Long before taking a knee or sloganeering with a T-shirt became in fashion for a professional athlete, an NBA center was turned away at gunpoint, he recalled, from a federal immigration detention center in Miami that he visited to join a protest of the government’s virtual imprisonment of his people. They were a couple hundred Haitians, the same progeny of enslaved Africans whom President Trump so vulgarly vilified days ago, being held simply for fleeing the deadly chaos of a coup against a brutal dictatorship on their half of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
“Those boys [security guards] pointed those guns and said, ‘Click, click,’ ” Olden Polynice recalled. “I froze in my tracks. It was crazy.”
By the time Polynice showed up there Jan. 5, 1993, more than a dozen of his countrymen being held were afflicted by HIV and were no longer eating. They’d started a hunger strike in hope of shaming the Clinton administration into processing and freeing them as what they were, asylum seekers.
The 7-foot Polynice, who emigrated from Port-au-Prince to New York with his parents when he was 7, was in his sixth NBA season when he confronted federal authorities in Miami. He was rehabilitating on the Pistons’ injured reserve list at the time but couldn’t sit idly by, he said, while his people suffered. So he departed the team for the ongoing protests at the Miami center.
“Danny Glover, just a slew of folks, too many to name, were getting arrested for my country,” Polynice told me Friday night over the phone from his Southern California home. “I was like, ‘If I don’t do something, then what am I doing here?’ ”
Upon returning to the Pistons’ roster in late January 1993, he did do something. Polynice announced to the media, “As of today, I’ll be on a hunger strike to protest the U.S. policies against the Haitian refugees.”
The utter disdain Trump expressed a few days ago for Africans in general, and in particular for African diasporans in Haiti, foretold that this administration would probably return to the theme of previous U.S. policy toward Haitians that Polynice protested a quarter-century ago. It is, basically, Haitians are not wanted here. They aren’t wanted now any more than when Toussaint L’Ouverture in 1791 led the successful slave rebellion there that inspired enslaved Africans throughout the Americas to strike back en masse against those who held them.
Indeed, during the dictatorship of the Duvaliers for much of the second half of the last century, U.S. administrations, having propped up the regime, all but refused to recognize its brutality and acknowledge those trying to escape it were refugees and not undocumented workers to be detained and turned around. The Haiti inherited by President George W. Bush suffered the deposing of an elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Obama White House policy on the country was mired in the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti eight years ago Friday, the day after Trump underscored his racism by spitting bigoted views about Haitians while calling for more emigration from Western Europe.
“It’s upsetting for a sitting president to make such a statement,” Polynice said. “I’m not surprised by him. I’m just surprised that we’ve allowed this to happen. That’s the only thing that I’m surprised with. His racism is out front and in center. I know that.
“It’s that I know and believe in the decency of a lot of people and I’m not just seeing it in full force. I was moved [to protest] because I saw all the wonderful people that were helping my country.”
Polynice, who played collegiately at Virginia, admitted he hadn’t thought through his hunger strike upon announcing it.
“At first, I was just not eating anything,” Polynice said.
He then heeded a suggestion that he eat something on game days. Between games, he took in only liquids.
But at home during the all-star break, just a week or 10 days into his protest, Polynice recalled: “I stood up to go to the bathroom, and boom! The next thing I know is that my family members are like, ‘Are you okay, are you okay?’ I was on the ground.
“My mom was like, ‘You can’t do this anymore.’ So I stopped, and the next day I went and had my first meal.”
It is noted by history that in 1994, a year after Polynice joined his brethren’s hunger strike, the Haitian refugee crisis ended. But Trump reminded that the first black republic beyond Africa is still regarded here as undesirable, despite its many contributions to this country. The Creole culture of the city everyone loves, New Orleans, was born from Haiti. For much of the last half of the last century, Haiti produced the key ingredient for America’s old pastime: the baseball.
“The stuff that we’ve done for this country, or what my ancestors did,” Polynice said. “That’s what frustrates me the most: They’ve made it that everything bad is us. That’s what hurts more than anything else.”
It was reported by many at the time that Polynice was the first professional athlete to engage in a hunger strike during that athlete’s season. But, unlike Colin Kaepernick, he wasn’t celebrated on magazine covers and with awards.
“I was a pariah,” Polynice said.
The racists found the Pistons’ address and sent him hate mail spiced with racial slurs. They told him to go back to Africa. He said his teammates laughed at him. Opponents trash-talked his efforts on the court. The league called and asked him why he’d joined the Haitian protests in the first place.
“I was like, ‘What are you talking about, why am I doing this?’ ” Polynice said. “I’m protesting something that was near and dear to me.
“Nobody was woke back then.”
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post. Follow @ProfBlackistone.