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Racism

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.

People brought images of George Floyd to a Port Jefferson protest June 18. That protest was originally meant for June 19, otherwise known as Juneteenth. Photo by Drew Biondo

As the country grapples with various levels of implicit bias in the weeks after Minneapolis resident George Floyd was killed by a white police officer, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) signed two executive orders June 19, otherwise known as Juneteenth.

More than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation while the country was in the throes of the Civil War, slaves in Texas were among the last to learn June 19, 1865, that they, too, were free.

Bellone signed one executive order that mandates the same kind of implicit bias training members of the Suffolk County Police Department have received since 2018 for every county employee before June 19 of 2021.

Additionally, Bellone signed an order that directs the county’s Office of Minority Affairs to prepare an annual observance of this important day in American history next year. The celebration could include festivals, parades, symposiums and musical events. The day will focus on the achievements of African Americans. The office will solicit input from the community and stakeholders to help plan these events.

As part of the outreach, the county executive’s office will also reach out to schools.

“The education piece is incredibly important,” Bellone said on his daily conference call with reporters. The effort is designed to ensure that students have a broader understanding of American history and about the progress the country is making and needs to make.

Viral Numbers

The number of residents who tested positive for COVID-19 in the last day was 54. That brings the total to 40,864. The positive tests continue to represent less than one percent of the total tests given by the county.

The number of hospitalizations, meanwhile, broke below a holding pattern for the last week. The number of residents hospitalized with the coronavirus fell by 15 to 110. The number of people in the Intensive Care Unit with the virus fell by six to 29.

An additional 21 people were discharged from hospitals in the county.

The number of people who have died from complications related to COVID19 increased by one to 1,962 over the last day.

Long Island Ducks

The Long Island Ducks recently announced a 2020 schedule that included 70 games between mid July and September.

Bellone endorsed the idea and suggested that he thought it would be safe, with the proper precautions, given that the activity is outdoors and the Ducks are planning to have games played in front of a stadium cut to one quarter capacity.

“We are very hopeful that in phase 4, we will see the Long Island Ducks back and out on the field,” Bellone said. “We want to see the Ducks defend their title.”

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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.”

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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.”

Several hundred protesters stood along Nesconset Highway in Stony Brook June 7 to protest police violence and racism after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Sunday marks nearly a week of constant protests all across Long Island. Photo by Mike Reilly

George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis two weeks ago spurred nationwide protests and renewed conversations on police brutality and systemic racism in this country. TBR News Media reached out to prominent leaders in the black community to get their perspective on what needs to change and what immediate actions can be taken as we move forward. Here’s what they had to say.

Al Jordan. Photo from Stony Brook University

Al Jordan, clinical associate professor at Stony Brook Medicine and former dean for Student and Minority Affairs: 

We will need to work on life after the protests end, that’s when the hard work really starts. We will really need to see change in policy and in laws, not just on the national level but the local level as well. 

Voter registration — getting more people to vote — is the most immediate change we can work on right now. It will take educating people, including family, friends and community members. It means engaging with people, it’s tough work but people can listen and be persuaded. Some may not, but it is another effective way of change. 

You look at the segregation on Long Island, whether it’s in housing or in school districts, the racial, social and economic disparities — it feeds into the larger issue. 

When it comes to training police officers, it has to begin with the individual person. What’s on their mind, how do they feel? Act on that framework. You also have to change the people who run things and who are at the top. 

I’m optimistic, I believe in people. I see it in the young people, something that’s different from what I and others were doing in the 1960s. They have been able to bridge the gap, that cultural divide, and been able to find that common ground. 

It has given me a lot of hope, seeing these young people like my own grandchildren engaging in these positive activities and important discussions. 

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon. Photo by Kevin Redding

Errol Toulon Jr. (D), Suffolk County sheriff: 

All law enforcement need to reevaluate how they train their officers and how they operate. I don’t know how an officer with 18 prior complaints was allowed to continue to interact with the public. 

Unfortunately, due to this recent incident and others like it, mistrust toward law enforcement is at an all-time high. We need to work together to regain that trust. 

It’s having a conversation with them. It starts by talking to them and hearing their concerns, answering their questions and hopefully giving them a good understanding of what we do. 

