Writing

Rameau's Rebellion (Category 305)

Nov 5, 2006

November 2006. By Tristram Korten

It’s a Wednesday night, the week before Christmas on a weedy lot by the corner of NW 17th Avenue and 62nd Street in Liberty City. Max Rameau is holding court on a couch so miserably stained and full of holes it looks like the ground itself belched it up. Surrounding him are a disheveled group of squatters, and their sturdy little pallet-walled shacks.

As a scrim of smoke from a nearby cooking barrel veils the twilight sky, Rameau appears like some millennial Homer stalking the campfires outside Troy. Given that he is, at this moment, briefing his troops, er residents, at this impromptu shanty-town about an imminent raid by the City of Miami, the more conventional simile would be Hector on the walls looking morosely at the marauding Greek armies. But anyone with knowledge of Rameau and his saboteur instincts knows that the offensive belongs to the solidly-built Haitian-American with a round belly.

Umoja Village, the homeless haven hatched from his mind, was erected October 23. The village’s stated purpose was to provide what the government had failed to; housing for the poor, in this case the homeless. But as symbol and statement it was much more lethal -- a direct attack at the complacent and dismissive sensibilities of our good bureaucrats, a way to broadcast local government’s failure to live up to the pledges made to the most destitute. In short, it was a way to put government on the defensive.

Rameau and his battalion of homeless moved in under cover of a 1998 Pottinger settlement, in which a judge ruled the City of Miami could not arrest the homeless engaged in "life sustaining conduct" on public land. Now, in order to erase this embarrassment (the Super Bowl is coming, after all), our city fathers had to start the clumsy and public process to redefine "exempt public lands" so that they can eventually raid and raze the place.

Already one commissioner, Tomas Regalado, has sided with the homeless, and vowed to block the bulldozers himself. With the debate raging through the holidays, Mayor Manny Diaz and his flunky commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones maneuvered themselves right into the Grinch’s corner. It was a PR check mate.

With a director’s sense of timing, Rameau has struck at the Achilles heel of government for more than a decade, and in the process avoided becoming the easily dismissed cliché of inner city activist that dogs most urban centers: the solemn preacher intoning worn phrases from 40 years ago; the flamboyant agitator in the pressed suit and pinky ring; the militant in the kofi hat.

Rameau has been able to carve his own identity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in anything other than black shorts and T-shirt -- ever. He’s BORN Haitian, the product of middle-class D.C., where he attended a private, military Catholic school. He went to the University of Maryland before migrating to Florida International University, where he showed his early embrace of abstract ideals by leaving school just before graduating. "I didn’t want to legitimize that whole thing of who has value in society," he explains.

In all his work opposing the system, he has been refreshingly unburdened by the guilt of being a black man who has never been arrested. His work is his street cred, and he’s unselfconscious about it.

In front of a crowd, he doesn’t orate so much as lecture in a calm, slightly urgent voice that displays what can be razor-like reasoning. I can write all this with confidence because Rameau has been a fixture of my reporting ever since I moved down here in 1998. In fact, I’d like to think I was one of the first to start putting his name in print along with another grass roots activist, Leroy Jones. Back then, it was about their success getting police to stop arresting inner city residents for "loitering" in their own neighborhoods as part of the federal "Weed and Seed" program. It only progressed from there.

Rameau was instrumental in pushing through, along with the ACLU, the Civilian Investigative Panel that oversees the Miami Police Department following the arrests of officers for planting evidence at police shootings. He presciently opposed the federal HOPE VI program that knocked down the Scott Homes housing project in order to build townhouses in a starry-eyed scheme to promote home ownership among the poor. The Scott Homes were destroyed sure enough, but not much else has happened.

"I am concerned with this history of community engineering, where they move people around like sacks of potatoes. I don't trust HUD. They have basically admitted sending us to bad places. And with the level of corruption in the county, especially in the construction industry, this is a recipe for disaster for the most vulnerable segment of society."

That is a Max quote from 1999 on the nascent plans for HOPE VI. It was years before the Herald began snooping around the poorly-run county Housing Agency. People in the system scoffed at Max then, claiming he was paranoid, or attempting to sow distrust to further his activist agenda. They should choke on their words now.

Not every action he’s taken has shown such insight. Less sophisticated were the protests he and Jones organized outside an Arab-owned convenience store where the owner had shot a black man who allegedly threatened him. Police arrested the owner, but the protests had less to do with seeking justice than with xenophobic resentment of who owned the businesses where.

Still, in a city and county helmed by dullards, Rameau’s maneuvers have shown a creative flair. He makes them think. Often he does this by staking out what would seem a preposterous position – disarm the police, or in the case of Miami, dissolve the department altogether; give not only released felons the right to vote, but also those still imprisoned. Alternatively, if you can’t vote, you shouldn’t pay taxes. But in all this there was a method to his madness.

"I think people operate out of a whole set of assumptions," he says. "Once you challenge the assumptions, you see they are not nearly as logical as you thought."

Max’s critics and enemies keep waiting for him to fall out of character and parlay his influence into a lucrative deal of some sort, political lobbying, governmental consulting. He has yet to slip. He has steadfastly refused to mix his political work and money. Instead he has pieced a living together project by project; working as a web designer, then for an inner city economic development organization. He was staff for a time for the Miami Worker’s Center, helping organize the FTAA protests, which he says is the only time he’s taken money for overt political work.

His work in the shantytown, where he is now preparing for the imminent arrival of police, is of course unpaid. "The government is playing an active role in perpetuating gentrification," he explains to a knot of people as dusk falls and candles inside the shacks make them glow like lanterns. "The underlying assumption here is that local government has been playing an active role in perpetuating the housing crisis, not mitigating it."

I can’t help wonder if a raid is exactly what he wants – it would be a political nightmare for city officials. Rameau denies this, asserting that keeping the shantytown running is an end in itself. That may be true as well. After all, for the state’s biggest critic, an anarchic anti-state is a dream come true.

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