Free This Priest

Father Gerard Jean-Juste is no outlaw. He's a Magic City hero.

First a rock smashed the front window. Then, after a metal shutter was slammed shut, a bottle exploded against it. Then another. And another.

A thousand Haitians burst through a police barricade one steamy summer Saturday in 1990 and swarmed a storefront off Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. Inside, as muscular Cuban-American shopkeeper Luis Reyes snapped on a bulletproof vest, one Miami cop loaded his shotgun while another pulled his pistol. I sat on a box in the rear, terrified. "They've moved the Dumpster against the back door," Reyes said. "They're starting a fire."

Early in the day, after a store clerk had pummeled a Haitian-American shopper, Creole-language radio announcers egged on the attack at the Rapid Transit Factory Outlet on 79th Street. A mob gathered. Then a young news reporter, I had heard the broadcasts and wandered inside just before the violence began.

After several hours, when there was a lull and the fire had been extinguished, one of the cops decided I should leave. "It might get ugly," he said. "You'll be safer outside." So I tucked my notebook in my pocket, cracked the door, and exited. I was the target for a fuming crowd. "Journaliste," I shouted, hands aloft. "Reporter."

Several men crouched. One moved toward me. I distinctly recall his angry expression and bloodshot eyes.

Then there was a hand on my shoulder, the word friend was spoken in Creole, and in an instant the mood changed. The crowd embraced me.

The hand and the word belonged to the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, whose actions saved me and the others in the store that day. Speaking through a megaphone, he eventually -- peacefully --- helped end the attack.

Now Jean-Juste -- a puckish, pudgy-faced, twelve-year South Florida resident who left Miami soon after the riot and has ministered to Haiti's poor children ever since — is stuck in a prison cell in Port-au-Prince. Falsely accused of participating in the killing of his cousin, journalist Jacques Roche, he has become a martyr. Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience. Thirty-four members of Congress have called for his release. And 400 clergy of all stripes signed a petition sent to President George W. Bush demanding his freedom.

The man ultimately responsible for jailing Jean-Juste on the trumped-up charges — he was in Miami at the time Roche was kidnapped — is longtime Boca Raton radio commentator Gerard Latortue, who's now the country's interim prime minister.

The dispute is a distinctly South Florida affair.

"Jean-Juste is still a hero here," says Dufirstson Neree, a thrice-minted Ivy League grad and Haitian-American who's running for Congress from an area that includes Little Haiti. "No one can defend the position that he is a terrorist or a menace to society."

Three decades ago, Jean-Juste became the first Haitian ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in the United States. In 1978, just two years before a huge wave of his countrymen transformed Miami in a boatlift, he helped establish the Haitian Refugee Center, a group that has fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for the rights of people from the world's first independent black republic.

Jack Lieberman, another HRC cofounder, remembers that Jean-Juste manned the center in Liberty City and helped keep the peace during the many 1980s riots that shook the Magic City. "When he first came to the Haitian Refugee Center, most of the church agencies wanted to treat the Haitian refugee issue as one of charity," Lieberman says. "Jean-Juste pointed out that there was an injustice. Cubans were treated better than Haitians."

In the years that followed, Jean-Juste organized marches against Haiti's Duvalier regime, bad U.S. immigration law, and discriminatory policies in everything from housing to blood donation. For the Miami Herald, I covered a half-dozen protests he led with megaphone in hand. I studied Creole and sat with him in the empty office of Veye Yo, a political meeting house on 54th Street that he helped create.

He often spoke of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. He was a true leader.

Of course, he was a rabble-rouser. Archbishop Edward McCarthy was suspicious of Jean-Juste's Liberation Theology leaning and denied him a pulpit. In response, Jean-Juste termed McCarthy a racist. After several drowned Haitian boat people washed up on a South Florida beach, Jean-Juste sued, claimed the bodies, and turned the burial into a protest.

In 1991, after Jean-Bertrand Aristide took power in a rare democratic election in Haiti, he returned home. "After all the years in exile, he needed to go back to minister to his people," says Lavarice Gaudin, director of Veye Yo today. "He's always been a nonviolent man but one who will nevertheless push for what is right."

He also gained political power as Aristide appointed him minister/liaison for Haitians living abroad. Then, only seven months after Jean-Juste had arrived on the island, Aristide was ousted by a bloody military coup. Jean-Juste went into hiding for three years.

He turned up on the island again in 1994, after U.N. forces returned Aristide to power. For the next ten years, he traveled often between the United States and Haiti, paying particular attention to South Florida, where more than 250,000 Haitians live. He visited his sister Francine, who lives in Broward County, and sometimes led protests. At a demonstration in Washington, D.C., in 1997, the year the Florida Marlins won the World Series, he told the assembled thousands: "The same way all of us came together in Miami to celebrate the Marlins — black, white, and brown — let us all come together for justice, peace, and fairness."

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