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Protest

Groups gathered outside local congressional offices demanding that President Donald Trump (R) be impeached and convicted, and for Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) to be expelled from Congress following his vote against the certification of Electoral College ballots. 

On Monday, Jan. 11, the group Suffolk Progressives organized the protest and created a petition, demanding Zeldin leave his position. 

Shoshana Hershkowitz, from South Setauket, who founded the group, said they are against the congressman’s vote challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election — even after the deadly riots at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6. 

“He continued to talk about his feelings despite the evidence from the country,” Hershkowitz said. “On Jan. 2, he put a tweet out saying this is a lie. … Those words unfortunately they came to fruition on Jan. 6.”

After the mass attack on the Capitol by pro-Trump extremists, Zeldin still voted to object the election of President-elect Joe Biden (D), and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D). 

“The combination of all of it, and then going back into the chamber after all of this violence and death, refusing to accept those results, trying to overturn the people … it was mind-blowing,” she said.

Upon Zeldin’s vote, Hershkowitz and her group penned a petition that is now up to nearly 2,000 signatures, calling for his expulsion.  

“I was hoping that after all this he would change his tune,” she said.

On Monday, Jan. 11, a group of more than 100 people gathered outside of Zeldin’s Patchogue office. A smaller group of counter-protesters stood across the street. 

Members further west rallied outside Rep. Tom Suozzi’s (D-NY3) Huntington office, asking him to demand that Zeldin be accountable. Suozzi supports the removal of Trump through the 25th Amendment or impeachment. 

The day of the insurrection, Zeldin released a statement.

“This should never be the scene at the U.S. Capitol,” he said. “This is not the America we all love. We can debate, and we can disagree, even on a January 6th following a presidential election. We can all passionately love our country, but in our republic, we elect people to represent us to voice our objections in the House and Senate on this day.”

He added that there must be “zero tolerance for violence in any form.”

Hershkowitz said she will be sending the petition to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). 

“I believe that these people shouldn’t be sitting in Congress,” the group organizer said.

A protester holds up an "Impeach Trump" sign. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Protesters rallied in two North Shore locations this past weekend, to demonstrate their First Amendment right to protest. 

Nearly 100 people stood on the corner of Route 25A and Bennetts Road in Setauket on Saturday holding signs urging that President Donald Trump (R) be impeached. For the last 18 years, the North Country Peace Group has stood on the bend, every weekend, to protest.

This year was different.

“I’m going on 79 years, and I’ve seen a good chunk of American history,” said protester Jerry Shor. “I’m really sad this happened to our government, which I owe a lot to … We have tremendous respect for our government.”

And although Shor said he doesn’t always agree with what the government does, he knew he had to exercise his right to demonstrate, protest and make his feelings known. 

In response to the storming of the United States Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 6, members of the group wanted to make their voices heard — their anger at the president for inciting violence, and their urge to remove Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) from Congress. 

“I usually don’t come out, but today seemed like a day we had to because of what happened in Washington on Wednesday,” said protester Bob Keeler. “And Lee Zeldin, who supposedly represents us in the Congress, is not representing me very well. It’s time for him to be a former congressman.”

Several protesters stand on the corner of Routes 347 and 112 in Port Jefferson Station, responding to events taken place at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Normally the corner has a large group of counter-protesters — known as the North Country Patriots — across the way. This weekend there was only a small group of five. 

“The real patriots are the ones who are voicing their opinions the way our forefathers really meant to be voiced,” Shor said. 

Protester Paige Pearson said she had a bad feeling that something was going to happen Jan. 6. 

“My immediate thought was I wasn’t surprised,” she said. “But I’m extremely disappointed.”

Pearson said she was disheartened to see what was happening in Washington D.C., especially when she previously participated in other protests that were peaceful and civil. 

“We’ve been fighting for months and months, trying to stay as peaceful as possible,” she said. “And then all of these people can just storm into the Capitol, and cause all of this violence and destruction, and get out clean and unharmed.”

At the same time, at Resistance Corner on Routes 347 and 112 in Port Jefferson Station, a smaller, but just as loud group rallied against the president. 

A protester at a rally on Routes 347 and 112. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Organizers of the Friends for Justice group Holly Fils-Aime said the protesters chose to stand at the corner of Nesconset Highway because nearly 3,000 cars pass every hour.

