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Bill McNulty

Above, members of North Country Peace Group on Saturday, Dec. 10. Photo by Raymond Janis

This month, North Country Peace Group marks its 20th anniversary.

Posted at the southeast corner of Route 25A and Bennetts Road in Setauket, NCPG has maintained a visible weekly presence within the community, advocating various causes throughout its history. On Saturday, Dec. 10, some members reflected on this milestone year for their organization and discussed why they remain committed to their cause.


Bob Becherer was among the founding members of the peace group. He traces the organization’s origins beyond 20 years when, in the early 1990s, a group of civic-oriented parishioners of the St. James R.C. Church formed the Peace and Justice Community.

“It was really out of that group that we became the North Country Peace Group,” Becherer said, crediting Bill McNulty as the founder and leader of both organizations.

In an exclusive interview, McNulty chronicled his “traditional, apolitical” upbringing and his eventual reawakening. Growing up, he said he maintained a 16-year connection to the military. Between U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, ROTC, active duty and active reserve service, McNulty kept in close contact with the military and military culture. Over time, however, he began to question these ties.

Catalyzing McNulty’s transformation was America’s foreign policy throughout Latin America during the 1970s and ’80s. His early advocacy work centered around the School of the Americas, a training ground founded as a bulwark against the spread of communism. Over time, McNulty said, the school devolved. A string of murders and rapes connected to the School of the Americas prompted him into action.

During that time, McNulty said he devoted his energies to “increase the knowledge among the American population that this school existed and that we were, through our tax dollars, paying for training for these soldiers.” His resistance led him to a federal prison, where he served for six months.

Within the full swing of these events, McNulty soon got involved with the Peace and Justice Community, initially focusing on America’s involvement in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War (1990-91). As the PJC’s work took on more secular aims, they moved out of the church and onto the streets. NCPG emerged from the second Iraq War (2003-11). 

Organizational principles

Above, Bill McNulty, one of the founders and thought leaders within NCPG. Photo courtesy Myrna Gordon

McNulty offered some of the philosophical precepts underpinning the NCPG’s activism. He said the group seeks to challenge conventional wisdom, to prompt community members to think critically about the information authorities give them. Through this, he said the group has often met fierce resistance from dogmatists and partisans.

“Very often, when you bring a message that’s contrary to the conventional wisdom, they get angry at you,” he said. “They don’t want to hear what you have to offer because it’s very startling and shocking. There’s a cognitive dissonance.”

McNulty maintained that NCPG, since its inception, has rejected the notion of reciprocal violence. “The Old Testament thinking of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, you have to break it with that idea of love and acceptance,” he said.

He viewed the human propensity toward violence as a conflict between instincts and ideals. Though he held that most people are born peaceful and good, he sees many as conditioned to accept violence and war as the natural order.

“People, I think, are pretty good, but they acquire a lot of these characteristics as a result of what they experience in life,” he said. “Down deep, people are good because they always act well when the dog falls down the well or when the tornado rips the roof off the house.”

McNulty said that overcoming aggression requires conscious effort, but doing so may be the recipe for lasting peace. “The idea is to take the words of the song, the words of the poem, to take the suggestion of the painting or the sculpture or whatever else and to put it into practice,” he said. “It’s a very hard job.”

Two decades into the struggle for peace

One of the essential features of NCPG throughout its 20-year history has been the persistence of its members. Member Susan Perretti regards the organization as a weekly reminder to the community that there is an alternative to unceasing human conflicts worldwide.

“We’re sort of a reminder to the community that passes us by,” she said. “It’s a reminder that we still have war — endless war — going on and that violence itself is not the answer.”

Robert Marcus, another NCPG member, said the fight for peace and preserving democracy go hand in hand. He said that standing on the street corner is a way to promote both ends.

“We have to do everything we can to make a more peaceful world,” Marcus said. “We can’t just take it for granted. We have to work really hard for peace and to strengthen our democracy because it’s under threat.”

For John Robinson, participating in the peace group’s various activities is a way to connect to a larger cause and to make a difference on a grander stage. “It feels good to be around people who have the same concerns, the same thoughts, the same issues that I do,” he said. “Coming out here makes a real statement about the need for peace and the need to treat each other well.”

Myrna Gordon said she and NCPG use their platform to advocate a new mode of thinking around the way the United States government spends its taxpayer dollars. According to her, too great a share of the federal budget is devoted to perpetuating violence.

“We need to move the money out of the military and back into human needs and human lives so that we will have that money and be able to fix roads, provide better education, health care and everything else,” she said.

An alternative to war

‘We have to evolve past this idea — as a human species and not just as Americans — that war and killing one another is the only solution.’

— Susan Perretti

McNulty was asked if he believes a lasting peace is possible or if humanity is doomed to a fate of unending war. He admitted that lasting peace may not be attainable but that pursuing such an ideal is.

