incident had caused him to rethink his politics.
“We are all in agreement with the mayor in terms of putting more cops on the street” for protection, Jean said. But he continued, “this guy, by doing this, tarnished the name of the mayor.”
At the same time, a separate protest led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, a Democratic mayoral candidate, was taking place at the precinct under the sweltering humidity of the Brooklyn afternoon. The fact that there were two separate demonstrations - one led by Haitians, one by Sharpton - suggested that Haitian leaders were reluctant that the march be politicized by Giuliani’s opponent.
Giuliani, however, who has staked much of his administration’s reputation on the actions of the police, was swift and vociferous in denouncing the incident, and twice visited the victim in the hospital.
The mayor and Police Commissioner Howard Safir also reacted swiftly in transferring the precinct’s commander and his executive officer, suspending the desk sergeant on duty at the time of the incident and placing 10 other officers, including a patrol sergeant, on desk duty. The commissioner said that the desk sergeant, in charge of the precinct at the time, “at a minimum, will be charged with a failure to supervise.”