“Obviously we were very upset when Trump claimed election fraud,” she said. 

With the riots down south, Fils-Aime said she and her group are calling for the president to be impeached. 

Holding signs of Trump’s face on a peach, the group voiced their hopes that Congress will vote to remove the president from power. 

“I can’t believe this is happening to our country,” Fils-Aime said. “He’s been talking about this for months. … We need to get him out of office, so he can’t do this again.”

Protesters at the North Country Peace Group rally. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, right, and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. File photo

Members of a task force meant to offer reforms to Suffolk police met with community members in the 6th Precinct Dec. 8 through Zoom to listen to concerns.

As part of the Suffolk County Police Reform & Reinvention Task Force, members have been hosting Zoom meetings for each of the town’s seven precincts plus East End towns for community comment. Members of the task force include everyone from Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart and Suffolk police union president Noel DiGerolamo to NAACP chapter president Tracey Edwards and Daniel Russo, administrator of Assigned Counsel Defender Plan of Suffolk County. 

In a meeting that went on for just under three hours and had over 150 participants Dec. 8, many in the community expressed some fear and apprehension surrounding police, often with people of color citing a different experience with law enforcement members than their white neighbors. A few others shared their general support for police and expressed their thanks for officers’ involvement in the community.

Erica Rechner, director of Opportunities Long Island, which tries to connect youth in underserved communities with jobs in the unionized construction industry, said she mostly works with many young people of color in communities who live in areas with high unemployment, and some come to her with criminal records. The interactions she said she’s had with police have been much different than those of her young clients.

“Their experience with the police department is not one me or my family recognize,” Rechner said. “My experience has been one of safety and security — I’m a white woman. At some point in their shared experiences the police officers are verbally abusive and often escalate to the use of excessive force. There are numerous instances of physical injury while in custody.”

She said she asked these young people to share their experiences at the public sessions, but practically all declined, fearing retaliation.

“Their experience has taught them the police are not meant for them or their community,” she added.

Odalis Hernandez, a graduate program administrator at Stony Brook University, said she was once stopped by police officers at night “with multiple police officers shining a flashlight in every window and asking for my ID and documents,” adding she felt she was being treated as up to no good from the get-go.

“I know of others who have been through much worse,” she said. “We can’t deny that those problems exist, and we need to hear that from all our precincts and leadership. We can’t let the police have a political affiliation because that disenfranchises people in the community.”

Hernandez said such things as bias and de-escalation training should not be a one-and-done class but should be a continuous dialogue for police.

Others criticized the Suffolk School Resource Officer Program, with some speakers saying such officers statistically lead to more physical confrontations and create more of a school-to-prison pipeline. Others said such officers target students who are people of color and treat them differently than white students for the same offenses. 

Michelle Caldera-Kopf, an immigration lawyer and managing attorney for the Safe Passage Project, said that SROs have caused “the wrongful detention and deportation of our students.” She said such officers have shared information about students with immigration authorities, sometimes over the heads of law enforcement.

Others indicated more positive interactions with police. Rob Taylor, a member of the Citizens Academy Alumni Association, said police already do a lot of things in the community people are not aware of.

“Suffolk County has gone through a lot of changes over the years, especially since around 2014 — they’re all EMTs, they’ve undergone crisis training,” he said.

Gail Lynch-Bailey, president of the Middle Island Civic Association, said that with whatever reforms take place, “I hope we don’t lose what’s already working in these relationships — community policing is still essential.” 

She added that police should look for uniformity on how crime data is presented and distributed at civic meetings, with more emphasis on displays and data-driven dialogue, such info to be published for all to see online.

“Real police reform must be data driven, and that data has to include honest breakdowns of who is being charged and where those charges are taking place,” she said.

Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) said there should be efforts to expand the positive interactions between community and police, some of which includes just talking about what may be going on in people’s neighborhoods.

“These are all things why we need to have our police department out there, doing events, interacting, because that really supports the mission our police department is here to do,” he said.

Others shared their desire for those Black and brown voices in the community to be heard. Erin Zipman, from Stony Brook, said police need to listen to those, envisioning a future where we don’t have to endanger the lives of citizens or officers, and instead focus on treating “the roots of problems instead of punishing them.”

