What we are told about elementary schoolchildren being mistreated at Public School 34 in Queens is horrific and unforgivable. But that we heard about it at all - and that school officials have been pressured to react more quickly than they might ordinarily - says something about the power of outrage spurring action via community radio and the Internet.
In mid-March, we are told, an assistant principal at the school decided to punish all 13 Haitian fourth-graders in a bilingual class after two of them had the kind of scuffle that is typical of fourth grade - and childhood - everywhere. It was the punishment that was cruel and unusual.
The kids were made to sit on the cafeteria floor and forced to eat their lunch using their fingers, even as some of them begged for utensils and others recoiled in humiliation as other school kids looked on.
"In Haiti, they treat you like animals, and I will treat you the same way here," the assistant principal, Nancy Miller, supposedly told them.
After parents began to piece together the story, they contacted the school but received no satisfaction for a few weeks. But then some of them got the word out to people savvy with the Internet.
Francia Devis, an aunt of one of the 13 who were humiliated, helped organize the protests. "With the E-mail, you send it to 10 or 30 people all together," she says. And, of course, those 10 or 30 forward that E-mail to their networks.
And so on and so on. I learned about the situation from an E-mail forwarded to me from a friend who had received it from someone else. Its origin was from two Haitian radio hosts, Dahoud Andre and Manno Louizaire, who learned about the PS 34 incident from Ninaj Raoul, the executive director of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, when she appeared on their afternoon show.
Andre and Louizaire's show is broadcast on a subcarrier radio station called Radio Lakay. You need a special radio receiver to hear the station at 96.3 SCA.
Within days, well before the politicians showed up, not only Haitian-Americans in New York City but people across the nation knew something was amiss at PS 34.
"E-mail was huge," said Raoul. "We're part of other social justice movements, so we just used our networks for that."
What is happening with the PS 34 protest represents a new level for people aggrieved by very local problems - especially those who feel marginalized by those who usually wield power. Too often, we grumble and go little further than that. The PS 34 campaign demonstrates that with a minimal investment of time in cyberspace, one can galvanize people, attract media AND move bureaucrats off the slo-mo speed.
Gary Pierre-Pierre, the publisher of the Brooklyn-based Haitian Times newspaper, was, like me, surprised at this effective use of communication tools. "The future is here," he told me. "It makes activism a lot more accessible."
Whatever the ultimate outcome of this protest drive - and so far the assistant principal has been reassigned to an office job while the case is investigated - I applaud the effort. More power to the people!