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Protests

Police Set New Guidelines for Protests

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With Suffolk County entering Phase 4 of a planned reopening, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) provided his final daily media update on the county’s response to the virus. The County Executive had conducted 122 such updates, as residents suffered personal and economic losses that extend far beyond the daily numbers and statistics.

“We reached the final stage of reopening” today, Bellone said. The county has gone “up the mountain and made it down the other side. In the process, we’ve seen terrible tragedy and acts of extraordinary heroism.”

Entering Phase 4 marks a “new stage” in this unprecedented event,” Bellone added.

Even as the county executive is pleased that the county has moved to Phase 4, in which people can gather outdoors in groups of 50 instead of 25 and some businesses that had remained closed can reopen, he is still aware of the additional work necessary to open other enterprises that remained closed, such as gyms, bowling alleys, catering facilities and movie theaters.

Gyms have presented plans for reducing risk, such as individual workout sessions and class-based reservations that would allow contact tracing to reduce risk, Bellone said.

Asked about reopening schools, which will affect so many families and teachers across the county, Bellone said he thinks schools “need to reopen. That needs to be done safely.”

He suggested that putting together those plans was complicated, but that it shouldn’t be a divisive or political issue.

“We know it is good for kids to be in school,” Bellone said. “We can not have a whole generation of kids that are falling behind. We know the devastating impact that would have.”

The county executive called on the federal government to provide relief to schools to prevent them from having to cut areas that he deemed critical, such as arts, music, sports and staff. Reopening schools will require additional expenses, as schools will not be able to operate normally.

“Right now, schools are worried about paying for the basics,” Bellone said. A federal government that didn’t provide disaster assistance would be “absolutely unconscionable.”

Viral Numbers

The number of people who tested positive for the coronavirus was 69, which represents a 1.7 percent positive rate for new tests. While that percentage is higher than the recent average, which is closer to 1.1 percent, Bellone said he doesn’t put too much stock in any one day’s data.

The total number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 is 41,799.

The number of people who have tested positive for the antibody but who didn’t have symptoms of the disease is 20,104.

The number of people in the hospital declined by seven to 50, which is “an amazing number considering where we’ve been.”

The number in the Intensive Care Units is nine.

Overall hospital bed occupancy was at 68 percent, while ICU bed occupancy was at 59 percent.

Six people were discharged from the hospital in the last day.

The viral death toll held steady at a revised 1,984, as no residents died from complications related to the coronavirus.

To prepare for a possible second wave of the virus, the county developed a contact tracing program and has worked through procurement to stockpile some personal protective equipment.

Police Rules for Protests

The Suffolk County Police Department put several new rules in place in connection with any future protests.

For starters, demonstrators need to contact the SCPD at least 24 hours in advance to indicate the route they plan to take. They can call (631) 852-6110 between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. from Monday through Friday.

Protests are prohibited from congregating in the street and disrupting the flow of traffic. Police said people who don’t comply with this rule are subject to enforcement action.

Demonstrators cannot block vehicular or pedestrian traffic and may not enter private property without consent.

Demonstrators may also not walk in the traffic lanes of a roadway when prohibited.

Finally, people who are older than two years old who can tolerate a face mask medically is required to wear one in situations where maintaining six feet of social distancing is not possible.

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

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

TBR: Have you spent time at the protests?

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

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

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

TBR: What did you do in Mastic?

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

TBR: What is your role in these protests?

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

TBR: Can you offer some examples?

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

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

— Risco Mention-Lewis

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

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

TBR: What sorts of resources do people need?

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

TBR: Like where?

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

TBR: Are protestors talking about any of this?

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

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

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

TBR: Are the protests creating change?

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

TBR: Are African American residents skeptical of government resources?

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

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

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

TBR: How do you create the cultural context?

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

TBR: What can help develop that cultural context?

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Risco Mention-Lewis

TBR: What are you doing to improve the process?

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

TBR: Who is looking at the traffic stop data?

Mention-Lewis: The Finn Institute.

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

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

TBR: What is the methodology of the Finn study?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBR: What do you think of the justice system?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBR: Have protestors asking for anything unreasonable?

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

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

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

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

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

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Protesters stood on the side of Route 25A in Rocky Point June 12 to call for an end to police brutality and racism in general. Photo by Kyle Barr

Well over 100 peaceful protesters lined Route 25A in Rocky Point June 12, calling for an end to police brutality and more in the wake of Minneapolis man George Floyd’s killing in police custody almost three weeks ago.

A number of area locals and other Long Island residents crowded the sidewalk in front of the Kohl’s shopping center. Suffolk County Police were present, mainly asking protesters to keep off the road for safety reasons.