The task force is part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative. This executive order, originally signed in June, cites that every police agency must make a comprehensive review of police departments and their procedures, and address the needs of the community to promote “trust, fairness and legitimacy, and to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.” 

The county has an April 1, 2021, deadline to create its reform plan for its police department to be eligible for future state funding.

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James Robitsek, and Setauket Patriot supporters, rally outside Village Hall in Port Jefferson in November. File photo by Julianne Mosher

Right wing Facebook group Setauket Patriots rallied outside Village Hall in Port Jefferson Tuesday night to protest what they claim is a violation of their rights, though officials say they are following the law.

On Sept. 12, the patriots group marched from the Port Jefferson train station down Main Street to gather for a 9/11 memorial across from Village Hall, though they lacked a permit for the march. Earlier in the summer the group hosted a permitted car parade for the Fourth of July following a Black Lives Matter march down main street held in June.

Following the June and July events, the Village of Port Jefferson issued an executive order signed on July 6 by Mayor Margot Garant effectively stopping the village from signing any new permits for marches or protests due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Garant had said it was in response to how many people the events were bringing, and not maintaining social distancing while doing so. The village has not granted a parade permit to any group since the moratorium was enacted.

Setauket Patriots organizer James Robitsek said he received a summons with a $1,400 constable fee and $2,800 fine 30 days after their 9/11 event.

“Because it was 9/11, it’s sacred to us,” Robitsek said. “I personally lost friends in 9/11.”

In previous events, the group that regularly supports President Donald Trump (R) on Facebook was relatively low-key in support of the president. Since then, the group has held multiple car parades down Main Street without a village permit which were explicitly pro-Trump. Such events did draw a few confrontations between counterprotesters and caravan-goers in Setauket. Some comments by leaders of these rallies have specifically mentioned Mayor Margot Garant. (To read about those mentions, click here. To read about the last Setauket Patriots caravan, click here.)

On Nov. 24, the night of their court date at village hall, members and supporters of the patriots protested with flags and music across the street from Village Hall, while in court, Robitsek asked for a full dismissal.

“It’s a violation of our civil rights,” he said. “They can’t just pick and choose who they give permits to, and that’s basically what they’ve done.”

Only 10 people were allowed in the court hearing, where Robitsek, represented by Lindenhurst-based attorney Vincent Grande III, rejected the offer of the fine and plead not guilty.

“The courts offer was to plead guilty with a conditional discharge, and to not hold any future events in Port Jeff village,” Robitsek said. “I’m looking for a dismal because I won’t be able to hold any more events in the village and I don’t want that.”

Deputy Village Attorney Rich Harris said that while Robitsek argued that other events were able to be held, like Black Lives Matter protests, the summons was simply for the one event hosted in September.
“It’s not about any about any other events,” he said. “It’s just about the Sept. 12 march.”

Robitsek said he plans on holding a 9/11 parade every year.

Grande will be filing motions by January, and Robitsek said the next court hearing should be sometime in February or March.

This article was amended to add links to previous caravans hosted by the Setauket Patriots.

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Parents said their kids would be losing out on many days of instruction with Mount Sinai’s current plans. They also questioned the district’s bus and distancing strategies. Photo by Kyle Barr

As the impending start to the school year closes in, some parents in districts like Mount Sinai are trying to close what they perceive as gaps in schools’ upcoming learning programs.

Mount Sinai school district Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said their reopening plan is a “living document” that will change with time. File photo by Kevin Redding

A small group of Mount Sinai residents consisting of parents and a few of their children protested at the school campus entrance on Route 25A Monday, Aug. 31, arguing their school district’s current reopening plans could lose students days’ worth of instruction time. Meanwhile, district officials allege plans will likely change in the future, and they are doing their best to move to a system for five-day full-time instruction for elementary students and more in-school days for secondary students.

Elle Bee, who has three students in the district — a kindergartener, elementary and middle schooler — said the district has not been communicative enough with her and other parents about their concerns, especially over what the district plans for Wednesdays. They also claimed that their questions and concerns have not been fully answered by the school administration.

“We want actual distance learning,” Bee said. “We would like to return to four days or five days in school.”

