Protest by hunger strike inspires yet depresses

Last fall, my 13-year-old son won an essay contest on "leadership," and got to spend a day in Washington with Randall Robinson, the executive director of TransAfrica. He allowed my son to sit in on several meetings, including one with a West African diplomat who wanted TransAfrica's support on Capitol Hill. My son also heard the staff discuss lobbying strategies and chuckled at their commentaries on the personalities of public figures. He even ate lunch with the group at a soul food restaurant.

And my son apparently had a great time. "How did it go?" I asked him at day's end.


"OK," he answered. (But, you see, he said this with enthusiasm.)

So my family paid particular attention last month when Mr. Robinson launched his hunger strike in protest of U.S. policy toward Haiti. My son's experiences had given us a sense of this public figure as a person: a tall, dignified man of gentle demeanor, with an easygoing sense of humor; a man who felt comfortable enough with himself that he could treat a 13-year-old visitor with the respect due a peer.


I mention this because we often take such men for granted. We complain that there are not enough role models for young blacks when, in fact, young people are surrounded by men and women of great humanity and courage. Perhaps we have not lost role models so much as we have lost our ability to appreciate them.

For nearly a month, Mr. Robinson refused all solid foods -- once growing so weak that he had to be hospitalized -- as the Clinton administration continued its policy of repatriation of Haitian refugees. The hunger strike was supported by Rep. Kweisi Mfume and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who demonstrated outside the White House against our Haitian policy.

When the protests began, the U.S. was adamant in its refusal to accept Haitian refugees fleeing political repression there and soft in its support of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted two years ago by the military. News of the Haitian military's torture and murder of thousands had drifted to the inside pages of most newspapers.

Mr. Robinson's hunger strike put the issue of tyranny back in the news. And last weekend, President Clinton announced a change in policy toward Haiti. Haitian refugees now will be given the opportunity to apply for asylum as political refugees. On Sunday Mr. Robinson ended his fast after 27 days. His victory made me proud -- proud that my son had had the opportunity to meet a man of such strength and commitment; and proud that such people exist in the world.

Having said that, I also must note that the president's announced change seems mighty subtle to me; essentially Bill Clinton is continuing a policy toward black refugees that he himself labeled two-faced and racist while he was running for office. The majority of the refugees will continue to be labeled "economic" rather than "political" refugees, incarcerated in camps and eventually returned -- in the words of the United Nations Human Rights Commission -- "to a regime of lawlessness and terror."

And the president was quick to reassure the nation last weekend that "we aren't opening up the floodgates" to Haitians. In short, Haitians fleeing to this country will continue to be treated with a contempt unlike that received by any other group.

"It is an overtly racist, downright repugnant policy," says Ahpaly Coardin, an advocate with the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees. "The clear message is that we do not want all of those blacks flooding to our shores."

It is a policy we should not tolerate.


Mr. Robinson's hunger strike, though dramatic and effective, was made necessary by citizens' silent acquiescence to U.S. policy. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were forced to demonstrate outside the White House because of our apathy. Those were acts of desperation, the political tactics of outsiders. To my knowledge, Sen. Jesse Helms never has felt compelled to go on a hunger strike to get his point across -- perhaps because his constituents are awake, alert, active.

As I said, I take pride in Mr. Robinson's courage. But I feel a little ashamed that such last-ditch tactics are necessary.