A diverse crowd of multiple races and ages shouted slogans such as “black lives matter,” and “I can’t breathe,” also the last words of Floyd and Eric Garner, who was killed during a police chokehold in New York City in 2014. Several passing cars honked their horns in support.

Jim Sweeney, a Selden resident, said the protests today have shown much more diversity than those in the 1960s during the civil rights movement, though so many of the problems remain the same as they were over half a century since.

“Everyone wants to say its one bad cop, its one bad cop, but there were four cops who killed George Floyd, there were supervisors who falsified the report, there was a medical examiner who tried to say it wasn’t murder — how did Floyd run into seven bad people in one instance?” Sweeney said. “If Floyd was white, he wouldn’t have even been handcuffed.”

Other protesters said they have been calling for an end to black oppression for many years.

“I’m a privileged white woman, who no matter what obstacles in my life I have been able to overcome them, but I can’t say the same for my black brothers and sisters, so I want to stand here in support of them,” said Mary Cappasso.

While many residents wrote on social media, they feared violence from the protests, all still remained peaceful.

“We’re protesting because black Americans deserve the same rights that everyone else already has and they’ve been oppressed too long, it’s time to speak up,” said Nikita Narsingh, of Mount Sinai. “If there’s any time it’s now,”

Sound Beach resident Emily Marciano came to the protest with her son, Dontae. She is white, while her son is black. She said it’s systemic racism as a whole that needs reform, not just the police.

“Whenever I see [police violence against minorities] it scares me to think … I’ve also been told by someone in the area ‘you don’t shoot deer, you do black people,” she said. “It scares me when my son goes out, wondering if he could come home or he could not come home, if someone sees him and doesn’t like the color of his skin.”

Long Islanders marched down Smithtown’s Main Street June 7. Photo by Rita J. Egan

One thing we should all find comfort in is that people are not willing to let injustice go unanswered.

Anyone who has a shred of decency and an ounce of moral concern knows that what happened to Minneapolis man George Floyd was brutal, cruel and a significant abuse of power. Police officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on the neck of a man for just under nine minutes, despite video evidence showing he did not present any danger to officers at the scene. Three other police officers looked on while Floyd called out for his mother, dying, without them raising a finger to help or make any point of protest. 

To some, this seems just a singular instance of cruelty, but for the massive numbers of protesters rallying and marching around the country, and now the world, it was just another instance of continued injustice on our minority communities. That is why the protests have been nearly unrelenting. That’s why the movement has spread to all parts of the country, including our backyard.

So far on Long Island, all protests have remained peaceful and have taken place at sites meant to facilitate large gatherings, all with a police presence. There have been some tense moments, and so far two people in Suffolk have been arrested relating to a protest in Shirley, but nowhere on Long Island have we seen the violence taking place in major cities. It’s important we recognize that while those protests have seen injury to both protesters and cops as well as property — though let’s remember that the life of any one individual vastly outweighs any and all damage to structures — there are many instances of police using extreme force on protesters, medics and journalists, as if proving the very point of the need to end such injustice.

But though those kinds of protests are not happening on Long Island, by reading some residents’ opinions on social media, you would think protesters are all walking down suburban streets ready to attack anyone who crosses their paths.

Activists across Long Island have been working very hard to maintain civility with these protests against injustice. That’s not to say events haven’t gotten heated, as in the case with protests in Merrick which faced plenty of racist sentiment and in Smithtown where one young man claims he and his friends were attacked. In Huntington, one restaurant owner came under fire for being caught making racist comments about “throwing watermelons at protesters” as they marched through downtown. He has since made a video apologizing for his remarks.

We all have to understand why these people rally and march. Long Island remains a very segregated place, as evidenced by a three-year Newsday report displaying racial bias on the part of many real estate agents and agencies. The COVID-19 pandemic has only laid bare the inadequacies, as minority communities have been disproportionately infected while their schools have struggled harder than most to teach their children when many don’t have access to online technology.

We commend the conscientious work of protest leaders, activists, local officials and police to facilitate these rallies and make sure they remain on point and peaceful, and also protect those who rally from being the target of violence as well.

To those residents who look on protesters with concern, often the best way to understand them is to simply speak with them. Start a dialogue. Understand where they’re coming from. Protests such as these aren’t designed to give certain populations benefit over others, but to reach an equality mandated under the words of the Constitution.

Just remember, if you yourself say you can separate good cops from bad cops, then you can separate peaceful protesters from rioters.

Local students from the Three Village area protest police misconduct in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photo by Myrna Gordon

Amid the confluence of social unrest caused by people eager to see the economy reopen faster and those distressed by the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said he appreciates the peaceful way people are demonstrating in Suffolk County.