Current district plans have all students out of school on Wednesdays in order for the custodians to fully sanitize each building. Teachers will be using that time to communicate with students, especially the 50-odd children per building that will be learning remotely full time, though students will still be required to log on to the school’s Google Classroom. Parents at the small protest said that if this standard lasted all year it would result in students losing upward of 40 days of learning, which would be less than New York State requirements for the total number of instruction days of 140. 

Kevin Mathers, who has a seventh-grader in the middle school, said he finds it absurd that the district will not even attempt at least a true remote experience on Wednesday.

“Any plan that includes not teaching on Wednesdays is a nonstarter,” he said.

Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said in a phone interview there will be some instruction on Wednesdays. Teachers are going to be constructing videos and lessons for both that day and for all remote days. Instructors are also supposed to touch base with all the remote students whose parents chose to keep them at home. Teachers, he said, are working at the max extent that their contracts call for, and that they hope by the end of September they will be able to change it to include Wednesdays for full instruction in the elementary school and in cohorts in the high school.

“When teachers teach four days a week, when are they going to do that remote learning and ask each student, ‘How are you doing?’” the superintendent said. “When can parents reach [teachers] and visit teachers during office hours? That’s what Wednesdays are for.”

Still, this isn’t enough for the parents who stood along Route 25A. Some parents asked why the district wasn’t mandating that every teacher livestream their classes. 

Brosdal said there were concerns amongst teachers, based on previous news reports, that people could break onto these livestreams and harass both students and the teachers. Though the district is installing around 160 cameras in classrooms for the purpose of broadcasting lessons for those either creating videos or, in some cases, livestreams.

Parents also complained about plans for students on buses. They said they were originally told buses would be at 50% capacity and only siblings could sit on the same seats. They argue this was changed to now allow up to 44 seats with even nonfamily members sitting together.

“They’re going to have to wear masks full time, even with guards around their desks, so how are you shoving them onto buses like sardines in a can?” Bee said.

Parents said they had lingering questions on how students receiving special education would get what they needed. Photo by Kyle Barr

Brosdal confirmed that buses could be at more than 50%  capacity, though it’s all dependent on how students are either dropped off by their parents or walk to school. The district is limited in the number of buses their contracted company First Student has, and that it would cost the district upward of $80- to $90,000 to request that even one new one be built. Still, he is confident that buses wouldn’t be at far less than their max capacity.

Some parents were especially concerned with their students receiving special education. Alexandria Hoehl said she had four children in Mount Sinai who receive special services in the district, and she was concerned they would not get the five days of one-on-one attention they need.

My kids “are going to miss more class time when they’re in school to meet the needs of their services they get — like physical therapy, occupational therapy — which are now being squeezed into a shortened amount of time,” she said. “With my oldest, with only being in school two days, they’re going to try and fit five days of services into two days.”

Brosdal said the school is required to follow each special needs student’s individualized education program. The special-ed students will be receiving teaching four days a week and remote learning one day a week, according to the district’s plan.

Though the superintendent said he wants as much in-school instruction as possible, the problem, he said, is space, especially concerning the high school. With 800 students plus staff, the superintendent said it would be impossible to have all students learning in person four days a week and keep them distanced as required by New York State. 

The high school, he added, is also very problematic when students have to move from one classroom to another between periods, as the school is designed so several hallways are linked by one larger hallway. Looking at pictures from schools out of state with kids flooded into hallways with minimal distancing, as well as news like SUNY Oneonta’s recent shutdown because of escalating COVID-19 cases on campus, Brosdal said the district needs to be careful if it ever wants to open up more broadly.

But for some parents, the possibility that things could change in a month’s time is not enough reassurance. Bee said that the virus infection rate in New York remains low, but “it’s never going to be zero — why shouldn’t we start off now and pull it back if the numbers increase, if they increase, because we simply don’t know.”

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A dozen people stood on the corner of Main Street and Route 25A Aug. 1 in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Photo by Odeya Rosenband

By Odeya Rosenband and Rita J. Egan

Community members gathered on the corner of Main Street and Route 25A in East Setauket Aug. 1. They were there to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

A protester at the Aug. 1 rally. Photo by Odeya Rosenband

Standing in front of the Pen & Pencil Building, about a dozen ralliers held signs reading, “Racial equality now,” “Equality & justice for All, Black Lives Matter,” “Stop the hate” and “A change is gonna come.”

