Suffolk County

Risco Mention-Lewis, left, was named deputy comissioner in 2012. She said she sees today’s protests as a genuine moment for legitimate reform. File photo

Risco Mention-Lewis, who has been a Deputy Police Commissioner since 2012, talked with TBR News Media about the recent protests on Long Island and about the relationship between the police and communities of color. The deputy commissioner supported the Constitutionally protected right to protest. Mention-Lewis was an assistant district attorney in Nassau County and has served as the first African American Deputy Police Commissioner in Suffolk County. In a wide-ranging interview, which is edited for space, Mention-Lewis offered her candid assessment of the civil unrest and the questions about police triggered by the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the end of May.

TBR: Have you spent time at the protests?

Mention-Lewis: I have not spent a lot of time at the protests. If I can’t [be there], I know somebody who knows somebody. It’s six degrees of separation. I run a support group for previously incarcerated [called Council of Thought and Action, or COTA]. A lot of the guys in that population are marching. Some of them are in the heads of the group, next to the person leading. I can reach out and see if I can have a dialog.

TBR: You did go to Mastic [on June 1]. What happened there?

Mention-Lewis: The young people needed a little conversation and guidance. I was there for 4.5 hours. My knees were so crimped that I couldn’t get into my car.

TBR: What did you do in Mastic?

Mention-Lewis: When they started getting a little out of control, jumping on the Sunrise [Highway], I thought if I could get on the ground and have a conversation, I could help them rethink the way they protest. There’s nothing wrong with protesting. America wouldn’t be here [if we didn’t protest].

TBR: What is your role in these protests?

Mention-Lewis: I’m the Deputy Police Commissioner. The way I look at it, the time we’re in is the time I was born for. My whole career has brought me to be who I am in this moment in time. 

TBR: Can you offer some examples?

Mention-Lewis: All the things I’ve been doing my career are coming together. I’ve been talking about race my entire career. I’ve been talking about disparate treatment in criminal justice. [I have supported] more resources for previously incarcerated people and people of color my entire career. If we want to drive down crime, you have less reentry to do if you do more intervention. We’re focused on the back end, when we could do much more on the front end.

“People in Hauppauge don’t need a Department of Labor as much as people Wyandanch. Why not put resources where they are needed, where people don’t have cars?”

— Risco Mention-Lewis

TBR: What are some of the solutions on the front end?

Mention-Lewis: Police spend a lot of time in minority communities. They are learning to spend time in the community versus as an outsider. They are learning about the youth centers, resource centers. They are talking to those guys on the corner. When I first got here, I hung out on the corner more than I did anything else. I know that was weird. What is the Deputy Police Commissioner doing on the corner? That’s where you get your connections and your influence, getting to know people.

TBR: What sorts of resources do people need?

Mention-Lewis: Part of our job is to make information accessible, to make resources accessible. That’s why I work with [County Executive Steve] Bellone and [Babylon Town Supervisor Rich] Schaffer to make sure the resource center has what is needed in a resource center. If I have to travel two to 2.5 hours on a bus, I’m not getting that resume done. Go online? What if I don’t have Internet. What if I only have a laptop or a cell phone? The resource center needs to have computers. Some communities need a Department of Labor in the neighborhood.

TBR: Like where?

Mention-Lewis: It’s simple, common sense. People in Hauppauge don’t need a Department of Labor as much as people Wyandanch. Why not put resources where they are needed, where people don’t have cars?

TBR: Are protestors talking about any of this?

Mention-Lewis: A lot of protests are talking about [how they want] better. Okay, have you done the research?

TBR: Have the police been effective in making community connections?

Mention-Lewis: We’ve done a really good job of getting into our communities. It’s why we didn’t have incidents [during the over 100 protests]. We had people on bikes talking with people before the marches started.

TBR: Are the protests creating change?

Mention-Lewis: Humans navigating life in white skin have the privilege of not thinking about race, until now. However, because they have not thought about it, they often may not know how to think about it. I’m a practical person. I want resources in the community and also help the Police Department Command understand the framing in the moment.

TBR: Are African American residents skeptical of government resources?

Mention-Lewis: One of the largest things that the government and policing need to understand: because of the history of America, Black people, even if sometimes you bring the resources, [think] it’s a suspect resource. There’s the Tuskegee experiment [in which Black men with syphilis didn’t receive treatment, even when penicillin became the standard of care in 1947. The study continued until the press reported it, in 1972].

TBR: What’s the impact of the Tuskegee Experiment?

Mention-Lewis: There’s always this undercurrent of mistrust, and rightfully so. The Tuskegee experiment went into the early 1970s. We’re talking about recent impacts on Black communities. White communities are not aware all the time. When that body was found in Huntington, people think about lynching. The police may not know, but there are six across the country that Black people are paying attention to. If you don’t know the cultural context, it’s difficult to be having the conversation.