“I want to thank everyone who has been out there, participating in these demonstrations, for doing this peacefully, and expressing their rights as American citizens,” Bellone said on his daily conference call. “Unfortunately, we have seen too many instance where that has not been the case across the country.”

Indeed, in several cities, the reaction to the death of Floyd after a former police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes, has led to violence and chaos.

“Looting is never acceptable,” said Bellone. “It undermines the point of the message. It has the effect of taking the attention away from the change people are fighting for, the change people want to see.”

Viral Numbers

The number of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in the last day was 111, bringing the total to 39,643. That doesn’t include the 13,953 who tested positive for the antibody.

As fo May 29, the number of residents in the hospital with COVID-19 declined by six to 269.

The number of people in Intensive Care Unit beds also declined by six to 74.

Over the last day, 24 people were discharged from the hospital.

The number of fatalities related to complications from the virus continues to climb, with nine people losing their lives to the pandemic, raising the total to 1,901.

The county distributed over 9,000 pieces of personal protective equipment in the last day, raising that total to over 5.7 million.

Village Fears Future Coronavirus Closure Protests

Harborfront Park in Port Jefferson. File photo by David Luces

Though the majority of local residents are doing their best to practice social distancing and comply with state executive orders, Suffolk County police said others have been belligerent and uncooperative in suppressing the spread of coronavirus.

Police said 6th precinct officers responded to Main Street in Port Jefferson Sunday, April 19, at around 1:30 p.m. There was a report of a large group of people not practicing social distancing. 

Police said one individual refused a request to social distance or put a mask on. He was taken to the Sixth Precinct and was released with a civil summons returnable to the Village of Port Jefferson for failure to comply with the executive order.

Port Jefferson village Mayor Margot Garant said in the April 20 trustees meeting that Sunday saw large groups of people down in Port Jefferson, with many congregating on Main Street and in Harborfront Park. Many were not wearing masks. The park along the waterfront was temporarily closed after the incident when cops arrived.

“Sunday was a very difficult day in the village — it was a sunny day and people had cabin fever,” the mayor said. “Between groups of motorcycles, people showing off muscle cars …  we did have to close down Harborfront.”

She said such actions by locals and visitors means they could be spreading the virus not only to others, but also to police and code enforcement, which she said should be especially respected now since they are “part of the front line.”

The fear, village officials said, was a kind of political backlash and further gatherings. In other states, there have been protests about closures of businesses and amenities. While nearly every state, both Republican and Democrat-led, now has some sort of lockdown laws in place, these protests have taken on a political edge to them, with President Donald Trump (R) in some cases explicitly supporting the rallies, despite health officials warning it may spread SARS Cov-2 even more.

Some of these protests have blocked roadways and reportedly even restricted health care workers from getting to hospitals.

“Knowing there are certain groups that are causing rallies, this will not be getting better for us,” Garant said. “This situation is not going to get better for us, this is a destination village.”

Currently, the village is working on staggered shifts, and suspects some projects slated for 2020 may be put on hold, though the Toast stairway project is moving ahead, with only sprinkler systems yet to be installed.

Otherwise the village has instituted a spending freeze, and any expenditures have to go through administration staff before they get approved.

The mayor added village tax bills are still being generated, and will be due June 1.

 

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Students at Stony Brook University organized a March for Our Lives protest. Photo from Amanda DeJesus

While March for Our Lives rallies were scheduled in various towns on Long Island, members of the Stony Brook University community felt it was important that the campus get involved in the movement, too.

Amanda DeJesus, an undergraduate student at the Stony Brook School of Social Welfare, was one of the organizers of a March for Our Lives rally at SBU. The event started at 11 a.m. March 24 and many of the approximately 300 people who attended the university rally went to Port Jefferson Station afterward to take part in that protest.

Local residents joined SBU students and faculty at a March for Our Lives rally March 24. Photo from Evelyn Costello

“As a social welfare student, promoting social justice is the cornerstone of our profession,” DeJesus said. “I believe that demanding common-sense gun laws is a first step in creating a safer society for everyone, so that is why I wanted Stony Brook University to become a part in this very important conversation.”

Alli Ross, from Port Jefferson Station, attended the SBU rally with her fiancé. She said it was the first march she ever attended, and she was amazed every time she looked back and saw more people joining in. While she doesn’t have children yet, she said she has younger sisters and cousins, and ensuring children’s safety is important to her.

“This is just something that really hits hard for me … as it does with a lot of others,” Ross said. “Just being a part of something like that, and everyone coming together and showing that this is something that needs to be done, something that needs to be changed, it makes me feel a little bit better. It makes me feel like there is hope because there are so many like-minded people who care so strongly about it.”

