Tags Posts tagged with "Building Bridges in Brookhaven"

Building Bridges in Brookhaven

Photo by Raymond Janis

Congregants, community members and peace advocates gathered Sunday, Jan. 15, outside the Mount Sinai Congregational Church to erect a Peace Pole.

The ceremony was part of the international Peace Pole Project, a program that has spread to every country with the universal message of global peace. 

Kevin Mann, president of the Rocky Point Rotary Club, attended the service. Though not a member of the Congregational Church, he traced the church’s long history championing various social causes throughout American history.

“Before the term ‘social activism’ was invented, this congregation was doing it,” he said. “This congregation’s history goes all the way back to being a part of the Underground Railroad. They also had the first free men of color as members,” adding, “They were always ahead of the curve and involved in every single social activism movement.”

Sunday’s peace ceremony carried symbolic significance as well, marking the 94th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Tom Lyon is a congregation member and co-founder of Building Bridges in Brookhaven. “Martin Luther King did get the Nobel Prize for Peace,” Lyon said. “That wasn’t just about the United States. That wasn’t just about segregation. He talked about universal love, unrequited love. … That’s kind of the concept: the universality of peace.”

He added that King “spoke out against the Vietnam War, which became very controversial. That was in 1967, exactly a year before he was killed.”

To Lyon, peace is often caricatured in popular culture as passive, even pacifistic. The example of MLK, he said, awakens one to the possibilities of peace, something he viewed as highly active and courageous. 

“Martin Luther King was always talking about how being a person of peace takes much more courage, much more strength, than a person who just gives into their anger or acts out violently,” Lyon said. “To seek peaceful solutions often is more difficult, more challenging, but in the long run, that’s what we feel we’re called to do.”

Corridor of Peace

Above, Tom Lyon (left) and Kevin Mann pose with the newly planted Peace Pole outside Mount Sinai Congregational Church. Photo by Raymond Janis

The Peace Pole planted at the congregation is part of a major local effort tied to the Peace Pole Project, the proposed Corridor of Peace, coordinated by the Rotary. 

“We are attempting to declare a Corridor of Peace, which is [routes] 25 and 25A and four school districts at the moment — Rocky Point, Miller Place, Shoreham-Wading River and Longwood — that will designate how they want to make their communities a more peaceful environment,” Mann said.

Through this initiative, Mann hopes community members can better understand the problems unique to their area and work toward positive change. “You have very common themes and issues — food insecurity, inequality, housing, opioid addiction — many things,” Mann said.

Through the project, he sees an opportunity “to continue to increase the quality of life for people in the corridor.”

Lyon added to this sentiment and vision. He said members of the corridor could find unity through shared values and a mutual desire for peace. “Hopefully, people in the communities of peace will be reminded that’s the connection with the Peace Pole Project,” he said. “You see one in front of a couple of stores or another in the neighborhood where you are walking. It’s just a reminder.”

Conflict abroad

Mann and Lyon defined the Peace Pole Project as apolitical, a program committed to the mantra, “May peace prevail on Earth.” However, both acknowledged the ongoing human conflicts around the globe, namely the Russo-Ukrainian War.

Lyon said the Peace Pole Project reminds Americans of the need to promote peace, especially when the United States is not at war. “It’s sometimes easy to be a little complacent when things are going good for us as Americans,” he said. However, the project is “a universal thing,” and the cause for universal peace applies equally to Americans as it does to Ukrainians and Russians.

Outlining the Rotary’s response to Russian belligerence, Mann said the club has sponsored training for trauma nurses and has even brought a 9-year-old Ukrainian girl to Long Island for heart surgery. 

“There’s no political stand involved, but there are people in need,” he said. “We’ve been very, very active in the Ukrainian concept … and bringing focus to the Ukraine issue.”

‘The military is a business that drives economies, unfortunately.’ — Kevin Mann

Finding peace

Despite the war and violence dominating the headlines and news cycles, Mann maintains that humans are naturally peaceful. Drawing from the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, he said peace usually endures for long periods of human history, with brief interruptions of war.

“For long periods of history, peace has prevailed,” Mann said. “For short periods of history, war has broken out.” 

