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Setauket Patriots

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PJ Resident Connor Fitterer, center, along with two of his friends, set up this sign based on an internet meme in response to the Setauket Patriots’ “Trump Victory Parade” Nov. 8. Photo by Kyle Barr

“F*** the Democrats — If you are a Liberal, you should be executed.” The words blared out from one of the lead trucks ahead of a small caravan of about 20 cars through Port Jefferson in an event organizers called a “Trump Victory Parade” Sunday, Nov. 8. 

The Setauket Patriots hosted a “Trump Victory Parade” Nov. 8, though

The inflammatory words went largely unnoticed from the few pedestrians walking in Port Jeff the unseasonably warm late fall morning. A few passing bystanders gave calls of support for President Donald Trump (R) to the passing cars, and the event lasted only around 10 minutes. It was a far cry from the hundreds of vehicles that passed through the village earlier in October as a series of caravans hosted by the right-wing online group Setauket Patriots. That caravan traveled the route through Port Jeff, Setauket and St. James before heading out toward a much larger rally in East Northport and the Walt Whitman Mall. Though most news outlets have declared a victory to Trump’s Democratic opponent Joe Biden Saturday, many of the president’s supporters on Long Island continue to propagate unfounded conspiracy theories of widespread, interstate voter fraud favoring Biden.

This is despite the fact while the president lost the election via electoral votes, Democrats also lost seats in the House of Representatives and control of the Senate will depend on a Georgia runoff election in January.

Stats from the Suffolk County Board of Elections currently show the president holds a 55.5% tally compared to Biden’s 43%, though there are many thousands of absentee ballots still left to count.

Port Jefferson’s constables as well as Suffolk County police directed traffic through the village. In the village’s Nov. 2 board of trustees meeting, Will Zieman, 6th Precinct COPE officer, said that during the Oct. 17 caravan there were no arrests made, but he referred to incidents during the first caravan that “devolved” when people exited their vehicles in Setauket to confront counterprotesters. Three individuals from the North Country Peace Group were arrested that day for alleged disorderly conduct standing in front of the caravan’s path.

“We were prepared to proceed forward with pressing charges on behalf of individuals, right now those investigations are pending based on the complainants,” Zieman said. “There are some pending arrests that might be taking place.”

Otherwise the COPE officer said police were trying to make sure the caravan went in and out of the village safely and without incident.

There were other rallies across Long Island by Trump supporters, including in front of the News 12 Long Island offices in Woodbury.

Though there weren’t many Trump supporters on the sidelines that Sunday in Port Jeff, a few local residents set up a table next to Main Street with a sign that read “Trump Lost the Election/Change My Mind.” The sign is based on an internet meme originated when conservative online personality Steven Crowder posted a picture of him sitting outside Texas Christian University with a sign reading “Male Privilege Is a Myth/Change My Mind.”

PJ resident Connor Fitterer, who set up the table just outside the entrance to Chandler Square from Main Street along with two of his friends, said they brought the table there in response to the Setauket Patriots’ supposed call of a Trump victory. He said that while many of his more liberally minded friends were “genuinely nervous” about supporters’ reactions to Trump’s defeat, he wasn’t very nervous about putting himself in that position. 

“They say, ‘You’re just taking their word that democracy works,’ but isn’t that what we’ve been doing for the past 200 years?” Fitterer said. 

By Kyle Barr and Rita J. Egan

Flags flying, the Trump crowd rolled through local communities Halloween, Oct. 31, despite some local opposition.

Just a few days before the election date Nov. 3, caravans supporting President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign could be seen on major roadways on County Road 83 in Mount Sinai and Route 25A in Port Jefferson and Setauket.

For around 30 minutes, vehicles bearing flags supporting Trump’s reelection rolled down Main Street in Port Jefferson. A crowd of around 20 people stood by the side cheering on the car parade. Most were not wearing masks.