TBR: How do you create the cultural context?

Mention-Lewis: If there are suicides or murders, it [doesn’t matter] in the sense of cultural context. People are concerned, even if the police say they are all suicides. Even if the police say they are all suicides, people of color say, ‘we know they don’t always tell us the truth, especially when we die.’

TBR: What can help develop that cultural context?

Mention-Lewis: We talk to leadership. We talk to families. We have a press conference with all of us and not just the police. When we start thinking about cultural context, how do we communicate taking into account that cultural context? It’s the same with recruitment. We have a low number of African Americans in the police department. We have to talk about the 1,000 pound invisible elephant in the room.

TBR: What’s your focus in the Police Department?

Mention-Lewis: Criminal justice and driving down violence in communities.

TBR: How do you think Suffolk County has done in the police department?

Mention-Lewis: We are ahead of the game. We’ve been working with the Department of Justice for many years. The DOJ is saying we have one of the best implicit bias training programs. They asked us to teach the Ferguson [Missouri Police Department, where a white police officer killed Michael Brown in 2014]. We have been doing community relations in a different way for years. We know how to work with leadership, whether that’s minority, Muslim, Black, Jewish. We know to go to leadership in churches and synagogues to get and receive information to be culturally competent.

“We’ve been working with the Department of Justice for many years. The DOJ is saying we have one of the best implicit bias training programs.”

— Risco Mention-Lewis

TBR: What are you doing to improve the process?

Mention-Lewis: We are doing traffic stop data to look at whether the stops are fair and just. We are doing a community survey to ask how we are doing. How do you know unless you ask? 

TBR: Who is looking at the traffic stop data?

Mention-Lewis: The Finn Institute.

TBR: What do you expect the Institute’s research on traffic stops will show?

Mention-Lewis: That we have work to do, but we’re willing to do it. Most data will always reveal you have work to do.

TBR: What is the methodology of the Finn study?

Mention-Lewis: With the data collection, the study will show when an officer stops a car, the race, date, time and location [of the traffic stop]. If we look at this person’s history, there might be an issue here that we can fine tune.

TBR: The results could show a range of responses, right?

Mention-Lewis: You give the rules, you test to see whether the rules are in place, then you retrain or you congratulate, depending on what’s going on.

TBR: Are you pleased that the SCPD is conducting this study?

Mention-Lewis: We are not perfect. What we have in place are systems to check the system. The community is checking us, too. The community is not just complaining to one another. They are making complaints to us.

TBR: Why isn’t the SCPD using body cameras?

Mention-Lewis: The biggest reason is the cost. It’s millions of dollars for the cameras plus the storage. It’s a great idea. We should have them, eventually. They are going to be across the United States.

TBR: What do you think of the justice system?

Mention-Lewis: We are moving in the right direction as a county. The courts should follow suit because we know with sentencing, statistically, nationally, there are issues. All this is, is an opportunity for every aspect of society to look in the mirror and say, ‘what can I do and what knowledge do I need to do my best effort?’

TBR: How do you think the police has responded to protests?

Mention-Lewis: We don’t say we are a community response unit. We are not looking to respond when something happens. That’s not our relationship with the community. We do community relations. We want to have a relationship year-round. When something happens, that’s not the first time you’re talking to us. Whatever community we’re in, we’re looking to be a part of the solution, working with the community to problem solve. We have people on bike patrol getting to know the protesters at every march.

TBR: Do you think people believe the police are protecting and serving them?

Mention-Lewis: There’s two cultures in policing: the warrior and the guardian. The warrior is what many departments have become. The guardian is what is being promoted as what we should be. Those are just words. How do our actions correspond with that? Black communities in particular have had more of a warrior treatment. How do we partner with the community to listen and deal with problems differently in those communities, effectively but differently?

TBR: Do the police serve the variety of communities effectively?

Mention-Lewis: You should be able to sit down with us and express what you feel we should have done differently. We should be willing to listen. It doesn’t mean you’re always going to walk away satisfied. We will try to figure out how to do it better.

TBR: Have protestors asking for anything unreasonable?

Mention-Lewis: The Mastic kids were asking for a youth center, or some place where they can have activities. That’s reasonable. They were asking for criminal justice reform. Okay, do your research so you know what that means. Be an educated protestor. I haven’t heard ‘defund the police.’ If someone says, ‘no racist police.’ We shouldn’t be offended by that. If they say, no f-ing police, that’s offensive. Some people want to yell in people’s faces unguarded. We have to deal with that as professionals. They are not yelling at us anyway. They are yelling at the officer on the Internet. We are carrying ourselves well through the process.

TBR: How is the police department doing in recruiting people from all communities?