Finding a silver lining in those interruptions of war, Mann added that technological advancements had accelerated during wartime. “One of the byproducts of war breaking out, as bad as it has been, is that it has led to technological and medical advancements that have helped humanity.”

Defining some of the problems inherent to these times, Mann said high-speed communication and mass media culture now spread news and images of war quickly and widely. At the same time, war remains a lucrative international business.

“The military is a business that drives economies, unfortunately,” he said. “Peace hasn’t gotten that kind of focus internationally.”

As warmongers in the press continue to drive nations into battle, and as arms dealers continue to profit from the blood spilled on the fields of human strife, Mann maintains that there is still room for hope.

“Polio is almost being totally eliminated, and malaria is well on its way to being controlled,” he said. “Over the last hundred years, people have worked to make those things happen,” adding, “They’ve happened despite diverting resources to other causes, so I think there’s great room for optimism.”

Photo by Julianne Mosher

Dozens of community activists from across Long Island rallied outside Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) office in Hauppauge this week, asking lawmakers to adopt “The People’s Plan.”

Earlier this month, police reform advocates created their own plan to hold law enforcement accountable and calling on them to be transparent within the community.  

“We’re gathering here today nearly a year after the George Floyd uprisings because our communities took to the street and said enough is enough,” said Elmer Flores with Long Island United to Transform Policing and Community Safety. “We are yearning for change. And for far too long our elected officials have not met our demands with the gravitas that it demands.”

Some of the plan includes civilian oversight of police misconduct, creating unarmed traffic enforcement and ending pretextual stops when someone is pulled over. 

“Mistrust is pervasive between the police and the communities they are supposed to represent,” he added. “And part of that is that we need to get to the root causes of why crime happens and how we can address it and prevent it from happening. But to do that, it requires leadership. It requires bold and effective action that’s going to change the way policing happens on Long Island.”

This plan is separate from the reform Bellone submitted to lawmakers last week, and these local activists demand the reforms be included in the plan due to the state April 1. 

Jackie Burbridge, co-founder of the Long Island Black Alliance, said to the crowd that for years the Suffolk County Police Department has been actively turning a blind eye to crime being committed in this county in order to continue harassing people who are not white. She said the recommendations that the county task force came up with don’t go far enough in preventing or mitigating discriminatory policing. 

“The plan that was released by Suffolk County in response to Governor Cuomo’s [D] executive order falls short of the transformative changes to the way we conceive of public safety that this moment in our community members are demanding,” she said. “Black and brown communities across Long Island are overpoliced, resulting in outsized opportunities for interactions between vulnerable community members and police officers. … It’s not that people are being brutalized because cops see threats. They don’t see threats in our community, they see prey. And what we need is police reform that’s actually going to address that.”

The collective groups have spent months crafting the 12, research-backed proposals for structural reform that make up the 310-page “The People’s Plan” to address numerous structural components of transforming and reimagining policing and public safety on Long Island.

Suffolk’s police reform proposal directs the county’s Human Rights Commission to review complaints of police misconduct. 

However, the police department would still have the power to investigate and discipline police misconduct. Activists say they are asking for lawmakers to consider other measures, like mental health counselors for certain situations, and create a community council to review and hold police accountable for misconduct.

Members from local groups headed to Hauppauge, too, including Myrna Gordon of the North Country Peace Group, to show their support and signs.

“How can we not be here?” she asked. “It’s what we need to do to keep fighting for peace and justice. We need to see that Steve Bellone is on board with ‘The People’s Plan,’ and every peace and justice group in Suffolk County and the Three Village area needs to be on board.”

Peggy Fort, a member of the United For Justice in Policing Long Island and Building Bridges in Brookhaven groups, said ‘The People’s Plan’ addresses not just the community, but could benefit police officers, acknowledging the stresses police officers face. 

“We’re not trying in ‘The People’s Plan’ to micromanage the police department,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is really address the problems and the racial bias that exists.”