The parade in Port Jefferson was conducted by the right wing online group Setauket Patriots. Their Trumpalozza 3 car parade was a sequel to a separate Trump caravan held Oct. 17, one that lasted for close to an hour and saw hundreds of vehicles rolling down Main Street.

Officials from the Village of Port Jefferson posted a statement to its website and Facebook about before the parade Oct. 28, saying the village does not “condone lawless or disrespectful behavior within our village, regardless of any content or message that any group may convey.” Despite some residents’ complaints of the prior parade, officials said they legally do not have the authority to stop a moving vehicle or issue citations for traffic law.

Both Suffolk County Police and village Code Enforcement were present, keeping spectators behind the barricades and directing traffic down Main Street and up West Broadway.

A crowd of counter protesters, including the North Country Peace Group which normally protest at the corner of North Country Road and Bennetts Road in Setauket, gathered along the south of the road as the caravan passed.

Joining the North Country Peace Group were people holding a rally against police brutality. A few from the south side crossed Route 25A to talk to members of the North Country Patriots who stand across from the peace group every Saturday. One girl walked across the street to stand in front of a member of the Patriots. The two stared each other down for several minutes.

As the caravan passed Bennetts Road, rally members, who held signs showing support for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and vice president nominee Kamala Harris or that read Black Lives Matter and similar sentiments, knelt or turned their backs on the Trump caravan when it came by. Many raised their fists, a regular symbol for BLM. Police officers on the scene said they would arrest anyone who got out of their cars in the caravan or protesters who went in the street to confront them.

Another car caravan supporting Trump and the reelection of U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) got going the same day, starting at the Rose Caracappa Senior Center in Mount Sinai. The caravan, formed by the Brookhaven Town Republican Committee and online group Brookhaven Republican Friends, saw about 20 people and their vehicles stream down Patchogue-Mount Sinai Road going south before eventually turning onto Sunrise Highway and ending at Zeldin’s Shirley offices.

Additional reporting by Julianne Mosher and Steven Zaitz

Caravan goers and Counterprotesters Butt Heads in Setauket

For close to an hour, hundreds of President Donald Trump’s (R) supporters rolled through the North Shore and parts of the Middle Country area during a huge caravan Saturday, Oct. 17.

Members of the Trumpalozza event, organized by right-wing online group Setauket Patriots, leaned on their horns and shouted “four more years” and “Trump” while people lined up at the corner of East Broadway and Main Street in Port Jefferson shouted their support as well. Some cars sported bull horns that blasted their support into the cool fall air. Many cars and pickup trucks were hung with flags supporting Trump’s reelection campaign, as well as many pictures and even some blow up representations of the president.

Some cars also used tape to cover up their license plates, which is a violation of New York State law. Many of those gathered to cheer on the caravan were not wearing masks.

In a previous article, James Robitsek, the event organizer for the Setauket Patriots, said they did not ask participants to block their license plate numbers but added people had been doing it to avoid being outed online.

The Setauket Patriots also brought an impersonator  of the president to lead the caravan. The actor’s name was Thomas Mundy, aka TOMMY Trump45, who is listed as a comedian on his Facebook page.

The caravan originally organized at the LIRR parking lot in Port Jeff Station a little before noon, where the actor portraying the president, speaking in Trump’s voice, called Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant “evil.” The Patriots were issued a summons earlier this month for hosting a parade on 9/11 without a permit. The village put a moratorium on any new parade or march permits in June, citing fear of spreading COVID-19. A Black Lives Matter march was held in June, followed by a Setauket Patriots-held car parade for Fourth of July. Village officials have said they are the only group to have attempted a parade since the moratorium was put in place.

Robitsek has previously told TBR News Media he feels he and his group are being targeted by local Democrats in the area. The original date for the summons was moved to November, but Setauket Patriots had planned to protest in front of Village Hall.

While many supporters saw the event as a success in getting the word out about their support, some felt they were harassed by participants if they shared any dissent.

Andrew Rimby, a doctorate student at Stony Brook University and Port Jeff resident, said he was called a gay slur by a member of the caravan as he walked in the village.