One of the organizers, Kathy Schiavone of Port Jefferson, said they picked the corner because it’s a well-trafficked intersection with a red light, which would give drivers an opportunity to read their signs. The participants received displays of support from some drivers honking or giving the thumbs up, while others in vehicles passing by yelled out, “Communists,” “Trump 2020,” “All lives matter,” “Blue lives matter” and “Get over it.”

“We are only on this planet for a short period of time, and it really behooves us to be kind to one another,” Schiavone said. “And as Rodney King [a 1992 police victim] said, ‘Can we all just get along?’”

She said she was touched by the work of former Georgia U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D), a civil rights activist who would frequently say get into “good trouble.” The congressman died July 17.

“It brings tears to my eyes when I listen to the tributes for him and all he went through his entire life for the good of the community, and I just want to support the Black Lives Movement and everyone who feels that they need support at this time,” she said.

Protester Sue Hoff, also of Port Jefferson, said she participated to make it known that she believes in the movement. She said of the upcoming 2020 election, “I’m voting Black Lives Matter.” She has protested since the late 1950s for civil rights, for peace during the Vietnam War and for the reduction of nuclear weapons.

“I have grandchildren,” she said. “I’m not going to give up.”

Another protester, Kevin Mulligan of Setauket, said it was a responsibility to speak out.

“It’s an obligation in these times of political divisiveness to choose a side and not stay complacent and set a model for the children that change only comes through action,” he said.

Attendee Jeff Goldschmidt said as a longtime resident in the Stony Brook area the last few years have been revealing to him.

“I never knew Suffolk County was so undemocratic,” he said. “It’s so red and so bigoted. I was very surprised.”

Organizer Christina Maffia, of Setauket, said it was important to her to rally at the corner because she feels the nation’s rhetoric has turned negative, especially after what happened with the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May.

“Just because people feel Black lives matter does not mean white lives don’t matter or blue lives don’t matter,” she said. Because if Black lives matter, we wouldn’t have to worry about anybody else’s life mattering, because all lives would matter.”

Protesters across the North Shore have been active in recent protests on Long Island such as the one that took place in Stony Brook June 7. Photo by Mike Reilly

While 2020 will be remembered for the coronavirus, this year’s summer will be recorded in the history books for the millions of voices speaking out against injustice and police brutality across the country.

Ashley Payano has been among the protest organizers along the North Shore.

The H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge will be the site of a rally this Saturday, Aug. 1, where activist group Long Island Fight for Equality intends to host an event to speak out against racial injustice and inequality from 2 to 6 p.m. The rally as well as a march comes more than two months after George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer which reignited outrage over police brutality in the U.S.

The summer has been filled with hundreds of Black Lives Matter protests such as in Hauppauge, Port Jefferson Station, Stony Brook and multiple ones through the streets of Smithtown and Huntington in June and July. While most have been peaceful, some have seen the conflict between protester and cop escalate, such as when at a recent Babylon protest, three participants from Black White Brown United were arrested, including a Stony Brook resident charged with harassment, according to Suffolk County police.

Couple Ashley Payano, 23, and Ian Atkinson, 26, are organizing the Aug. 1 Hauppauge rally and march. Together, they have helped assemble as well as attend about half-a-dozen protests and rallies in the last couple of months. Atkinson lives in Farmingville, while Payano splits her time between the Bronx and Long Island, with plans to move to the Island in the future. They are just two among scores of protest leaders, but having attended many such protests on Long Island, they said momentum is still strong.

“As a young Black person, these struggles affect me and my family directly so I couldn’t imagine not taking part in it,” Payano said.

Atkinson said the number of people at these protests has varied. At one in Stony Brook near the Smith Haven Mall, there were more than 1,000 attendees, while a Port Jeff Station protest saw around 150 people at its peak. Payano said a fundraising aspect has been added to many of the rallies, with protesters asked to bring canned goods and hygiene products to be donated to those in need.

Payano said she feels this is an extension of the civil rights movement and believes that the passion will lead to actual change.

“I think that instead of this being about protests, I think this is a movement,” she said. “It is for change. I think it’s important to continue to practice civil disobedience and civil unrest.”