The Brookhaven landfill was a topic of conversation at the MLK event. Google maps

By Tom Lyon

More than 110 folks zoomed in last Saturday afternoon, Jan. 16, for the annual, and first-ever virtual, Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Festival and forum presented by Building Bridges in Brookhaven. The Rev. Gregory Leonard, of the Bethel AME Church in Setauket opened the afternoon with a challenge: “To understand that we are all in this together.”

Abena Asare was one of the featured speakers during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Festival and forum. Photo from Abena Asare

As in the past, Building Bridges held two informative programs with guest presenters and music. Food was OYO — on your own — but the popular Share Fair Exchange for nonprofit groups had to be postponed until spring. Four speakers addressed two long simmering issues for Long Island and presented us with an urgent call to action for each.

Two stories of toxic ecological damage to our Island and to some of our most vulnerable neighbors came first.

Stony Brook University history associate professor Abena Asare, one of the leaders of the newly established Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group, gave a sobering history of the last remaining waste disposal facility in the Town of Brookhaven. She provided a parallel history of its growth at a time when nearby communities were becoming alleged victims of racially charged real-estate practices. A local elementary school and largely minority community there have had severe health issues and high death rates that are arguably the highest for any community on Long Island. 

As the landfill has grown to 192 acres and more than 200 feet in height, plans are developing for its closure by 2024. Meanwhile, it still continues to accept waste materials for 1.9 million Long Islanders even though Brookhaven Town’s population is only about 500,000 people. “This is a regional problem,” Asare said. “We need a regional solution. Landfills are closing across the country in environmentally safe ways every day, but we are sadly way behind.”

Next Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk County Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, presented a history of the illegal toxic dumping and subsequent closing of Roberto Clemente Park and playground in Brentwood. The tragic story is also one of a powerful and ultimately successful community response.

It took strong local organizing and a long legal battle for that minority community to get justice and to see the park and pool decontaminated and finally reopened in 2018 after a six-year closure. There were clear parallels in the two stories. As the session ended, we could hear Asare call to Solis, “You most definitely have to come and speak with our group.”

Two other guests — members of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign Rebecca Garrard from the state capital region and Michael O’Brien from Nassau — spoke about the rental housing and eviction crisis that looms ahead of New York and Long Island. Currently there is an estimated $3.5 billion in unpaid back rent today across New York state and the recently extended moratorium is clearly not a permanent solution, according to Garrard.

Garrard gave a sober and fact-filled presentation with a compelling argument for bipartisan cooperation on a national level as the only viable long-term solution. Without that, we may face an epidemic of homelessness in the near future.

O’Brien spoke of the need to empower and educate tenants about their rights in order to prevent abuse. He told stories of local private groups bringing attention to this issue and providing education and emergency assistance. These groups were inspiring examples of the type of service that Coretta Scott King spoke about in 1992 when she challenged Americans to turn Dr. King’s holiday into “a day on, not a day off.” 

A video of the entire program is available on the Building Bridges in Brookhaven Facebook page.

Building Bridges wants to thank the presenters, musicians Jamel Coy Hudson and John Schmeiser, Long Island Poor People’s Campaign, Setauket Presbyterian Church — especially the Rev. Ashley McFaul-Erwin — and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook for their assistance and support.

Tom Lyon is a co-founder of Building Bridges in Brookhaven.

Martin Luther King Jr. during a visit to Brandeis University in 1957 at the age of 29.

Join Building Bridges in Brookhaven’s 5th annual (and first virtual) Martin Luther King, Jr., Birthday Celebration on Saturday, Jan. 16 from 1:30 to 4:40 p.m. With this year’s theme We’re All in This Together!, the afternoon’s speakers will focus on local issues of environmental racism/ecological devastation and homelessness and offer practical steps to take action.

Co-sponsored by:
The Poor People’s Campaign Long Island Chapter
The Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remedial Group (BLARG)

Introduction and Live Music – 1:30 – 2:00 p.m.
“Environmental Racism Hiding in Plain Sight”– 2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
“Homelessness & The Poor People’s Campaign’s Winter Offensive” – 3:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Wrap-up and Live Music – 4:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Webinar will be also be live-streamed via the Building Bridges in Brookhaven Facebook page. For more information, call 928-4317 or email [email protected].