“There were those of us who expressed our dissent, who said we don’t agree,” he said. “A woman started to call me a gay slur, and I had a lot of time to talk to her. I was, like, ‘Why are you insulting me like this?’ And she said, ‘You don’t support our president.’”

Rimby sent a letter to Garant voicing his and 14 other local residents’ concerns about the caravan that went through the village. The letter complained about the caravan violating noise codes as well as how people harassed him and anybody else who showed dissent.

During the village board meeting Oct. 19, Garant made a statement about the weekend’s events, saying they have received multiple complaints from residents though none of those issues were addressed specifically. Police were on-site as they could issue citations for traffic or moving violations, though she commended both them and code enforcement for keeping things organized in a tense situation.

“I want to reemphasize the Village of Port Jefferson does not condone lawless or disrespectful behavior regardless of any messaging a person or group is attempting to convey,” Garant said. “We’re hoping that with each day that ticks off the calendar that we may return to somewhat of an existence of peaceful and quiet enjoyment in our community. … I just wanted to let everybody know it was a tough day for everyone here in the village.”

Once in St. James, the caravan stopped at Patio Pizza, which had come under several bouts of controversy after people threatened to boycott the establishment after it was shown with a Trump flag. Trump’s Twitter account has previously tweeted about the St. James pizza parlor.

The parade traveled a circuit first through Port Jefferson up into Setauket, down through St James and going through Centereach and Selden before eventually coming up Route 112. In Setauket, members of the North Country Peace Group stood in front of the caravan, blocking its path. Some caravan goers got out of their cars to confront the people blocking their path. One woman yelled into a megaphone, “Liberals go home.”

Police said three people were arrested for disorderly conduct, namely Deborah Kosyla of Setauket, Anne Chimelis of Setauket, and Myrna Gordon, a Port Jefferson resident and leader of the peace group. A video from the Setauket Patriots Facebook page shows peace group members standing in front of vehicles clenching fists in the air and holding signs. In that same video, the Trump look-alike also called the people assembled in front of them “evil people.” A man in the car with Mundy apparently makes a crack about how the “Secret Service is going to take out the machine guns.”

Gordon, speaking on behalf of the peace group, said they were unable to release a comment at this time, citing it being an ongoing police issue.

Separately, Suffolk County police are investigating a hit-and-run crash that occurred at the corner of Route 25A and Bennetts Road in Setauket that same day. Police said the call came in at around 1 p.m. for the crash, which they said occurred some time around 12:45 p.m. They did not release details on whether the crash involved a member of the caravan or a protester.

The Setauket Fire Department confirmed they did take one person to a hospital for minor injuries around that time, but department officials declined to offer further comment.

There was not much in the way of counterprotesters, though at one point during the parade a driver threw up the middle finger to supporters assembled on the sidewalk. One counterprotester stood at the turn into the Port Jeff train station parking lot holding a sign that read Black Lives Matter. He was later seen down at the corner of East Broadway and Main after the caravan had already gone ahead. There was also a separate protest held by progressives next to the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber train car about the ongoing controversy over Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court replacement.

The Trumpalozza event ended with many caravan goers returning to Port Jeff to participate in a rally across from Port Jefferson Village Hall, in the Town of Brookhaven-owned park for locals who died on 9/11.

Setauket Patriots Plan Caravan Despite Village Summons for Previous March. Photo by Steven Zaitz

Coming to a town near you: another Trump caravan.

The Setauket Patriots announced they would be hosting a Trumpalozza Road Rally event starting and eventually ending in Port Jefferson Saturday, Oct. 17.

A copy of the summons received by Setauket Patriots, posted to Facebook.

Setauket Patriots organizer James Robitsek said he expects 800 to 1,000 participants. On the group’s Facebook page, a little over 400 say they will be attending, with more indicating they possibly may. 

The car caravan is just the third event hosted by Setauket Patriots, an online right-wing group that often posts in support of President Donald Trump (R), among other conservative and far-right messaging. Previous events have been based on Fourth of July and Veterans Day celebrations, though each has carried a strong political tinge in support of Trump. Out of these other past events, this one is the most explicit in its support.