Mention-Lewis: We worked hard with the community to recruit people of color. In the last recruitment class, 34 percent of the applicants identify as people of color. That hasn’t happened in the history of the department. Right now, there are 2 percent [African Americans] in the department. We’re not perfect, but we are doing the damn thing.

TBR: What are some of the easiest things to change?

Mention-Lewis: All departments should have implicit bias training. Across the country, I didn’t know this, we banned chokeholds 30 years ago and there’s still people doing it today. We need national standards for policing so that when people across the country have other rules, they don’t affect our reputation. We’re not perfect.

Fireworks in Port Jefferson for Independence Day 2019. Photo by David Ackerman

As the county prepares for a Fourth of July following a painful spring, county officials and health care providers reminded residents to remain safe during fireworks displays and to continue to follow health guidelines.

Steve Sandoval, Associate Professor of Surgery and Medical Director of the Suffolk County Volunteer Firefighters Burn Center at Stony Brook University Hospital, urged residents to be cautious around fireworks and barbecues.

The best way to avoid injuries is to “prevent the burn in the first place with safety tips and precautions to eliminate potential dangers,” Sandoval said in a statement.

The Suffolk County Volunteer Firefighters Burn Center offered 10 tips, which included viewing fireworks used by professionals, not leaving hot coals or fire pits, not using the stove top, fire pit or fireplace when residents are tired or have had alcohol.

“If burned, do you go anywhere but a facility that specializes in burn treatment,” Sandoval said.

The Suffolk County Police Department, meanwhile, warned residents of counterfeit oxycodone. Detectives recently seized pills that bear the markings of 30 mg of oxycodone but that were fentanyl instead, which is 1,000 times more potent than morphine. Ingestion can cause overdose and death. The department warned residents that people buying these pills may not be able to distinguish between the counterfeit pills and prescription oxycodone.

Viral Numbers

After two days without a death related to complications from COVID-19, two residents died in the past 24 hours. The total number of residents who have died from the virus is 1,983.

The number of new infections over the last day was 47, bringing the total to 41,538. Gregson Pigott, the Commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, said new infections crossed a whole spectrum of ages and included people in their 20’s.

The county distributed 30,000 pieces of personal protective equipment over the last day.

After the success of drive in movies at the Smithpoint County Park, the county is opening a second site for movies, at the Suffolk County Community College on the Grant Campus in Brentwood. The series will include “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” July 8, “The Karate Kid” July 9, “Matilda” on the 10th and “Back to the Future” on the 11th. Residents interested in getting free tickets can register through suffolkcountyny.gov/driveinmovies.

Sound Beach Civic Associaiton President Bea Ruberto speaks during the Veterans Day ceremony at Sound Beach Veterans Memorial Park. File photo by Desirée Keegan

How high is the hill we have yet to climb? For the last several months we followed the guidelines: We stayed home, we wore masks when we needed to go out and we maintained social distancing, and it worked — we flattened the curve. The economy is reopening, and we’re all looking forward to resuming our lives, but from a health perspective and economically, it may be a long road back.

Suffolk is a populous county and has been severely affected by this virus, and the region’s ability to recover from the costs incurred by the pandemic depends on what happens next. As I understand it, Suffolk County is requesting $1 billion in federal aid, a fraction of what we send to Washington in taxes. In addition, Long Island sends more dollars to Washington than it receives in return. According to the Suffolk County COVID-19 Fiscal Impact Force Final Report, for most years sales tax collections account for approximately half of county revenues while an additional quarter comes from property taxes. The task force is currently projecting a $329 million shortfall in sales tax collections and a 4.9 percent shortfall in property tax collections. And, although the county is budgeted to receive $314 million in state aid, the State of New York has announced that, without federal reimbursements for the COVID-19 expenses it has incurred, there will be potential cuts of 20 to 30 percent. According to this report, the full impact of the lockdown is expected to bring steeper decline in the economy, the GDP and sales tax revenues. Again, as I understand it, without federal aid, the recovery could be extended out for a decade if not longer.

We did what we were told — we shut down the economy — and we hope that now what we hear from the federal government isn’t, “Thank you for following the guidelines; now you pay the cost of the response.” The pandemic is no different than any other natural disaster, and the federal government must provide the relief it would provide during any natural disaster. The state and county budgets are hurting, yet the message we’re getting from Washington is that there’s nothing to worry about and local governments should solve “their own problems.” 

This is a pivotal moment for the region. We need to recover as soon as possible. The financial impact should not be borne primarily by taxpayers nor should we accept cuts to services provided by our first responders, police and other essential workers, but this is exactly what will happen: An already fragile economy will tank without help from the federal government.