Kadam Holly McGregor speaks to attendees of the MLK Peace & Unity Multi-Faith Prayer Service Jan. 20. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Two events during the past three-day holiday weekend drew residents from the Three Village community as well as surrounding areas to Setauket to remember Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the civil rights activist. 

Guest speakers Liz Gannon-Graydon, founder of What BETTER Looks Like, and environmental activist Saad Amer, founder of Plus1Vote, conduct a workshop Jan. 18. Photo from Building Bridges in Brookhaven

On Jan. 18, despite snow in the forecast, more than 100 people attended the 4th annual Martin Luther King Unity Festival at Setauket Presbyterian Church organized by the civic group Building Bridges In Brookhaven.

The day included music, workshops and a panel discussion on the theme of Building the Beloved Community Across Generations.Approximately 20 nonprofit groups were also on hand for the Be the Change volunteer fair. The event provided an opportunity for attendees to discuss the life, legacy and vision of King, according to Susan Perretti of Building Bridges.

Tom Lyon, also of the group, said the event provided “a lot of very valuable networking and planning for future collaborations.”

Among those participating Jan. 18 was Community Growth Center of Port Jefferson Station, which held its Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Peace & Unity Multi-Faith Prayer Service and Concert two days later at The Bates House in Setauket. On Jan. 20, a standing-room only crowd filled the venue to hear speakers and enjoy music. Participants were also encouraged to bring donations for Pax Christi’s men’s shelter.

Among those speaking at the event was Father Francis Pizzarelli from Hope House Ministries and Kadam Holly McGregor from Kadampa Meditation Center of Long Island. Before leading a meditation, McGregor told the attendees that everyone can become like King if they work on themselves.

The H.I.M.S. from Hope House Ministries, Vinny Posillico from Singing Bowls-Sound Healing and Stuart Markus, a folk singer of Gathering Time, entertained the crowd.

Perretti said she and others from Building Bridges attended the Jan. 20 event to support the center and was reminded at both events of King’s dream of building the “beloved community,” a society based on justice, equal opportunity and love of one’s fellow human beings.

“It was wonderful to be part of a gathering focusing on unity and what we have in common,” she said. “There were faith leaders from the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It feels more important than ever for us to come together and respect our differences.” 

Michael Hoffner, executive director of Community Growth Center, was inspired by the turnout, and said the annual event at The Bates House aims to bring people and religious leaders together from different faiths to spark a change of heart and create changes from the inside out. He said he believes that the answer to our country’s “current problems require a deep spiritual solution.”

“We as a community and a country need to awaken to a deeper sense of love, peace and unity that can only come from a transformation of the heart,” he said. “We can’t expect peace to come from laws and policies alone — peace in our world can only come from peace in our heart. Peace on the inside leads to peace on the outside.”

by -
0 1167
Members of Building Bridges in Brookhaven join Port Jefferson officials in dedicating the new peace pole in Rocketship Park. Photos by Kyle Barr

An 11-foot wood pole installed inside the fence of Rocketship Park in Port Jefferson is looking for residents to stop and think about how peace may prevail around the globe. 

Members of Building Bridges in Brookhaven join Port Jefferson officials in dedicating the new peace pole in Rocketship Park. Photos by Kyle Barr

The civic group Building Bridges in Brookhaven gathered together with Port Jeff village officials Nov. 19 to dedicate the new pole. On it reads “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in 10 different languages, including sign language and Braille. Art depicts small handprints and flowers, courtesy of Setauket resident and artist Maryanne Hart, also of the North Shore Peace Group. 

Community activist group Building Bridges in Brookhaven got themselves behind the project and after buying a 16-foot length of cedar from Riverhead Lumber they cut it down to 11 feet, where now 3 feet is in the ground.

Reverend Gregory Leonard of the Bethel AME Church spoke to those congregated to unveil the pole. The pole features a solar-powered light at the top, and the reverend led those there to dedicate the pole in singing “This Little Light of Mine.”

“The elements of peace are many, but I think it’s important to think of how we treat one another, how we are humble toward one another,” he said. “Of all the things, communication is so important — being able to talk to one another.”