The caravan is to start in the parking lot of the Port Jefferson LIRR train station before moving down Main Street then turning left onto West Broadway. Cars are set to move onto Route 25A in Setauket, down into St. James along Lake Avenue, past the Smith Haven Mall. The caravan will move through Centereach and Selden before turning onto County Road 83 and back onto Route 112 to finish back at the Port Jeff train station.

Robitsek said he has been in contact with Suffolk County police about the event, and though they might be around to facilitate cars leaving the parking lot, they will not be there for the entire run of the car parade.

Other car caravans in support of Trump have passed through the North Shore in the past month. Several went from Huntington out to the North Fork, where people hung out sunroofs and stood in the back of pickup trucks. Pictures also show people in the caravan had placed tape to obscure their license plates, which is against the law. 

Robitsek said he has not advocated that drivers use tape on their license plates, but participants in other pro-Trump events have been outed online by people tracking their license numbers.

Despite this, police report nobody in the caravans has been arrested to date, though one resident from Northport was arrested by Northport police for alleged menacing and disorderly conduct involving a caravanner’s truck, something he has reportedly heavily disputed.

The planned caravan is only three days before Robitsek and the Setauket Patriots are set to be in village traffic court, Oct. 20, over their previous Veterans Day event, which drew hundreds down through the village without a permit. Most marching that day did so without masks.

Village of Port Jefferson had issued an executive order signed July 6 by Mayor Margot Garant effectively stopping the village from signing any new permits for marches or protests. This was in response to the Patriots’ July 4 car parade as well as a Black Lives Matter march hosted in Port Jeff in June. The order was enabled by the village’s previous declaration of emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Garant has said the issue is with how many people these events bring together during a pandemic.  

On Facebook, Robitsek said they were issued a summons on Oct. 5, and claimed local officials from village, county and state were targeting him and his group.

“I’m being unfairly targeted because I’m a pro-Trump group in an all-Democrat town,” he said, adding the reason they chose Port Jeff as their starting point was “its high visibility, it’s a Democrat-run village, so why not show support for the silent majority that does support President Trump.”

Village officials have previously said the Patriots submitted a permit application for the July 4 event, but that they failed to file it correctly, and that they did not pay fees attached to the permit process. 

The Setauket Patriots organizer posted the summons online, which said the offense was because they “led a procession/parade down a public sidewalk without a permit” in violation of village code. The Setauket Patriots have also planned a rally in front of Village Hall Oct. 20 in protest of receiving the summons.

Deputy Village Attorney Rich Harris said the summons was only for the violation of the village code, which depending on a plea or a court ruling could result in a 0 to $2,000 fine or up to 15 days in jail. On its face, the violation does not have anything to do with recouping losses from either police or constable’s overtime.

“It’s a violation of the village code for operating a parade or procession without permit,” Harris said.

Whether this event could also be in violation of village code depends on how the event proceeds, Harris said. It could be different, especially as most people will be in vehicles and that the caravan will not be exclusive to Port Jeff.

The car caravan is scheduled for the same day and time as the Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce’s Pumpkinmania, that’s set to bring in professional pumpkin carvers to do live demonstrations as well as host a pumpkin carving contest. 

Barbara Ransome, executive director of the chamber, said she is not worried that the caravan would impact the chamber’s event. Pumpkinmania will be held 12 to 7 p.m. and will be located at 138 E. Main St. in the small brick patio area. There will also be a set of pumpkin carving contests for Port Jefferson residents, one for children and one for adults, that will be judged by the professionals. There is a $5 entrance fee for each participant.

Ransome said the caravan of cars will likely have already moved on, and there will be plenty of time afterward for people to come down. The chamber event is also designed to promote the small businesses on East Main Street.