Atkinson said he is driven by frustration because he feels many have not experienced the freedom and equality that the country stands for.

“Clearly, it hasn’t been the way it’s supposed to be for certain populations,” he said. “African Americans, minorities, are not treated fairly or equally in this country.”

He said he also believes that the civil rights movement leaders didn’t get everything they were fighting for.

“We know what we’re fighting for and we’re not looking to stop until we’ve gotten it,” he said.

Several weeks after the start of the BLM protests, a counter movement, largely either called pro-police rallies or Blue Lives Matter rallies have garnered hundreds of participants, such as one in Port Jefferson Station June 22. Though many of these rallies have been led by and have featured conservative figures such as U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) and former Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle, participants have called on people to support police, who they say have been attacked unfairly.

Ian Atkinson has been among the protest organizers along the North Shore.

Atkinson said the Blue Lives Matter rallies have added to his frustrations.

“They’re completely missing the point,” he said. “They don’t stand for anything. It’s just frustrating because they’re kind of going against the belief that everyone should be equal.”

Payano, who has been involved in music, acting and real estate, and is planning to take some college courses this school year, said she has been politically active since age 15, as her father spoke out often about housing issues in the Bronx. She said she has been part of similar efforts through the years when a young Black person’s death was followed by protests, but she hasn’t seen them last as long as they have now.

The Bronx native said the more she comes to Long Island the more she notices de facto segregation and the impact of redlining, which has disturbed her. She said she also notices that people will sometimes stare at her when she and Atkinson are on Long Island. However, she added that she has seen a diverse group of people of all different backgrounds and ages at rallies throughout the Island, except in Brentwood where there were more attendees of color.

“It’s really nice to meet people from all backgrounds who believe in the same thing,” she said. “And the people who honk their cars and pass by, it showed me there are more people in support of this movement than not.”

Atkinson, who works with the developmentally disabled to help them adapt to everyday life, is looking toward a future with Payano, who he met at a paint night in Manhattan. The Long Islander said he hopes to see their children grow up in a different environment.

“I don’t want them to grow up in a community where they’re not looked at like everyone else,” he said.

Atkinson and Payano said in all the protests they’ve been part of, everyone has been asked to wear a mask and stay home if they are immunocompromised. So far, the majority have seemed to comply. The couple have also encountered counter protesters, but Atkinson said they welcome conversation, even though at times it can be scary after hearing of stories such as a Black Lives Matter protester being attacked or having water thrown on them.

“We welcome the discussion as long as they are willing to hear us out,” he said.

Payano said while some discussions are disheartening, she understands why it’s hard for people to believe that their loved ones or even themselves “have been practicing bigotry.” She said she looks at the debates from a sociological standpoint.

“Our brain is programmed to protect us from things that will hurt us whether it’s emotionally or our sense of self or identity or belief system that we have ingrained in us, which is very well capable of growth of change,” she said. “But a lot of people have a belief system, and they would prefer to avoid the instability of having to start from scratch.”

Regarding change, Payano is optimistic.

“It’s going to take a while, but I believe it’s possible,” she said.

Annemarie Lopez holds a police pin for her brother Christie Masone, an officer who died in the line of duty June 22. Photo by Kyle Barr

Crowds numbering in the several hundreds rallied at the corner of Route 112 and 347 in Port Jefferson Station June 22 calling for people to support police. It was a counterpoint to the over 100 protests all across Long Island calling for an end to police violence for the past several weeks.

People waved thin blue line flags and held signs supporting police reading “back the blue” and “respect and honor our law enforcement.”

The pro-police rally came three weeks after a protest against police violence in the same location, which some local progressive activists have called “resistance corner.” Some came with flags, signs or hats supporting President Donald Trump (R). Most people in the crowd at the June 22 rally were not wearing face masks, compared to other recent protests where the majority were wearing some kind of face covering.

Suffolk County Police officers stood at both sides of the protest line and entrance to the small park, and others milled about the crowd, with many people thanking them for their service. Most cars passing by honked in support, though there was a small number of counter protesters holding signs supporting Black Lives Matter on the other side of Route 347. Towards the start of the rally a woman pulled to the side of the road and got out of her car, cursing at the people standing on the sidewalk who responded with expletives of their own before a cop came by to tell her to get back in her car.