Mayor Margot Garant said she had met with civic leaders Tom Lyon, Myrna Gordon and the director of operations for the Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce Barbara Ransome. Once she was told it was a peace pole, the mayor said she didn’t ask any other questions but “when and where.”

“We really wanted to make a message about providing peace,” Gordon said. 

Lyon said the idea for the polls came to the group from The Peace Pole Project in Wassaic upstate, who are working to put up peace poles all over the globe.

“This should be visible — out where kids are going to see it, children are going to grow up talking about the peace pole and talking about the park,” Lyon said.

The pole is one of more than 250,000 in more than 200 countries. Each one is inscribed with the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in hundreds of languages. The project began in 1955 with Japanese peace activist Masakisa Goi, and Ransome said they’re looking to spread his message into today.

Building Bridges was formed almost four years ago and host the MLK Community Festival yearly at the Setauket Presbyterian Church.

Lyon said this could be just the start of what could end as a project covering the whole of Long Island. He said his group, working alongside local Rotary organizations and Pax Christi could set a goal by the end of 2020 to plant 100 peace poles across the Island, whether in churches or in playgrounds such as Port Jeff’s Rocketship Park. 

On March 28, North Shore residents of various faiths gathered in Selden to show their support for Muslims around the world.

In response to the March 15 terrorist attacks in New Zealand mosques, a prayer vigil was held outside the Islamic Association of Long Island where more than 100 people, including members from the Three Village Interfaith Clergy Association and Building Bridges in Brookhaven, held hands and formed a ring around the mosque during a moment of silence. The symbol of solidarity took place after a brief prayer led by Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky of Temple Isaiah of Stony Brook.

Syed Rahman, current president of the Islamic Association of Long Island, said he was touched by the number of attendees.

“I’m glad so many people made the time to come over with busy workday schedules,” he said. “This is a big turnout. I think this is the biggest turnout since I’ve been president.”

Tom Lyon, a member of Building Bridges in Brookhaven, said more than half a dozen people from the organization attended. One of the group’s founding principles, he said, is based on a motto the members adapted when it was formed — “The most radical thing we can do is to introduce people to each other.”

“Sadly, on Long Island today, developing a diversity of friendships requires far more effort than it should,” Lyon said.

Rev. Steven Kim, pastor of Setauket United Methodist Church, who is also part of the Three Village Interfaith Clergy Association, attended the event.

“It was a night for Three Village residents to stand by the Islamic community regardless of our religions or persuasions in the wake of the tragedy in New Zealand,” he said. “It would be beneficial for us to pursue further opportunities in enhancing the mutual understanding and assuring the same humanity among the different ethnic and religious groups in our community.”

After the prayer vigil, the Three Village Interfaith Clergy Association hosted a discussion held inside the mosque titled “Belief and Truth from a Multifaith Perspective: Finding Unity in Diversity.” Professor Chris Sellers of Stony Brook University’s history department and director of the Center for the Study of Inequality and Social Justice moderated the discussion.

Born in response to tragedy, the organization aims to start conversations about immigration rights, racial divisions, social injustice

Tom Lyon, center, and Gregory Leonard, right, of Building Bridges in Brookhaven with an attendee of the group’s 2017 Martin Luther King Day Jr. event. Photos by Will McKenzie

By Daniel Dunaief

Tom Lyon, Mark Jackett and Susan Perretti, among many others, don’t have all the answers. In fact, they are filled with difficult questions for which the Town of Brookhaven, the state of New York and the country don’t have easy solutions.

That, however, hasn’t stopped them from trying to bring people together in Brookhaven to address everything from social injustice to immigration rights to racial divisions.

Members of Building Bridges in Brookhaven, Lyon, Jackett and Perretti have met regularly since 2015 when the group formed in the wake of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Members of the group Building Bridges in Brookhaven share the common purpose of opening up community dialogue. Photos by Will McKenzie

Building Bridges personally connects with people, according to Tehmina Tirmizi, who is the education chair at the Islamic Association of Long Island. Building Bridges members attended an interfaith event at IALI in late 2016, and its members have gathered with others for monthly vigils to support Muslims.

