By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
He was walking his Dalmation near Deerfield Beach High School when his war started.
A car pulled beside him. Four youths with Creole lilts jumped out and came at him. Derick Strobridge had no time to think.
"I tried to fight my way out of the situation," says Strobridge, a big fellow with long dreads and a long, wispy beard growing from his chin. "They swung at me, and I swung back, because I didn't know what was happening. My dog attacked one of the guys. And then the cops came, and they threatened to shoot my dog.
"After that, all my friends said, 'From this day forward, we aren't going to put up with this,'" Strobridge says. "And that's how I got jacked into it."
He knows there was only one reason the Haitian boys in that car chose him for a beating: He's African-American. And now, he had a reason to fight too. Strobridge, then a junior at Deerfield High, and his friends took revenge in the schoolyard.
"We found out who they were, and it was retaliation time," he says. "When we saw them, I said, 'Why did you jump me?' and we all started fighting. And it was back and forth like that for the whole year, again and again."
Strobridge knows that, like too many of his friends, he could have ended up in a casket if he kept at it. A chance encounter helped change all that and spurred him on to college and to the Job Corps. Now, at age 25, he's back on the Deerfield streets, only this time, he's trying to end the fighting.
Aligned with a local church, he's made it his full-time job, living at home and surviving on savings. The work is dangerous. Bullets are flying instead of fists. The culture clash between Haitians and African-Americans has escalated into a full-on street war.
Drive-bys are routine. Houses, cars and young men are being sprayed with gunfire on a weekly basis. The crackling of shots is most common between the two railroad tracks in central Deerfield, especially around the high school and Westside Park, where the battle has been going full-tilt.
Adding to the violence, helping it surge to never-before-seen levels, has been a bump in the drug trade, with loosely organized drug gangs aligned with both sides battling over turf.
But most of the violence seems to stem from simple schoolyard fights and grudges. The arguments may be petty, but the results are profound. Numerous youths have been shot during the past 28 months, with at least four killed. Strobridge has personally attended three of the funerals and saw one victim, a good friend, die in his doorway.
The bloodshed has come at a time when crime is on the rise in South Florida, especially north of Deerfield in Palm Beach County. Perhaps that's one reason the street war in this otherwise quiet seaside town of 70,000 has gone largely uncovered by the media.
Another obvious reason is that Deerfield officials have seemed loathe to speak of it until very recently, as if ignoring the violence might make it go away.
In the fall, the Broward Sheriff's Office, in what many residents complain was a belated response, began a crackdown in Deerfield that it calls "Operation Cease Fire." The effort, which shell-shocked residents say was sorely needed, has led to dozens of arrests and some cursory media attention.
But it hasn't stopped the shootings and killings. On January 4, a Haitian youth named Yndry Cadet became the latest victim of the gunfire, shot near the town's American Legion post. After being hit with bullets, he drove to a nearby home where he'd been staying, crashing into the backyard and dying on the steering wheel.
The ethnic battle that ensnared Cadet dates back decades. But its escalation from schoolyard squabbles to deadly street violence isn't hard to trace. It begins in 2004, with the bullet-ridden body of another boy.
It's one of those mythical stories that seems just as meaningful, maybe even more so, as if it never really happened. It goes that a Deerfield High student named Steven Jennings decided to make a statement on the day the school celebrated Haiti's Independence Day:
He burned the island nation's flag in the school's parking lot.
At that moment, a hardcore group of Haitians decided that Jennings would die. While the story floats through Deerfield, nobody could, or would, verify that the flag-burning actually took place. But there is no doubt Jennings was marked for death.
"It started ever since he was in middle school," recalls his mother, Pamela Hankerson, who works for the Postal Service. "I used to ask him why they were always fighting. He told me the Haitians would fight the Americans. Then he got to high school, and it still continued.
"I asked him, 'Why are you fighting?' Nobody knew."
She was asking an uneasy question with an uneasy answer. Almost invariably, each side blames the other for starting the violence, which erupted after nearly four decades of peaceful if not equal existence between the two groups.
Haitian immigrants, though, were generally treated like second-class citizens for decades, longtime residents say. American schoolkids would belittle Haitians with cruel rumors and use the term Haitian as a cutdown.