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Setauket Patriots Plan Caravan Despite Village Summons for Previous March. Photo by Steven Zaitz

On Sept. 12, the day after the 19th anniversary of 9/11, hundreds marched down Port Jeff’s Main Street to honor lives lost at the 9/11 memorial across from Village Hall.

Approximately 100 marchers started from the Port Jefferson Train Station where they sang the national anthem before coming down Main Street. Most walked but another group also came down the street on motorcycles. A large group Suffolk County Police were there to block traffic and lead the group down the road on motorcycles. Many of those marching were not wearing masks.

Most marched in good spirits and there were no reported confrontations between marchers and people on the sidelines.

After reaching the Brookhaven marina area, the crowd grew to about 200 before stopping in the small 9/11 memorial on Town of Brookhaven property. Once at the site, organizers, including former FDNY Lieutenant Daniel Dooley, who helped originally construct the 9/11 memorial, read off the names of those from Brookhaven town who died in the terror attacks 19 years ago. Other speakers included Vietnam Vet and PJSD alum David Mann.

Setauket Patriots, a local online right wing and pro-Trump group, organized the march through social media. While event organizer James Robitsek told TBR News Media before the event they wished it to be a-political, a small number of marchers bore flags, hats and other paraphernalia supporting President Donald Trump’s (R) reelection campaign. Others in the march sported thin blue line flags and other items that supported police.

The Village of Port Jefferson originally denied the organizers a permit to march at the end of August, citing a general moratorium on any new permits for marches and parades because of the ongoing pandemic. Village officials also said that the permit application the Setauket Patriots sent in was incomplete in the first place.

Organizers for the march previously told TBR News Media they felt the permit denial was a suppression of their constitutional right to assemble, and they announced they would be marching anyway.

All photos by Steven Zaitz

Though the Setauket Patriots said their Fourth of July parade held in Port Jeff was an a-political event, a few cars like this military-style Jeep rolled down Main Street bearing “Trump 2020” paraphernalia. Photo by David Luces

The Setauket Patriots, a sometimes-controversial online conservative group, announced they plan to hold a 9/11 parade in Port Jefferson, even though this time they lack the village’s approval. 

The planned march, scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 12, would take people from the train station all the way down to the 9/11 memorial across from Port Jefferson Village Hall, next to the marina parking lot. The village has not granted a permit for the march, but the group plans to go anyway. 

“This is about trying to follow the mandates.”

— Margot Garant

The Facebook page for the event states the event is planned because New York City, along with Suffolk and Nassau counties, have declined to hold public 9/11 ceremonies because of the pandemic. The patriots, a known pro-Trump group, said the event “is not a Trump rally but a 9/11 never-forget-our-first-responders event.” Organizers said they expect anywhere from 150 to 200 participants.

This is not the first event the group has decided to host in Port Jeff. When hundreds marched down Main Street in Port Jefferson for a Black Lives Matter march in June, the Setauket Patriots hosted a Fourth of July car parade in response. Both the protest march and Patriots parade received permits after discussions with village officials, which created changes of time and place for both events. This time, the conservative group filed for a permit but they claim their request was denied Friday, Aug. 28.

Village Attorney Brian Egan said an executive order signed July 6 by Mayor Margot Garant effectively stopped the village from signing any new permits for marches or protests. The order was enabled by the village’s previous declaration of emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time it was signed, Garant said the permits for such protests and parades had been “a mistake” because of the ongoing pandemic.

In regards to any further action taken by the village, Egan said nothing would be enforced by Port Jeff’s constables, and it would instead fall on the Suffolk County Police Department. In response to whether the village plans any further action against the group if it does host its parade, he again reiterated that Port Jeff’s clerk would no longer be issuing permits for any kind of march.

Garant said that beyond the moratorium on permits, the application the group filed had been incomplete and was rejected for that as well. She added the purpose of no longer allowing groups of more than 50 to gather is an attempt to comply with state orders trying to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

“It has nothing to do with who they are and what they’re doing,” she said. “This is about trying to follow the mandates.”