People at the rally said police have become disrespected since the start of the nationwide protests after the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd in police custody. Though they admitted what the police did in that situation was wrong, when one officer leaned his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes until EMTs arrived, they said most cops want to do good.

Annemarie Lopez, of Port Jefferson, said she was at the rally in remembrance of her brother, Christie Masone along with his partner Norman Cerullo who were shot and killed in the line of duty in 1978.

“There are good cops and bad cops, but these are people putting their lives on the line,” Lopez said.

Others said the calls for police budgets to be cut will ultimately make the Island less safe.

“Cops are being treated unfairly — this will be detrimental to our safety, we don’t need cuts to police,” said Maria Leonette, a nurse at Stony Brook University Hospital.

The Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association had a large presence, sporting a trailer which handed out water to people during the hot June afternoon.

PBA President Noel DiGerolamo saw it as an incredible turnout that showed a “humbling support for the men and women of law enforcement. The silent majority isn’t silent anymore.”

At the height of the rally, the crowds gathered under the trees in the center of the park to hear people speak, including former chairman of the Suffolk County Republican Party John Jay LaValle, who was introduced as a spokesperson for Trump.

One of the two main organizers for the rally, Jonathan Stuart of Manorville, said “I could not let the broad stroke of social justice, virtue signaling and cancel culture paint all the police in the shot of the heinous death of George Floyd,” adding, “Is every person who puts on their bullet proof vest, turn their radio on, holster their pistol, shine their badge and kiss their family goodbye a murderer? No. Racist? No.”

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Protesters marched through Port Jefferson June 18 to call for an end to police brutality and racism. Photo by David Luces

Well over 200 protesters walked through Main Street in Port Jefferson Village June 18, calling for an end to police brutality and systemic racism. It was just one of countless other protests going on nationwide since the killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd at the hands of police three weeks ago.

Malachi Moloney, the speaker of the house for the Black Student Union at Stony Brook University, and who was at the head of facilitating and promoting the protest, said he was happy with the overall turnout.

“It means the world to me — we wanted people to leave here with a better understanding of the movement and hope we gave them examples of how to be a better ally. I think we did that,” he said.

The SBU student said the reason they chose Port Jeff as the site of the march was to give people perspective on how black communities feel on Long Island.

“Places like this, they think the status quo is serving the majority,” Moloney said. “This protest shows that we are not happy with the status quo. If you come together with a singular purpose in mind, there’s great power in that.”

Moloney said there is more work to be done.

“We are continuing the movement that has swept the nation. In the last two weeks we have had more progress from a civil rights standpoint since 1964,” he said. “That’s the repeal of 50a, the charging of Rayshad Brook’s murderers, we are still waiting on Breonna Taylor’s case.”

Jarvis Watson, Assistant Dean for Multicultural Affairs at Stony Brook University, marched with the protesters and lauded the young people who were in the demonstration.

“I want to thank these young people for being here, making sure and recognizing that Black Lives Matter,” he said. “They are not just our future, they are our now. We have to make establishments take the knee off those who are oppressed.”

Amara Ayler, from Huntington, spoke on her experiences being black on Long Island.

“It’s not OK for me to fear walking to school and I see a police car and I fear for my life for no reason because I have a backpack on. It’s not right. It’s not fair,” she said. The police are supposed to make us feel safe. The police have never made me feel safe ever in my life. They’re supposed to protect and serve.”

Ayler said every time she hears Breonna Tayler’s name, she hears her own name.

“Amara Ayler, Breonna Taylor, it sounds similar,” she said. “It could be me, I don’t want to be another name on a list, I don’t want to be a poster or t-shirt. It’s not OK.”

Sound Beach resident Emily Marciano, right, with her son Dontae participated in a protest in Rocky Point June 12. Photo by Kyle Barr

In light of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests locally and nationwide, Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) hosted a virtual forum June 11 to discuss race and policing on Long Island. Speakers included civil rights activists, law enforcement reform experts, NAACP and New York Civil Liberties Union leaders, also local attorneys. 

Exploring the Blue Line: A Real Discussion on the Reality of Race, a more than two-hour discussion touched on a number of topics including needed policy changes, police reform on Long Island and what must continue to be done in order to make meaningful change. 