To this end, the Sound Beach Civic Association is spearheading a letter-writing campaign reaching out to our federal representatives without whose support the taxpayers of Suffolk County will suffer — both financially and in reduction of services. We encourage everyone to join us and contact Representatives Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1), Thomas Suozzi (D-NY-3) and Peter King (R-NY-2) and U.S. Senators Charles Schumer (D) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D). If you don’t want to write your own letter, you can download one at www.soundbeachcivic.org.

Bea Ruberto is the president of the Sound Beach Civic Association.

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After months in which COVID deaths robbed families throughout Suffolk County of grandparent, parents, siblings, sons and daughters, the county reported no deaths from the virus for the second time in three days.

“From where we’ve been to where we are today is a world of difference,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on a daily conference call he’s conducted with reporters since the third week of March. “The last two out of three days is a good indicator of where we are and the positive direction we continue to move in.”

Bellone described the other numbers for the virus as “also very good.”

The number of new positive tests was 42, out of a total of 4,047. The positive tests represented about 1 percent of tests, which is about the recent rate. The total number of positive tests since the pandemic began in the county stands at 41,420.

The number of residents who have the antibody but haven’t had a positive test stands at 19,270.

The number of hospitalizations was one of the few figures that moved in an unfavorable direction, as seven additional people entered the hospital with COVID-19, bringing the total to 73.

The number of people in the Intensive Care Unit declined by one.

Hospital bed use was at 70 percent, with 57 percent of ICU beds occupied.

An additional six people were discharged from the hospital. The county distributed 34,000 pieces of personal protective equipment over the last day.

Finally, Bellone is hosting a webinar on July 7th at 10 am to provide information to residents interested in entering the food truck business.

“Outdoor dining has proven successful during the COVID-19 pandemic, and food trucks are uniquely positioned to adapt to the challenges posed by this crisis,” Bellone said in a statement.

Suffolk County currently has 228 mobile vending vehicles, which offer food, coffee and dessert. The webinar is a part of Suffolk Count’s Business Recovery Unit. Residents interested in attending the webinar can register here.

Bethpage Ballpark in Central Islip. Photo from LI Ducks website

The Long Island Ducks will not take the field this season, as New York State wouldn’t allow the baseball team to allow fans to attend an abbreviated season.

While Major League Baseball teams, at least for now, can make a shortened season work without fans because of television and advertising revenue, the Ducks couldn’t make a fan-free season work.

“I’m disappointed the Ducks won’t be on the field,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on his daily conference call with reporters. Bellone had hoped that the state would support capacity limits, especially in an outdoor environment which would lower the risk from the transmission of COVID-19.

Bellone said the state’s decision with the Ducks shouldn’t have any impact on youth sports, in which parents are hoping to watch their children return to fields after their sons and daughters spent months away from the competition, the teammates, and the opportunity to enjoy summer games and competition.

Viral Numbers

The number of residents who tested positive for the coronavirus was 46, bringing the total to 41,386. A total of 3,312 people were tested, which means 1.4% of the tests had a positive result, which is among the higher levels of positive tests in recent weeks.

While the percentage is higher than it’s been recently, Bellone said he doesn’t put too much stock in any one day’s results.

Hospitalizations declined by six, with 66 residents now hospitalized with COVID-19. That is the first time since March that the number of people battling against the virus in the hospital was below 70.

The number of people in the Intensive Care Unit with symptoms from the virus increased by one to 24.

Hospital capacity remained below pre-set caution levels. Overall hospital occupancy was at 67%, while ICU bed occupancy was at 59%.

Nine people were discharged from hospitals in the last 24 hours.

After a day without any fatalities from complications related to COVID-19, two people died in the last day. The death toll from the coronavirus stands at 1,981.

The county distributed 5,000 pieces of personal protective equipment in the last 24 hours.

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For the first time since June 12, Suffolk County reported no deaths from COVID-19.

“I do hope and pray that it will not be another 17 days for me to be reporting zero deaths again,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on his daily call with reporters. “Hopefully, this is the start of something we will continue to see.”

The total number of deaths from the virus in the county remained at 1,979.

The number of positive tests, meanwhile, was 33, bringing the total to 41,339. With 4,481 people receiving tests in the past day, the positive tests were among the lowest the county has had in weeks, at 0.7 percent.

The number of people who tested positive for the antibody who didn’t have a positive COVID-19 test was 19,074.

Hospitalizations continued to trend slightly lower. The number of people in the hospital overall fell by three to 72. The number of people in Intensive Care Units with COVID-19 also declined by three to 23.

Hospital bed occupancy was at 68 percent, down from 70 percent the day before. ICU bed occupancy was at 62 percent.

An additional 20 people were discharged from the hospital in the last day.

Separately, the county announced a plan, starting today, to walk back some protective measures put in place for Suffolk County Transit. In March, the county asked residents to use fast fare. Busses did not take cash, riders had to board from the back of the bus, and residents needed to leave the first few rows of the bus vacant to protect drivers.