Tirmizi said she appreciates the understanding, solidarity and unity and feels members of Building Bridges are out there for support.

The group meets on the second Monday of each month from 7 to 9 p.m. to get together and talk, forge connections, understand differences and encourage peace. They have met at churches throughout the region, as well as at the Center for Social Justice and Human Understanding at the Suffolk County Community College campus in Selden.

“The origins were in response to the shootings,” said Jackett, an English teacher at Smithtown High School West. He added continued gun violence is part of what the group is trying to address. “It’s part of the sense of urgency.”

Jackett decried the drumbeat of hatred, negativity and division in the country and in communities on Long Island.

“We’re trying to be a voice speaking up in favor of bringing people together and finding ways that we have common ground and respecting the dignity and humanity of all people,” Jackett said.

The gatherings bring together people of different backgrounds, ages, races and sexuality and attract a crowd from a wide cross section of Long Island.

This past year, the organization hosted a celebration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January and a Unityfest at Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach in September. The MLK event drew more than 200 people, while the Unityfest brought almost 300.

The Unityfest enabled Building Bridges to donate $1,600 to support Hobbs farm and highlight its program to supply fresh produce to local food pantries.

Coming in February, the group will host its second annual MLK festival, which moves beyond King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech and embraces his broader approach.

“King talks a lot about the beloved community,” said Lyon, who is also one of the founders of Building Bridges. “That was his ultimate vision for the world and it involves a lot more than [defeating] segregation.”

Lyon said former head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover had an enemies list, as did former President Richard Nixon. For King, his enemies were militarism, racism and materialism.

While BBB formed in response to violence in a church and brought people together through church organizations, it is an interfaith group, Lyon said.

The group encourages people to contribute to, and participate in, other efforts on Long Island as well.

Many of the group members belong to other organizations, according to Jackett. Building Bridges has also been supporting other efforts, which include Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense and People Power Patchogue, a group dedicated to defending civil rights and creating stronger and safer communities.

Building Bridges has also formed subcommittees on immigration rights and criminal justice reform.

Jackett said efforts to address and combat racism need to be done regardless of who is in office.

“We try our best to do that work and highlight the need,” he said.

“We’re trying to be a voice speaking up in favor of bringing people together and finding ways that we have common ground and respecting the dignity and humanity of all people.”

— Mark Jackett

The group has a Facebook page and the group is working on a website too. A mix of retired people and people still in the workforce, the members of Building Bridges have been discussing the architecture for a web page. It is also hoping to forge deeper connections with millennials through Stony Brook University, Suffolk County Community College and a new Artists Action Group in Patchogue.

Perretti, a retired writer who worked as an editor at St. Joseph’s College, suggested that Building Bridges is looking to create a network of people who can respond to various needs.

“We need to build ourselves into a community more and more and when that happens, more people will come,” Perretti said.

The group is also focused on jumping to action during times of crisis.

“This is the opportunity to get to know people who may be the targets of hate or violence and to develop a friendship and alliance with them,” Perretti said. “When something happens to them, it happens to us as well.”

Looking ahead, Perretti said the group has to find ways to attract and encourage involvement from a broader base of community members in 2018.

She said she would like to make room for people who have vastly different views. She encouraged people with different opinions to engage in courageous conversations, without fear of reprisals or attacks.

“It’s nice and fun and easy to be with people we are like, [but] it’s really hard work to talk to people who hold different opinions who may argue with us,” she said.

Members of the Building Bridges community know they face uncertainty with the issues and challenges ahead.

“We don’t have all the answers,” Perretti said, adding that the group’s primary mission is to start conversations about the things happening in the United States.

“This is a community that wants to build and grow,” she said. “We need to hear other people. We’re open to ideas.”

Co-CEO of East Setauket-based investment firm connected to major money behind Trump administration


A large group of political protesters paraded along busy Route 25A in East Setauket March 24, aiming their outcry not just at the administration in Washington, D.C., but a reclusive hedge fund billionaire by the name of Robert Mercer residing in their own backyard.