“We would like to hope that it is possible,” he said. “We helped each other to a great extent, and we have affected a few people around our immediate neighborhood, but they’re still making war. The School of the Americas is still open, still training soldiers to keep people under control.”

Perretti offered a slightly different take by suggesting humanity could adapt itself to a condition without war.

“The point is that we have to evolve past this idea — as a human species and not just as Americans — that war and killing one another is the only solution,” she said. “I don’t know what that takes, but for me I’m here because I won’t give up the struggle, and I want to be faithful to what I believe in my heart.”

Whether humans can coexist and overcome violence is still to be decided. Twenty years after their organization’s founding, members of North Country Peace Group remain stationed at their usual street corner, committed to giving peace its fair shake.

Activists wave to drivers beeping their support during the Families Belong Together rally in Setauket June 30. Photo by Rita J. Egan

By Rita J. Egan

Two grassroots activist groups have become staples on the corners of Route 25A and Bennetts Road in Setauket every Saturday, but this past weekend residents out and about likely noticed something different on the south side.

Activists join members of the North Country Peace group for a Families Belong Together rally in Setauket June 30. By Rita J. Egan

While a dozen or two members of the North Country Peace Group meet every Saturday at 11 a.m. with signs in tow on the southeast corner of the intersection, and a similar number of conservatives, members of the North Country Patriots, gather on the other side, June 30 the south side drew approximately 300 activists as the NCPG hosted a Families Belong Together rally. The protest was organized to stand in unison with hundreds of thousands of Americans across the nation who participated in similar events in several cities including Washington, D.C., New York City and Miami.

The rallies were held to protest the separation of immigrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border that occurred as a result of President Donald Trump’s (R) newly instituted zero-tolerance policy for prosecuting illegal immigration, which has resulted in the detention of thousands. Trump recently signed an executive order meant to end the policy, though many families remain separated as officials work to undo the effects of the policy.

Attendees held signs that read, “11,869 children held captive”; “Yes, Melania, we do care”; and “Put ICE on ice.” NCPG members said many children are still separated from their families and there are fears that many may never find their parents.

Activists join members of the North Country Peace group for a Families Belong Together rally in Setauket June 30. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“This is not what our country is about,” said Myrna Gordon, of Port Jefferson. “Detaining children — separating families — is a crime, and this is the time that we now all have to come together and resist the policies of the Trump administration. Detaining families is not a solution. It’s a jail sentence that some of our immigrant brothers and sisters are facing.”

Many on hand at the rally said they felt the current situation is reminiscent of the Holocaust.

“We need to remind all Americans of the horrors that preceded the Holocaust,” said Marci Lobel of Setauket. “This is reminiscent of what occurred in Europe in the lead up to the Third Reich, and we have to stand up for what is right, what is humane, what is civil and what is lawful. These people are coming to our country seeking asylum. All human decency dictates that we stand up to protect them. If we don’t stand up for them, who will?”

Setauket’s Susan Perretti said she sees the separation of families along with cuts to Medicare and ineffective gun laws as moral issues.

“It’s almost like we have forgotten about the common good,” Perretti said. “So, my big cry is, ‘Whatever happened to the common good?’”

Activists join members of the North Country Peace group for a Families Belong Together rally in Setauket June 30. Photo by Rita J. Egan

While the North Country Patriots didn’t organize a counter-rally, about two dozen members stood on the corner like they do every Saturday, except this week a handful remained until around 3 p.m. just like a few on the other side did.

Jim Soviero, of East Setauket, said the peace group’s rally reminded him of his nephew who was a solider in Iraq 14 years ago and separated from his young children, and the Angel Families in this country whose loved ones were killed by undocumented immigrants.

“You have over two dozen Angel Families that were separated, and they will never be united,” he said. “When my nephew went overseas, he was separated, and he never knew if he was going to be reunited.”

Setauket’s Howard Ross, who held a pro-life sign, said he and others were upset by a sign across the street that read, “God is Watching.”

“How can they stand there and say protect immigrant children and not protect our own children,” Ross said. “There are 1,000 babies being murdered every day due to abortions.”

Setauket resident George Altemose said the stance of conservatives is misunderstood.

Members of the conservative organization North Country Patriots stand across the street with signs like they do every Saturday on the day of the rally. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“Nobody wants to see families broken up,” Altemose said. “Nobody wants to see kids in jail. I think what we would like to see — we would like to see everybody obey the law as it stands.”

Altemose said he feels obeying the laws applies to everyone, from immigrants to the president, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and those who don’t like a law, need to follow it until it is changed.

“I think that the other side implies that this side likes to see children taken away and put in custody and families broken up, and it’s just not true,” Altemose said. “I don’t think anybody likes that.”

Back over on the Families Belong Together rally side, NCPG member Bill McNulty said one day a woman asked him about his stance on immigration and families being separated. He said he told her that many Central American countries’ social orders have been disrupted by American policies leading to violence. McNulty said the woman told him that people still should not cross the U.S. border illegally.