Now that the county is in Phase 3, Suffolk County Transit has re-instituted front door boarding and will accept cash, even as it is encouraging riders to use the mobile app.

The county has provided protective barriers on all busses to keep the drivers safe from infection. Riders are still required to wear face coverings until further notice.

Finally, officers in the Third Precinct arrested Pablo Figuero, a convicted sex offender, last night at 10:20 pm. He was found in a parked car on Suffolk Avenue in Central Islip and was charged with Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the 7th Degree. He was taken for arraignment today and will be held in jail. Bellone said he is wanted out of New Mexico.
This post was updated at 4:30 p.m. Monday.

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Suffolk County continued to keep viral numbers low. The number of new cases in the last day was 53, bringing the total since the beginning of the COViD-19 epidemic to 41,306.

The number of people who have tested positive for the antibody was 18,970.

The hospitalization figures remained relatively flat. In hospitalizations as a whole, two people left the hospital. The total stands at 75.

The number of people in the Intensive Care Unit with the virus was 26, which is an increase of 1.

An additional 10 people were discharged from the hospital.

Capacity remained at safe levels, with hospital occupancy at 70 percent and ICU bed capacity at 63 percent.

One person died in the last day, bringing that total to 1,979.

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As the number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in other parts of the country, such as Florida and Texas, surge to levels that put a strain on the health care system, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) appreciates the difficult and hard-fought effort that has put the county on the other side of the deadly viral curve.

“The numbers that we have right now relative to where we’ve been… are really outstanding,” Bellone said on his daily conference call with reporters.

Bellone empathized with the challenges other states and counties faced.

“To see it happening to other places around the country, it’s a terrible thing,” Bellone said.

Bellone urged residents to follow the same “common sense” things they have been doing, including wearing face coverings when they can’t socially distance, staying home when they’re not feeling well and washing their hands and using hand sanitizer.

Indeed, the numbers for the county continued to be well within the limits, even as the county entered the third day of the Phase 3 reopening.

An additional 57 people tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the total to 41,208 since the pandemic started. The total number of tests administered in the county was 5,076, which means positive tests were around 1.1 percent.

The number of people who tested positive for the antibody, who didn’t have a previous COVID-19 test, was 18,669.

Hospitalizations declined by eight to 77. The number of people in the Intensive Care Unit increased by one to 26.

Hospital capacity was at 68 percent overall and 58 percent in the ICU.

An additional 10 people were discharged from the hospitals.

One person died in the last 24 hours, bringing the total killed from complications related to COVID-19 to 1,975.

The county distributed 12,000 pieces of personal protective equipment over the last day.

Bellone urged residents to participate in the Veteran Run Series, which has raised about $1 million this year. The third race, the Michael P. Murphy run around the lake, is this Saturday Residents interested in running can register at sufflkcountyveteransrunseries.com.

From left, Steve Henaghan is still active marching for LGBT rights; Leah Gustavson is a regular participant in Long Island’s historical martial arts scene; David Kilmnick is the president of the LGBT Network on LI.

For several weeks in a row people of all races have crowded the streets of Huntington, sidewalk to sidewalk, calling for an end to prejudice.

A 1991 front page of Newsday along with the one of the original tank tops for the first LGBT pride parade in Huntington. Photo by Kyle Barr

Those same streets in Huntington village have held other marches, but one started just under 30 years ago still holds unique significance today. Go back to June 9, 1991, the sky was open blue while the sun blazed down on people who also marched through Huntington against prejudice. It was a time of oversized glasses, poofy hair and tees tucked into jeans. Many marched with rainbow flags in their hands and pride on their faces, but some also reportedly marched with bags over their heads. It wasn’t a fashion statement, it was a way to hide their identities during a time when many people in the LGBT community would be retaliated against at the workplace or even at home. 

About 800 people stood between close to 3,000, according to what journalists wrote at the time. Most cheered for the marchers, but others screamed at them, warning of eternal damnation and holding signs reading, among other expletives, “Kill Yourself.” SWAT teams lined the surrounding roofs because there had been threats of violence toward the marchers.

It was June 10, 1991, when the first Long Island LGBT-led parade strode through Huntington. Marchers shouted “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” That parade would be a landmark day for the LGBTQ community on Long Island, but for the people who marched, it meant much more than that.

“It was the proudest day of my entire life,” said Leah Gustavson, a Rocky Point resident and one of the original members of the committee who established the parade. “I felt like we started something, stuck to it and got to an end goal.”

That parade took place 24 years before the U.S. Supreme Court gave gay people the right to marry. It was 29 years before the court confirmed it was unconstitutional for businesses to discriminate against people on the basis of sex, a huge boon to the LGBTQ community, which has long experienced discrimination when applying for jobs and in the workplace.