Courtney Kidd, an adjunct professor at the university, spoke at the event and said she was honored when the student-organizers invited her. She said she first thought of declining and suggesting a speaker who would be an expert on gun violence, but then she remembered when she was a student hearing the saying: “One voice can make a difference; I am one voice.”

“I realized that this march is about more than rehearing the statistics that you already know, and instead about making change,” Kidd said at the rally. “It’s not about their voice — it’s about yours. So, if I can help you realize that you don’t always need the years and the title, that we need your voice, then I may be able to say I made a difference.”

DeJesus said she hopes the young people will continue voicing their concerns.

“I believe that we will be able to see change if we continue speaking about it,” DeJesus said. “We must keep the conversation going, never forget all the lives lost due to gun violence, continue walking out and don’t let anyone silence us.”

She said it’s vital to get out and vote.

“The midterm elections are so important and not enough people, especially young people, are registered,” DeJesus said. “The best way to make your voices heard is to vote. You never know if your vote will be the one that makes a difference.”

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Long Island residents hold a rally to call for justice for crime victims in the Huntington area, most of them Hispanic. File photo by Rohma Abbas

By Rich Acritelli

Our nation has lately been rocked by protests that are springing up around the country in response to perceived unequal treatment, mostly at the hands of law enforcement. But these sorts of movements are nothing new — Americans of all colors and creeds have a history of protesting the government and bringing about positive change.

Since the first European explorers and settlers made their way to this continent, Native Americans have experienced some of the greatest hardships. While there are some positive stories in American history, like that of Sioux runner Billy Mills winning the gold medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for the 10,000-meter race, such stories were rare. The reservation system was built on poverty and has historically had high rates of suicide, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse. During the 1970s, major tribal groups banded together to protest for enhanced rights from the government. From briefly occupying Alcatraz Island in San Francisco to taking over the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., it was their goal to work with the government to better the lives of Native Americans.

After Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the fearful U.S. government removed Japanese-Americans from their daily lives on the West Coast. Loyal people who paid taxes, were productive citizens and had their children learn about the Constitution were viewed as enemy combatants. More than 110,000 citizens were forced into internment camps from California to Arkansas. From 1942 to 1946, the Japanese were imprisoned and had all of their rights stripped from them. Ironically, some of the most valiant U.S. soldiers who had served in the bloody fighting in Italy’s mountainous terrain during World War II were Japanese-Americans. With their loved ones imprisoned at home, the soldiers were highly decorated and even wounded fighting against the Nazis.

But unlike other historic groups that fought back against injustice, the Japanese Americans did not mount any movement of criticism against their internment, and there was no public or political sympathy for them. It was some 40 years later when Congress finally listened to several weeks of testimony that described the horrors of internment. In 1988, the government formally apologized for the wrongdoing and compensated affected citizens with reparations.

Once World War II ended, black soldiers who defended their country arrived home to a government that was still unwilling to fully grant equal rights to them. Some African Americans who fought with distinction in the European and Pacific theaters were lynched in their uniforms when they returned home, a report that sickened President Harry S. Truman. In 1948, he desegregated the armed forces. But racism was not over — since the end of the Civil War, black citizens had to contend with unfair treatment, such as  poll taxes to keep them from voting and the resentment and violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Black Americans responded fully during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, including with the civil disobedience under Martin Luther King Jr.

As a young man, Cesar Chavez realized that massive inequalities plagued the Latino pickers in the California fields. After spending two years in the military, Chavez began his life’s mission to help the migrant workers, who had little voice in their society. His earliest efforts of aiding others were to ensure that Hispanic people had support dealing with police discrimination, violence, tax problems and immigration issues. Chavez’s social work was also geared toward gaining respect from the California government to help the thousands of workers who strenuously labored in the fields. He extensively traveled in that state to gauge the needs of the workers. During the 1960s, his labor movement reached the impoverished vegetable and fruit pickers. Through nonviolent protests, Chavez and his followers asked Americans not to buy the products that they were harvesting in order to put pressure on the large businesses and farms to be fairer with their wages and labor practices. At various points during the movement, Chavez fasted several times to bring attention to the economic, social and political needs of the workers and citizens he represented. By the 1970s, the pickers’ movement achieved success, with many of the farmhands gaining union contracts. The United Farm Workers Union earned the right to collectively bargain.

It is an American right to protest unfair treatment at the hands of the local, state and federal government. While many inequalities still exist in our society, past movements have demonstrated that peaceful protests for change do work. Change has and always will come to this nation, but it cannot be positive if won through violence against people or property.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College. He was a staff sergeant in the New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton Beach.