99 percent of police officers who come to work to serve and protect are good men and women. But those who do wrong need to be held accountable. Supervisors need to be held accountable as well. 

Whether it is additional training or suspension it needs to be addressed immediately. 

One thing departments and agencies can do is increase cultural awareness and diversity training. A lot of times these teachings end once they leave the door of the academy. We have to make sure that officers remain engaged with the black and minority communities. We must have respect for each other. 

Another thing is making sure we are talking to our staff — monitoring their emotional and mental well being. 

[On Monday, Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office announced the creation of a community advisory board to give residents an opportunity to meet regularly with the sheriff and staff and discuss concerns. The board will consist of five people from East End townships and five from the western towns in Suffolk. Members will serve for a one-year term.

“Current events have demonstrated that people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds are frustrated with law enforcement, and they have some legitimate reasons to feel this way,” Toulon said in a release.]

Elaine Gross speaks about race at ERASE Racism forum. Photo by Kyle Barr

Elaine Gross, president of Syosset-based nonprofit ERASE Racism: 

There’s currently conversation changing police policy, there’s a legislative package up in Albany that will be voted on soon. I’m pleased to hear that. 

But we also need to have a conversation on how we got to where we are. There is structural racism. 

On Long Island, due to segregation in school districts,, we know public school education looks very different in terms of the resources for black and minority students compared to white students. 

This is a disparity that gets lost — people are not aware of it or just don’t want to talk about it. An education policy needs to be made a priority, and that means increasing the percentage of educators of color in the classroom — that includes Black, Latinx and Asian teachers. We have seen the benefits of students in a diverse learning environment.  

In addition to the package up in Albany, we need an independent prosecutor, not someone who works closely with the police department. We have seen so many cases where so little happens and no charges brought down [on officers accused of misconduct]. It sort of goes away. We need to continue to strengthen race crime measures and increase body cams in law enforcement. 

I’ve had forums with high school students in the past on structural racism, and I believe students are beginning to have a better understanding of what’s happening in the world and are more open to it than adults. I look to the students and young people to carry the movement forward. 

Councilwoman Valerie Cartright. Photo by Phil Corso

Valerie Cartright, Brookhaven Town councilwoman (D-Port Jefferson Station): 

It is clear that there is a movement happening, people are stepping up and saying, “Enough is enough.” 

For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the George Floyd incident showed white people in this country what it is like to be black in America. Now our voices are being heard. 

There is legislation being passed in New York State that I support that is moving us in the right direction, but it is only scratching the surface. It is a good first step. We need to acknowledge these injustices and take immediate action. 

We should have already had access to disciplinary records of officers — this information should have been made public. Also, we need to change the police culture. We need to make sure police officers feel comfortable in speaking out against bad officers. We have to have strong whistleblower protection. 

I have represented [as an attorney] police officers who have spoken up about their comrades and they often face retaliation for violating or going against the brotherhood. 

The majority of police officers are good people but if we don’t get rid of hate, racism and discrimination in these departments then we are never going to change the system. 

I’m asking everybody to join in this movement, so we can be heard as one voice.

Several hundred people crowded on to the north side of Nesconset Highway in Stony Brook June 7 in one of a series of protests against racial injustice and police brutality from all around Long Island.

Across from Smith Haven Mall, several hundred protesters gathered both along the busy intersection and a small field just behind the police barricades. At one point, police stopped traffic for a time to allow protesters to march down the road. Cars honked horns in support, and some drove by holding their own signs in solidarity with those at the rally.

Protesters shouted lines such as “no justice, no peace.” People also laid on their stomachs with their hands behind their backs, much as Minneapolis man George Floyd was May 25 when the now-fired officer Derek Chauvin pushed his knee into Floyd’s neck. The crowd shouted while on the ground, “I can’t breathe,” some of the last wods Floyd spoke.

Suffolk County has had around 85 protests since the killing of Floyd more than a week ago, according to County Executive Steve Bellone (D).

All photos by Mike Reilly

Hundreds of cars huddled in the right lane going east along Veterans Memorial Highway Sunday, June 7. Streaming off Northern State Parkway, the caravan of cars came from Nassau County’s seat of power to Suffolk, all to promote black lives and black efficacy after the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd.