But getting it together would take months of backbreaking effort destroying barriers, including taking a Long Island town to federal court to win their right to assemble.

Today, as protests and marches have broken out at every corner of the U.S., the memories of the struggle to have voices heard three decades ago adds a new perspective for those advocating for an end to prejudice. It’s a glimpse of how far Long Island has come and how far it might still have to go.

Beginnings of the March

The Lesbian/Gay Pride and Freedom Committee was established after June, nominally known as pride month, in 1990. It was after the group had attended other major pride celebrations that year, including the New York City pride parade as well as one earlier in March on St. Patrick’s Day, where members of an Irish gay and lesbian protest group led a parade before the main parade could start.

A few members of the local gay and lesbian community were having meetings at a gathering place near Stony Brook University. The school had an active LGBT scene with a school club found in the basement of the old Union building on campus. It was in a space that was once a closet, something that became an oft-used joke in the small burgeoning community. 

No one who was there remembers who exactly brought up the idea, but everyone who was in that room one spring day remembers the conversation about pride parades and the simple question, why wasn’t there one on Long Island? Why didn’t they try to start one, because, after all, how hard could it be?

In that small group of likeminded people, what would become the 10-member Long Island Pride and Freedom Committee was born. Gustavson related that gung ho attitidue to a sense of ”ignorant optimism,” something that can be a powerful force, especially for people who know things need to change, and that now is the time to do it.

She, and other original members of the committee, said coming together to plan this march was a way for many of these people who have long felt marginalized on Long Island to finally show they have a voice. Even still, numerous people on the committee would only publicly go by their first name, knowing they could be retaliated against in the workplace.

“We knew we were not necessarily welcome by people, but the point wasn’t to be welcomed, we were demanding that we would have equality.”

— Steve Henaghan

Those who were there look back on it as a time that was not nearly as fraught and violent as previous decades, but there still was massive underlying prejudice toward the gay community. Steve Henaghan, of Mastic, was another of the original committee members trying to get the parade started. In the 1980s, he and other gay/lesbian rights activists helped create a political action committee called Citizens for Equal Rights PAC to raise money for candidates that would support issues of equality. 

“At that time very few would come forward and say they were supporting our issues,” Henaghan said. “In 1988 and ’91 we were making inroads politically especially within the Democratic Party.”

The committee approached several places throughout the Island to hold their march. In March of ’91 they received rejections from multiple towns and villages on the Island, including both the Village of Port Jefferson and Village of Northport. 

The Record, one of a few Port Jefferson area newspapers at that time, wrote about the village board rejecting the application, saying trustees felt the committee was not “locally based,” citing that it was based in Upton, though committee members argued that was simply their mailing address. 

The Port Jeff mayor at the time, Harold Sheprow, was cited as referencing the controversy of that year’s gay rights group in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Trustees argued a Sunday march would hurt businesses, create congestion and open up the village to having to host other marches. Trustee William Glass Jr. was quoted at the time as saying, “This is political with a ‘P.’”

Henaghan could not help but laugh at hearing that quote read to him again.

“It didn’t surprise us we were rejected, it angered us,” Henaghan said. “We knew we were not necessarily welcome by people, but the point wasn’t to be welcomed, we were demanding that we would have equality.”

Northport rejected the parade for similar reasons, especially citing it was policy to only permit “community based organizations” to schedule parades. 

David Kilmnick was one of the original members of the LGPF Committee who now is president of the nonprofit LGBT Network, an association of nonprofits that looks to support the LGBT community on Long Island. He said if the committee didn’t end up securing a march route and permit, they were willing to do one anyway somewhere on Long Island, even if it potentially meant being arrested.

“We were told we would be arrested, we didn’t care,” he said. “It was our right to be able to do this. We were being flat out discriminated against because of our sexual orientation.”

With a number of rejections under their belts. LGPFC members knew they had to settle on one place, and that place was going to be Huntington.

Taking a Town to Court

The committee worked with police on creating a route through the town. Their original path was longer, about 1½ miles, but in speaking with Inspector Alden Berry of the Suffolk County Police Department, the group determined on a newer, shorter route that reduced the overtime cost for officers, closed only one lane of traffic and offered more protection to those demonstrating. By April 12, 1991, that route was approved by police and sent to Huntington.The group had already sent a request to the Huntington Highway Department. While they had confirmation the request was received, they didn’t hear back until after they sent out the notice of the parade route. 

Huntington Highway Superintendent William Naughton, a Democrat, responded to the marchers with a letter the same day they sent in the revised route. The language used in the letter would become the basis for further legal action, one that would bring in the support of the American Civil Liberties Union.

From left, Steve Henaghan is still active marching for LGBT rights; Leah Gustavson is a regular participant in Long Island’s historical martial arts scene; David Kilmnick is the president of the LGBT Network on LI.