Mercer, the co-CEO of an East Setauket-based investment firm and resident of Head of the Harbor, has been under the spotlight for being the money behind President Donald Trump’s (R) administration, maintaining a major influence on the White House’s agenda, including its strict immigration policies.

Mercer, a major backer of the far-right Breitbart News, reportedly contributed nearly $13.5 million to the Trump campaign and, along with his daughter Rebekah, played a part in securing the leadership positions of chief strategist Steve Bannon and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.

Regarding Mercer as the administration’s puppeteer-in-chief, protesters assembled to bring public attention to the local family’s power in the White House and the influence “dark money” has had in America.

“I think we’ve reached a worrisome point in our history that a single individual can have the kind of influence that Robert Mercer has, simply because he has a huge amount of money,” Setauket resident John Robinson said. “I think he’s an extremely dangerous individual with worrisome views. He just wants government to not be around so people like him and companies like his can plunder to their heart’s content.”

The short march, made up of several protest groups including the North Country Peace Group, began at the CVS shopping center and landed at the bottom of the hill where Mercer’s Renaissance Technologies sits. Leading the march were local residents wearing paper cutout masks of Trump, Bannon and U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), each strung up like puppets and controlled by a resident in a grim reaper outfit, representing Mercer.

Equipped with signs reading “Mercer $ Bought Trump We Pay the Price” and “Resist Mercer,” Long Island residents stood in front of the investment firm’s office and participated in a mock debate with the faux-political figures. The topics ranged from Mercer’s denial of climate change to Zeldin’s stance on the now-pulled American Health Care Act.

Sue McMahon, a member of the grassroots coalition Building Bridges in Brookhaven, had only recently learned about Mercer’s heavy involvement in Trump’s presidency and his close proximity and participated in the march to expose him.

“I’m very concerned we have a person like this among us who holds the power of the Republican Party,” McMahon said.

She said she’s particularly troubled by the administration’s overwhelming ignorance of environmental issues, its emphasis on money and the extreme views of Breitbart News.

“This is not the America I grew up with, this is not what I want,”she said. “I’m not normally a protester, but I believe we all have to stand up now.”

Paul Hart, a Stony Brook resident, said he was there to support democracy.

The American people have lost representative government because campaign contributions are now controlled by the rich, he said, and it’s hard to think about the needs of constituents when they don’t contribute in a way that’s beneficial to a politician’s re-election.

“The average person has absolutely no voice in politics anymore,” Hart said. “Bbefore, we had a little bit, but now, we’re being swept aside.

One protester referred to Mercer as one small part of a larger picture, and expressed concern over a growing alt-right movement throughout the country that prefers an authoritarian government that runs like a business.

“I guess that’s what Trump is all about,” said Port Jefferson resident Jordan Helin. “But we’re seeing what the country looks like when it’s being run like a business, [and it’s scary].”

Myrna Gordon, a Port Jefferson resident and member, said her organization has held previous actions against Renaissance Technologies, and was among the first grassroots groups on Long island to take notice of how entrenched in the White House Mercer and his family are. According to her, Rebekah Mercer is in many ways more powerful than her father.

“We cannot take the focus off [Rebekah Mercer] right now, because she’s become a powerful force in this whole issue of money in politics, buying candidates, everything we see in our government,” she said.

Since Robert Mercer is local and lives in our community, she added, it’s time that we showed our strength and our voice regarding what this money is doing to our country.

The Stony Brook University Chapter of Black Lives Matter. Photo by Douglas MacKaye Harrington.

By Douglas MacKaye Harrington

Last weekend the Three Villages confirmed that it is not just people of color who want to revamp the justice system in America. A coalition of community groups gathered at the Stony Brook LIRR station to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Members of Black Lives Matter Stony Brook Chapter, Building Bridges in Brookhaven, North Country Peace Group, the White Coats for Black Lives Stony Brook Medical School chapter, and the Racial Concerns Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stony Brook marched together.

The Racial Concerns Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stony Brook created the march, after a banner in support of Blacks Lives Matter was vandalized this past year. Barbara Coley, co-chair of the Racial Concerns Committee, said the aim of the walk is to highlight the need for change in America’s law enforcement.