Tracey Edwards, NAACP Long Island regional director, said systemic racism goes beyond the police system. 

“We have entrenched policies and practices that have been in place to either harm a group as a whole or in part, intentionally or not,” she said. “This is the structure that treats race differently.”

“When we look at the police, we don’t see ourselves, we see others.”

— Jose Perez

It is a real problem that is not going away, she added. 

“You have Larry Kudlow, who is the top economic person for the country who stood in front of a microphone and said we do not have any institutional or systemic issues,” she said. “If we first have to convince those that are in power that there is a problem — our issues are far broader than we thought.”

Despite New York State recently voting to institute several police reform policies, including the repeal of Civil Rights Law 50-a which prevented people from accessing service records of police, Edwards said there is more work to be done. 

“We’re just getting started, this is just one piece of the issue,” said the NAACP Long Island regional director. “It is going to take a lot to fix a lot of the issues we face — it’s going to take a lot to fix a lot of the issues we face. On Long Island it runs deep.”

The panelists discussed the demographics of Long Island police officers. 

Jose Perez, deputy general counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a New York-based national civil rights organization, said people of color including African Americans make up a small percentage of officers in both Nassau and Suffolk counties. 

A 2016 study done by the NYCLU, dubbed “Behind the Badge,” found that people of color in Suffolk accounted for 13 percent of the police department. Out of the 136 individuals in upper ranks, only five were people of color. In Nassau, people of color make up 18 percent of the department, a total of 70 officers “in addition to the 326 white sworn personnel.” Of the 47 personnel who held positions other than detective, only three were people of color.

“When we look at the police, we don’t see ourselves, we see others,” Perez said. “That contributes to the overall policing impact on people of color.”

Frederick Brewington, a civil rights attorney from Hempstead, said the structure in departments makes it difficult for people of color to move up the ladder as well. 

“Even though there may be a small percentage that make it into the ranks of a police department, those individuals are likely to never get to the ranks above sergeant,” he said. “Even those that get to that level or above, their longevity is usually not very long. Their culture is one that is not welcoming to individuals who may be people of color, particular African Americans.” 

The disparities have trickled down to other areas of the criminal justice system. 

Derrick Magwood and Larry Flowers, attorneys and members of the Amistad Long Island Black Bar Association, said there are very few attorneys of color in local courthouses. 

“In Nassau, there are maybe five or six [attorneys] in criminal defense and two at the district attorney’s office,’’ Flowers said. 

In Suffolk, there four of five attorneys but both Magwood and Flowers said they haven’t seen an attorney of color in the DA’s office. In district court, there are currently two African American judges but none in county court. 

Edwards also brought up how these disparities are seen in public education on the Island. 

“Long Island, out of 642 schools, 61 percent do not have a single black teacher,” she said. “That’s 212,000 children who will never interact with a black teacher from kindergarten to 12th grade. That’s not just an impact on black children, that’s an impact on all children.”

“The reason why police struggle with dealing with the systemic issues is because they don’t have the background education.”

— Frederick Brewington

Perez spoke on overt police bias, which “can be formed by what they have experienced, or what they have been taught.” He added, “They feel like they could get away with it based on their privilege, uniform and color of their skin. It is important we understand this reality and we have to address it head on.” 

Brewington said it comes down to inadequate training. 

“The reason why police struggle with dealing with the systemic issues is because they don’t have the background education,” he said. 

The civil rights attorney said he believes they are asked to do a job they are not equipped to do. 

“Six months of training at the [Police] Academy, when someone goes to be a doctor, psychologist or social worker, it takes them a minimum of four years,” Brewington said. “Then they are given a gun and told to go out and enforce — not help, but enforce.”

Other panelists agreed that six months at the academy is not enough and called for a minimum of two years. 

In terms of additional police reform and policy changes, individuals mentioned increasing body-camera funding at the county, village and town levels. The need for some type of automatic penalty if an officer is found tampering with his or her body camera, yearly mental health evaluations for officers, an outside investigator to step in when it comes to cases of police brutality and misconduct, better cultural sensitivity and diversity training, and civilian review boards.

“We have to stay the course — we need to coalesce and act together,” Perez said. “This struggle will not be won individually. Every individual coming together becomes a force to be reckoned with.”