Along with citing overtime costs for the highway department and police, it said those looking to hold parades in the town should instead ask to be included in separate parades. It also read that, “Requests from several groups have been made in the past to hold additional parades, but my policy has always been to approve the traditional parades only.”

“We saw that as blatant discrimination, and we had the right just like every other group to have a march or parade,” said Kilmnick.

March planners got in contact with the New York Civil Liberties Union, which in turn picked out several attorneys to work on the issue. Two local attorneys were picked to lead the effort.

Mitchell Gittin, who is now an East Setauket resident and attorney with the Hauppauge-based Fitzgerald Law Firm, was then a volunteer on the legal committee of the NYCLU Suffolk Branch. He was tapped to lead the litigation effort alongside fellow attorney Joel Kupferman, who described himself as having been just recently out of law school back in early ’91.

“We tried to negotiate with them and asked them why they were so concerned and their reasons for denying the permit,” Kupferman said. At the time he was also a resident in Huntington. “[Huntington attorneys] said people get drunk and destroy property in these parades. I I told them we’ll concede that as soon as you stop having St. Patty’s Day parades — they were ridiculous concerns.”

The attorneys quickly noticed the language of the highway superintendent’s letter was not concurrent with basic tenets of the U.S. Constitution. Outright denying a march in line with the First Amendment because it was not one of those “traditional parades” did not stand up to scrutiny.

“That’s what was so gratifying with the case, because frankly the law was on our side,” Gittin said. “The other side didn’t have any kind of legal counterargument, you can put restrictions on gatherings … there was no reason from a logistical perspective the pride parade would have been more burdensome than any other parade — it really did come down really to discrimination.” 

The attorneys sent a letter to the town May 9, but did not receive a response. Both the committee and Town of Huntington would end up in court. 

The deadline of June 9 for the parade was fast approaching. In early June, both sides appeared in front of U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler. Instead of a protracted back and forth, after just a few hours in court, the town agreed to grant the group a permit for the march.

Though the group did experience pushback from local elected officials there were a few that showed support, even if in small ways. New York State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) was a Suffolk County legislator back in 1991. He said the LGPFC approached his office after being rejected by the Huntington highway superintendent. He told the assembled people that he was giving them approval to use his office’s parking lot as the end point for their parade.

“Back then there were a lot of officials who were afraid to take a stand,” he said. 

Gitten said that recalling the case gives him a unique sense of pride. 

“I look back on it, and not that it was a heroic thing, it was a lawyer job, I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “It feels nice as a lawyer to look and having been part of a movement and part of a wave that’s still going on.” 

The Day Of

The parade itself would be just three quarters of a mile, a short jaunt made by many pedestrians today in what is normally glowing nights on the town in historic Huntington village, or at least it was prepandemic. For the people at the march, it would be an experience none of them would ever forget.

The committee members took up positions at the head of the column. Moving up along Gerard Street, they marched down New York Avenue then turned east onto Main Street. Above them, marchers could see the hints of helmets and glint of rifles in the sunlight. SWAT snipers had been positioned on rooftops to watch over them, as there had been several threats of violence.

That was when the marchers saw the true extent of the crowds. Newsday reported at the time 3,000 people came out to see those in the parade. It was more than they expected, and surprisingly many were shouting support. Of course, there were many community members shouting at them, saying they would “go to hell” for what they were doing. Before it became well known thanks to the show “Game of Thrones,” those marching found use in shouting “shame, shame” at those heckling their procession.

“Our adrenaline was flowing so hard and strong and then we turned the corner, that’s where the protesters were,” Henaghan said. “It was like electricity was running through our bodies, we were so charged. You realize at that moment, you are not standing down, you are going to stand up. It was one of the greatest days of our lives,”

“In 30 years I will never forget that day, that day was a victory for all of Long Island.”

— David Kilmnick

There was a general sense of both exhilaration and apprehension. This was uncharted territory for them, despite participating in other pride parades. This one was theirs, and they had to own it.

“People would call it a parade, but it was a march,” Kilmnick said. “We didn’t have the pageantry, we marched down New York Avenue and had a rally in the back of Huntington Town Hall … In 30 years I will never forget that day, that day was a victory for all of Long Island.”

When they finally reached the end, the emotions of the day were overflowing. 

“The relief was palpable,” Gustavson said. “People were hugging each other and cheering … A lot of people came to celebrate with us. Some of them were not gay, but a lot of them were. It was a party in the best sense of the word, it was celebratory.”

Douglas Futuyma, Stony Brook professor emeritus of evolutionary biology,  was convinced to speak at the 1991 march in back of the town hall building. The professor has long been known on campus as an openly gay man, unafraid to talk about it in front of students when it came up. When it came time to speak at the rally, he wanted to talk about things beyond the biology of it, that gays and lesbians did not simply choose to be so, they were born that way. He spoke of Huntington’s native son Walt Whitman, and how that poet spoke to the quick of “humankind’s exploratory and vibrant spirit.” It was the fundamental question of human rights.