In a day which saw other protests along the North Shore including in Stony Brook and Smithtown, the rally that took place at the Suffolk County executive seat in Hauppauge drew crowds from as far east as the north and south forks and as west as the far edges of Nassau County as part of the NAACP Caravan for Change. Protesters called for an equality of access to housing, loans for businesses and a general end to prejudice. In addition to banning police use of chokeholds and stricter repercussions for officers who commit unwarranted violence, they also prompted bills in Albany to end what’s known as 50-a, a provision in the state’s civil rights code that heavily restricts people from accessing police service records.

Tracey Edwards, the Long Island Regional Director of the NAACP, said one can be for police, but also be against police misconduct. Between speakers at the podium, she added it was also time to recognize the numerous young activists who are helping to lead many protests of the past several days.

“One of the main things we need to do as a community is to identify the young leaders, and pass the baton to them,” Edwards said. “It’s critical that we let young people lead.”

Three young members of the Huntington community have led some of the first protest marches in Huntington and spoke at the June 7 rally about their efforts and examples of racism they experienced while marching. Owner of the Italian restaurant Tutto Pazzo, Luigi Petrone, called protesters animals and savages and said he wanted to throw watermelons at those marching. 

“We were angry naturally, but instead of going about it in an irrational way, we decided to reorganize and mobilize again, but this time take the protest directly to his restaurant,” Kenny Charles, one of the three young protest organizers said. He added they received massive support from the community for their protest in front of Pazzo, with people even dropping off watermelons to protesters in response to Petrone’s comments.

The owner of Pazzo has since shared apologies for his comments in a video posted online.

They said the point of their protests is to show the solidarity of the community, and express the worth of their money, which would not go to support business owners who would discriminate against them. Instead, it should go to supporting and promoting black-owned businesses.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone also spoke at the rally. He cited the county replacing Tom Spota as county district attorney who was “systematically targeting black males,” he said, also citing adding more diversity to the county’s Department of Human Resources, Personnel and Civil Service

A few members of the assembled crowd yelled back at him saying “what are you planning?”

“When we talk about systemic change in law enforcement, that is needed, but that is not enough.” Bellone said. “We need systemic structural change in housing, in education and representation in all forms of our government.

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown. Photo by Tom Caruso

Churches, mosques and synagogues can reopen as Suffolk County enters Phase Two of its reopening this Wednesday, albeit with only 25 percent capacity.

Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that these houses of worship could admit community members and that religious leaders were responsible for ensuring compliance with the public health guidelines designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s an important time for our faith-based communities to be opened back up,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on his daily conference call with reporters. “Our faith-based communities are ready to this. They understand what needs to be done.”

Separately, as protests continue on Long Island and throughout the world after the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of a former police officer, who has been charged with his murder, public officials are engaging in ongoing conversations with community leaders bout ways to create greater equity and opportunity for everyone.

“There are areas for us to make progress,” Bellone said. “There is more work to be done.”

Bellone suggested the police department can look to make itself more diverse so that it “reflects in terms of its diversity the communities it serves across the county. That’s a priority for us.”

Bellone said conversations about equal opportunities occurred before the killing of Floyd and are moving into a “new phase” amid the protests and demonstrations.

Viral Numbers

The number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 rose by 39 to 40,239 over the last day.

The number of residents in the hospital due to the pandemic declined by 13 to 200, while the number of people in Intensive Care Unit beds declined by one to 53 through June 4th.

An additional 24 people left the hospital over the last day.

The number of people who died due to complications related to COVID-19 in the last day was five, bringing the total to 1,923.

Since Sunday, protesters in Huntington rallied against racism and police violence after the killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd. Another protest took place June 4 with more the following day. Photo by David Luces

Despite officials saying practically all protests in Suffolk County have been peaceful to this point, unfounded rumors of potential violence are still being spread through social media, causing concern while protesters continue to call for an end to racial injustice and police violence.

Throughout the week, a flyer promoting a protest in Smithtown made its way through social media. The flyer depicts marchers holding up their fists in the classic black power symbol, though it also depicts fires from Minneapolis. It includes the words “Bring your spirit in all its inferno.” The location of the protests lists the Stop & Shop at 291 West Main St. just east of the bull statue and was set for June 7.

