Police Brutality and Voodoo Justice

Rudy, Race, and Religion in the Wake of Louima and Dorismond

A grief-stricken Marie Dorismond, clutching a black, leather-cased Bible, struggled to her feet following a rousing introduction by her adviser, the Reverend Al Sharpton, on a Saturday morning last month. An overflow crowd at Sharpton's House of Justice in Harlem, which had welcomed the mother of alleged police-brutality victim Patrick Dorismond, was ululating with fervor akin to a mau-mau victory dance.

Overnight, a scandal-scarred Mayor Rudy Giuliani seemed to have committed political suicide: He had dropped out of the U.S. Senate race against First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. At long last, the spell cast by the city's famously ill-tempered leader appeared to be dissipating.

Many in the crowd seemed captivated by the stocky, church going Marie Dorismond, believing that the Haitian immigrant—who had named her slain son after Ireland's patron saint, and whose familiar, raspy-voiced complaint about Giuliani-style justice had touched New Yorkers—had something to do with the sudden turn of events in the mayor's life. Every time Mrs. Dorismond prayed, every time she tilted her head toward the heavens—her wide-set eyes rolled back—enraptured blacks felt that she had an inside track on Giuliani's destiny. Whatever Mrs. Dorismond prayed for remains her secret. But Giuliani, she often predicted, had it coming for what he's done. "The Lord said, 'I put my child in the earth. Don't touch my child! You got no right to kill!' " she would cry. "The Lord said, 'The time soon come. I am the Lord! You must respect me!' "

In March, after an undercover cop fatally shot her son in front of a Manhattan nightclub, Giuliani said Dorismond was "no altar boy." He released the victim's sealed juvenile record and refused to send condolences to the family. From then on, nothing seemed to go right for the garrulous chief executive. Since Dorismond's death, Giuliani and his top cohort, Police Commissioner Howard Safir, have been diagnosed with prostate cancer; the mayor has announced that he is separating from his wife of 16 years, Donna Hanover; and his Senate bid lies in ruins.

In Brooklyn's Little Haiti and on black talk-radio station WLIB, the so-called "Dorismond Curse" permeated discussions about police brutality and Haitian voodoo, the little-understood Caribbean religion, which once empowered slaves from Africa who were whipped and worked to death but finally revolted. The slave revolution started with a voodoo ceremony in 1791 and ended 13 years later with the birth of Haiti. To this day, some voodoo holy men carry machetes symbolizing the spiritual power that fueled their ancestors' hard-won freedom. The slaves who arrived in the 1600s on the island of Hispaniola—one-third of which is now occupied by Haiti—toiled in cotton, sugar, and coffee fields. To survive, they worshipped the Roman Catholic saints of their European masters, while secretly seeing them as representations of African deities. Thus was born voodoo, a word derived from the Fon language of West Africa, meaning "sacred."

In Little Haiti, it is not uncommon to walk into homes or apartments that have been converted into voodoo temples filled with dolls—"messengers" for spirits that help people probe the mysteries of life and death. Some are well-worn Barbies with notes that hang upside down by threads tied to their ankles. Doing "business" means summoning the 11 principal voodoo divinities, or "Iwa," derived from benign West African spirits and aggressive Central African and Creole ones. Rhythms beaten on drums and beaded rattles with bells awaken the deities.

While some blacks, who adhere to the notion that voodoo is an "evil religion," envision zombies sticking pins in dolls resembling Giuliani and Safir, others wonder whether Mrs. Dorismond herself has done a little "business" to cajole the deity who would solve the mystery of her son's death. But Mrs. Dorismond would have no part of that, scoffing at rumors that voodoo is responsible for "who get hurt," a reference to Giuliani's and Safir's prostate cancer.

"This is my voodoo! My Bible!" she said, hoisting the book and waving it around to accolades from supporters at the Sharpton rally. "I will never stop carry this!" she added. "It's in my hand! . . . And everybody gonna hear this! The Lord said, 'If you touch my hair, you're gonna pay for it.' "

For some believers in "evil voodoo," the first Abner Louima police-brutality trial hinged on a handful of lavender rocks and holy water. During the explosive civil rights case in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn earlier this year, the father of Justin Volpe, the white cop who was accused of sodomizing Louima with a broken broomstick, told friends he was warned by Haitian spiritual healers that Louima is a wicked voodoo high priest bent on deadly revenge.

Robert Volpe, a former NYPD detective, reportedly carried around the kind of protection his spiritual advisers bragged would make Louima's evil bogeys suffer. The irony in Volpe's alleged fear that Louima—who wears a bulletproof vest—threatened his family with voodoo has not escaped some Haitians, who contend that Volpe's son brought a curse on himself. Some believe that Justin Volpe got the idea for the sadistic assault from the 1996 mutilation killing of popular Haitian family doctor Claude Michel.

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