“It was certainly exhilarating, despite the heckling or harassment,” he said. “It was as it should have been, a celebration.”

Today and the Future

This month, the annual pride event was canceled due to the pandemic. Instead the LGBT Network held an online pride event June 14 featuring multiple celebrities and other local elected and civic leaders as speakers. 

It’s been a roller coaster ride for the past 30 years with the annual pride parade. Gustavson left the committee after the third year. Henaghan stood on for several years before leaving as well. He came back on in the early 2000s, but again left the committee to its own devices. 

The pride parade came under the auspices of the LGBT Network in its later years, and because of lagging participation a celebration was held instead of a parade in Huntington’s Heckscher Park. In 2017, the parade moved to Long Beach, and Kilmnick said the parade picked up steam once again. The LGBT Network president said last year an estimated 30,000 people participated. The biggest change from just a few decades ago, he said, is the number of young, school-age people coming out to march and support the annual parade. 

SBU evolutionary biology professor Douglas Futuyma spoke at the first LI pride parade in ‘91. Photo from SBU

“In ’93, so many kids were being bullied in school, afraid to come to the parade,” he said. “We didn’t have any student groups that marched in that parade. Now they make up more than 50 percent of that parade.”

This year, the parade was set to move to Jones Beach after a dispute with Long Beach over a $70,000 fee the LGBT Network said other organizations did not have to pay for similar events. Leaders of the parade are hoping for a renewed involvement come 2021, which will be the 31st pride parade and its true 30-year anniversary.

But the fight for equality is not one lane for just one group of people. Those who spoke about their experience with the first pride parade all identified with those marching against police brutality and racism today. 

Gustavson said things changed for the better in the past three decades, such as general awareness along with much more acceptance at the grade school level, but some things have not progressed nearly enough. For white gay people, she said things are “a lot better.” For gay people of color, trans people and especially trans people of color, there are way too many problems with prejudice both on the governmental and societal levels.

“It was as it should have been, a celebration.”

— Douglas Futuyma

“I don’t want to see violence, I never want to see violence,” she said. “But there are times when that’s what gets people talking and thinking and there are always people who will never understand why riots happen and why they destroy their own sh**. They will never understand that, and it’s passionate. When you’re passionate and you’re screaming because you’re afraid for your life, that it doesn’t really matter so much what gets ruined as far as ‘things’ go. Things are things. We’re fighting for our lives here, we’re fighting for our sanity, we’re fighting for our ability to walk in society without fear of being beaten to death because you’re a ‘fag,’ or because you’re Black.”

Henaghan, despite saying he has occasional bouts with pessimism, does believe the world is heading in the right direction. His partner for 23 years became his husband eight years ago, just a year after the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision. For the people marching in the streets today, he said many of those who spoke out against that march in ’91 are the same people or the ideological descendants of those who verbally harassed them 30 years ago.

“Many people will not let go of that hate they have, whether it’s for people of color, gays or lesbians, trans people, there are many people in our society they will not let go of that hate,” Henagan said. “They will fight you to the end. We still won’t stand for it.”

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn file photo

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) was pleased that the county legislature passed the Child Protective Transformation Act this week.

Created after the death of eight-year old Thomas Valva, who died in his father’s garage from hypothermia, the package of six bills creates new measures to strengthen the child protective system, the improve oversight and to institute safeguards to protect children.

“This will ensure that [Child Protective Services] never operates the same way again,” Bellone said on his daily conference call with reporters. “What happened to Thomas Valva can never happen again.”

The transformation act, which passed in the legislature June 23, puts in place measures to make sure the CPS is operating as efficiently and effectively as possible, Bellone suggested.

Bellone thanked Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman and Deborah Thivierge, the Founder of the Elija School and the Elija farm for their help in this effort.

As for the viral figures, the numbers continue to remain within a safe range for the county.

The number of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 24 hours was 50, bringing the total to 41,151. The percentage of people who tested positive for the coronavirus was 0.9 percent.

The number of people with the antibody to the virus stands at 18,513.

Hospitalizations declined by three to 85, while the number of people in Intensive Care Unit beds declined by one to 25.

Hospital occupancy overall was at 69 percent, while the percent of occupied ICU beds was at 59 percent.

In the last day, 14 people have been discharged from hospitals in the county.

The number of deaths from complications related to COVID-19 increased by 2 to 1,974.

The county distributed 25,000 pieces of personal protective equipment in the last day.

Separately, the county is canceling the movies scheduled for the rest of this week because of a problem with the equipment that needs repair. The county hopes to have those movies back up and running by next week.