“I said, ‘Madam, if you were involved in the violence that these people are facing in these disrupted countries, you would take steps to protect yourself too,’” McNulty said.

Peace group now focuses attention on proposed renaming of school of medicine to include Renaissance

Members of the North Country Peace Group plan to continue organizing demonstrations at Renaissance Technologies in E. Setauket despite the announcement that co-CEO Robert Mercer is stepping down. File photo by Rita J. Egan

The end of a co-CEO’s reign won’t stop an activist group from demonstrating outside of his hedge fund’s East Setauket office, especially after members heard a local university school of medicine may be renamed to include the company name.

Robert Mercer, of Renaissance Technologies, announced in a Nov. 2 letter to investors that he will be stepping down as co-CEO and resigning from the firm’s board of directors as of Jan. 1. In the letter, he stated he would remain a member of the technical staff and be involved in research work.

For nearly two years, the North Country Peace Group, a local peace and social justice organization, has often held demonstrations in front of the entrance of Renaissance Technologies. Most recently, the group held an August rally protesting the alleged contributions of millions of dollars to alt-right causes by Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, and the pair’s alignment with the ultraconservative online media company Breitbart News.

“We were shocked [when we heard the news], because we immediately thought look what we’ve accomplished,” said Bill McNulty, a member of the North County Peace Group.

An activist at an Aug. 23 rally in E. Setauket. File photo by Rita J. Egan

He said the sense of accomplishment was short-lived after news reports of companies pulling their investments from the hedge fund, and he said he believes this was the determining factor for Mercer stepping down and not the group’s demonstrations.

“I don’t feel he’s really stepping down,” said Myrna Gordon, a member of the activist group. “In his statement, he said he was still going to be involved with Renaissance, that he would still be doing work there. The only thing that was changed was the word co-CEO. He’s still there. So, we feel that he’s still entrenched in the company.”

Members of North Country Peace Group were alerted to an Oct. 2 Stony Brook Council meeting where it was proposed to rename the Stony Brook School of Medicine to the Renaissance School of Medicine. The council serves as an advisory body to the campus and Stony Brook University’s president and senior officers. In the webcast of the meeting available on SBU’s website, council chairman Kevin Law said a resolution regarding the renaming was approved electronically a few weeks prior and needed to be ratified by the council members at the Oct. 2 meeting.

Dexter Bailey, senior vice president for advancement and executive director of the Stony Brook Foundation, said during a presentation Oct. 2 the reason for the renaming was due to the generosity of 111 of the 300 Renaissance employees over the last few decades. The university received its first donation of $750 from one of the firm’s employees in 1982, and through the years Renaissance employees have donated $508 million to the university. In 2011, Renaissance Technologies founder and former CEO Jim Simons and his wife Marilyn donated a historic $150 million.

“These are individuals who have graduated from the top schools around the world — a lot of Ivy League grads — and to be able to have them adopt Stony Brook as one of their philanthropic priorities has really been a pleasure,” Bailey said.

He said many of the donors like to keep their contributions private, and the university looked for something that the employees could reflect on and take pride in.

Members of the North Country Peace Group will now keep an eye on developments for renaming the Stony Brook School of Medicine to Renaissance School of Medicine. File photo by Rita J. Egan

“We feel that naming the school of medicine will not only recognize the 35 years of history, but it actually sets the stage for future giving.” Bailey said.

During voting for the resolution, only one council member, Karen Wishnia, who represents the graduate student body, opposed the proposal. Wishnia said in a phone interview after the meeting, that even though she recognizes the generosity of the Renaissance employees and Simons, she “couldn’t in good conscience vote yes for this” largely because of the association with Mercer.

The next step for the resolution is for the university to obtain approval from the State University of New York chancellor and board of trustees.

McNulty and Gordon said members of the North County Peace Group strongly believe a state school of medicine doesn’t need to be renamed after a company, even if its employees are generous. They said the group has struggled in the past with how to separate the employees of Renaissance from the CEO.

“It puts the employees in a strange spot,” McNulty said, adding it’s understandable how those making good salaries with the company may be reluctant to admit Renaissance may be involved in negative activities. “We have had people come out of the company’s office who have been supportive of the information that we’ve imparted, and we’ve had others who have given us the [middle] finger.”

The two said the North Country Peace Group plans to continue demonstrations in front of Renaissance and educate the community about the renaming of the medical school. Gordon said when she watched the video of the Stony Brook Council meeting she was surprised there was no discussion after the vote was taken, and she wonders why the university hasn’t been more transparent about the proposal that involves a state school of medicine paid for by taxpayers.

“I would be pleased and honored to have the Stony Brook School of Medicine right up there in the forefront, and once big money corporations start buying landmarks, arenas, stadiums, you’re dealing with a whole other type of situation,” Gordon said. “We should be proud that it’s the State University of New York at Stony Brook. We should be proud that it’s the Stony Brook medical center.”

A Renaissance representative did not respond to requests for comments by press time.