Residents online, in both Smithtown and neighboring townships, have taken that image and dialogue surrounding the protest to mean it would somehow involve violence. The main person promoting the protest, who on Twitter and Instagram goes by the name @plasticbagnomad, commented that it is planned to be “a peaceful demonstration. We are not advocating for violence at all.”

Her real name is Caitlin Matos-Rodriguez, of Central Islip, and she said there has been much misinformation on social media about her and the planned protest. Because of the misinformation and rumors, she has received multiple violent threats to her and other protesters from residents.

“I have never condoned violence on this protest,” she said. “My goal of this protest is to bring our voices into segregated towns of Long Island. Our roots on Long Island rival next to Jim Crow [laws] of the south — you can see that by the geography of Long Island alone.”

Referencing the general segregated nature of Long Island’s townships (Smithtown is over 90 percent white, according to census data), she added the point of the protest is to help open up more job opportunities, real estate opportunities and credit building opportunities for marginalized people of color.

The Town of Smithtown released a statement Wednesday about some of the undue anxiety from the community at large, not just about the mentioned protest, but about “a number of rumors, hoaxes, photos of fake advertisements for paid anarchists, and false posts of looting, night time demonstrations and other fictitious posts [that] have flooded social media, inflaming unbecoming verbal response and panic amidst a pandemic.”

The town said it is working with police and local fire districts to “ensure that any and all demonstrations in our community are done in a peaceful, lawful manner, ensuring the safety of all involved.” 

Smithtown spokesperson Nicole Garguilo said residents were subjected to “a storm of false information,” including that bricks were being placed around the county to be used by protesters or even rumors that the Macy’s clothing store was being looted.

The Sunday protest and its organizer was a victim of that misinformation, which resulted in violent threats to her and any other protesters. Though now with the town and police having communicated with Matos-Rodriguez and other protest leaders, Garguilo said all will work to make the protest will be peaceful.

“This is a young woman who is motivated to express her first amendment right to assemble,” Garguilo said. “We’re are going to all be there in what we hope to disarm any community angst that’s out there with Caitlin. We want to make sure her message gets out clear.”

More people in surrounding communities have worked to clarify that it would remain peaceful. Julio Taku Jr., a Huntington resident and journalism student at Stony Brook University, said he and other community activists saw the reaction to the Smithtown protest and have sought to clarify what’s happening.

In a written statement he shared with TBR News Media, it said Matos-Rodriguez is in contact with town officials and Suffolk County Police to ensure a safe and peaceful demonstration.

“Local law enforcement from the 4th precinct will also be on hand to ensure the safety of all the demonstrators seeking to respectfully express their First Amendment right under the United States Constitution,” her statement read. “We stand in solidarity with the black community and wish to honor and support them in the best way possible. Black Lives Matter.”

The destination and route for the march is still to be determined before Sunday. A new poster for the protest sets the time at 2 p.m., but Garguilo said the time was being moved to 4 p.m.

In community Facebook pages, mentions of protests have been responded to with posts that suggest residents will resort to violence to stave off violent protests in their communities. So far all protests on the North Shore of Long Island have been reported as peaceful. While there have been nearly daily rallies in the Huntington area for the past several days, for eastern Suffolk in the TBR News Media coverage area, the closest rallies have taken place in Setauket, Port Jefferson Station and Riverhead, some involving hundreds of people peacefully protesting alongside a police presence.

On Wednesday, June 3, police posted to its Facebook page that there were rumors circulating around social media about piles of bricks being left at specific locations, as if to incite violence, and of bricks being thrown at cars below overpasses, but the department has not received any credible information towards those reports.

In Suffolk so far the only arrests of protesters were two people in Shirley June 1. Police said they responded to about 70 protesters who were marching down toward the 7th precinct along William Floyd Parkway, shutting the road from north of Sunrise Highway to the Seventh Precinct. Road closures stretched from Sunrise Highway to the Long Island Expressway. Police said the two people didn’t listen to police about staying in a designated area. 

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said in a video posted to the police Facebook she thanked the protesters while citing department initiatives with diversity training and other practices to reduce police violence.

“I want to recognize the protesters who have got their message out in a peaceful manner — we are listening,” she said.

This post will be updated with additional information regarding the protest or from Town of Smithtown.

This post was updated June 6 to relay updated times of the Smithtown protest.