“Our goal for this march and rally is to focus attention on the criminal justice system that needs reform because it targets poor black and brown boys and men,” she said. “We march and rally to show our support for the movement for black lives.”

But the more than 200 Black Lives Matter supporters were not the only participants in attendance Saturday.

Several dozen North Country Patriots members were also on the scene. The North Country Patriots have been meeting at that location for years in support of American troops and veterans. The group originated out of support for President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

“All lives matter, especially our troops. These people have no respect.”
— Howard Ross

They came to share their opposition to the movement with shouts of “All lives matter” and “Blue lives matter” in response to the marchers’ chants of “Black lives matter.”

Vietnam Veteran Howard Ross expressed his opposition to Black Lives Matter.

“I don’t disagree with them, because I believe all lives matter, but they don’t look at it that way and that is the sad part,” he said. “All lives matter, especially our troops. These people have no respect; it has nothing to do with Black Lives Matter. These people have no respect for our country and our democracy.”

Fran Ginter, another resident gathered with the North Country Patriots, held up a sign to support the power she believed all Americans should have.

“My sign says #Balls Matter,” Ginter said. “And ‘balls’ meaning the strength and honor and courage that the American people have. And we shouldn’t be dividing each other with Black Lives Matter. We should be uniting one another with American Lives Matter, Balls Matter.”

Most Saturdays the patriot group outnumbers the peace group, but on this day, the several hundred Black Lives Matter supporters upped the volume on the opposition.

Ryan Madden said he does not think being a Black Lives Matter supporter means you can’t also support veterans, along with many other groups in America.

“It’s [Black Lives Matter] one of the most open and intersectional movements, and it’s not mutually exclusive from supporting vets,” he said. “It’s supporting black vets, disabled vets, trans vets, all people from all shades and backgrounds.”

When he heard people on the other side of the street yelling, “All lives matter,” in response to their chants of “Black lives matter,” he said the real issue isn’t being focused on.

“I think they have a problem with the word black, and that’s the problem,” Madden said. “Like what was just chanted, all lives won’t matter until black lives matter, until indigenous lives matter, until trans lives matter. It [All Lives Matter] thinks it’s being this inclusive framework, but it’s not. It’s not listening to people who are saying our lives don’t matter in this society currently.”

While many members of the march held the south curb, engaging their opposition activists across the road, a majority formed a circle beneath the trees for a rally on the knoll to listen to poems, prose, and speeches in support of the movement.

“I think they have a problem with the word black, and that’s the problem.”
—Ryan Madden

Among rally participants were the White Coats For Black Lives from Stony Brook University Medical School. Second year medical student Toni McKenzie explained the organization’s purpose.

“White Coats For Black Lives is a national initiative that works to eliminate racism in health care,” she said. “We work in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement because we believe inadequate community policing and mass incarceration often affects the psychosocial health of our minority patients.”

Suffolk County Police Department had a dozen officers on hand to control traffic and ensure safety during the protest. Officers walked on the road alongside the marchers to control the eastbound cars that traveled closest to the protest route.

This raised dissent with some protestors.

I am a little discouraged by the character of this march,” Marcus Brown, a member of the Black Lives Matter group said. “I was under the impression that we would only be having a police escort across 25A and Nicolls Road because it is such a perilous intersection. That was part of the condition of our organization’s participation in this march, that there would not be a police escort the entire way. Because Black Lives Matter does not concede the police and the black community as having mutual interest. We believe that our interest is fundamentally antagonistic to the police in this country whose social function is to maintain racial order at the expense of black people.”

Despite the criticism of police presence, the event was seen as huge success.

Mark Jacket of Building Bridges said the event helped bring more awareness to the community.

“The turnout is phenomenal!” he said. “The importance of having this in a place like Stony Brook, in a place that is a predominantly a white community, is to acknowledge that there are bad things happening in America. Even though it is not happening in our immediate neighborhood, it is happening in the nation we live in. White people need to admit that racism is still strong in America, and if they are not comfortable with that, they need to stand up and say something about it.”

Additional reporting contributed by Victoria Espinoza.