The mayor said the village has contacted Suffolk County police as well as state police about the planned march. They have also contacted the Town of Brookhaven, since the 9/11 memorial is technically on town-owned land. She advised that the group should try and communicate with the town instead to devise some kind of ceremony.

A spokesperson for the Setauket Patriots, who asked he not be named because of fear of being outed online, called the village’s decision to not allow any more parades unfair, considering the village has started hosting its Harborfront Park movie nights once again, though these are hosted by the village itself and therefore do not require permits.  

“We’re helping Mr. Dooley, and it’s the only reason we’re having it in Port Jeff.”

— Setauket Patriots

The Setauket Patriots leader reiterated that the planned march was planned to be apolitical. He said it was planned after conversations with Daniel Dooley, a New York City Fire Department lieutenant who helped construct the Port Jeff 9/11 memorial. Dooley normally hosts a vigil at the memorial site to commemorate 9/11. He was also described as a member of the group.

“We’re helping Mr. Dooley, and it’s the only reason we’re having it in Port Jeff,” the Setauket Patriots rep said.

Efforts to contact Dooley went unsuccessful as of press time.

A few other 9/11-based events usually happen within the village to commemorate that fateful day in 2001. The Port Jefferson Fire Department normally hosts its own ceremony, and last year the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America hosted a candlelight vigil in Harborfront Park. 

Tom Totten, the PJ fire district chairman of the fire commissioners, said they plan to host an in-house ceremony that’s not open to the public. Discussions are still ongoing whether the vigil will be recorded or livestreamed.

Other 9/11 events on the North Shore have been postponed or changed to meet the challenges of the pandemic. The usual Setauket Fire Department 9/11 event will not be open to the public and will instead be livestreamed. Other events, like the 9/11 memorial hosted in Shoreham by the Rocky Point Fire Department, are still up in the air.

Members of the Setauket Patriots group also took the lead in several controversial May protests in Commack calling for the end of the COVID-19 shutdowns. Their Facebook normally posts conservative and pro-president news, but their page also shares more posts that could well be described as inciting violence, such as videos of pro-Trump car paraders in Portland, Oregon, driving into and through counterprotesters and spraying them with pepper spray with captions like, “Bear spray is the new bug spray!” 

Attendees and marchers during the annual Port Jefferson Fourth of July parade in 2019. File photo by Kyle Barr

*Update* Officials confirmed Thursday, July 2 the Port Jefferson Village board was issuing a permit for a car parade this Saturday after the permit was deemed complete by Village Administrator Joe Palumbo. 

Original Story:

After the Port Jefferson Fire Department announced it was canceling this year’s Fourth of July parade due to the ongoing pandemic, a local conservative group announced it would host its own parade to mark the standout American holiday. However, this new community-run parade has made some waves within the village because of the event’s political undertones.

The Setauket Patriots, a local right-wing social media group, established the event they called Patriot Day Parade which was advertised on Facebook. They invited local fire departments, floats, classic cars or anyone else looking to participate. Because of concerns with distancing, Village of Port Jefferson officials requested the parade take place in vehicles. The Setauket Patriots also advertised for people to wear masks.

“All politics aside, this is not a political event, all people are invited,” said a representative of the Setauket Patriots who asked not to be named so as to not be attacked on social media. “We should come together for the birth of our nation.”

The parade is scheduled to meet up at 10 a.m. at Railroad Avenue then start marching at 11. The Facebook event said it has been in contact with Suffolk County Police who will escort the parade and close all streets along the route, though police did not respond to requests for confirmation. The route will take it down Main Street, take a left on West Broadway and stop in front of Village Hall where it will disburse, according to Village Administrator Joe Palumbo.

The parade has at least partially been in response to a recent protest march held in Port Jefferson. The Setauket Patriots description of their parade on Facebook incorrectly states that the Village of Port Jefferson canceled the regular July 4 parade, as that event is instead handled annually by the fire department. The post points to the recent Black Lives Matter march held in Port Jefferson June 18, which village officials granted a permit for, as why a 4th of July parade should be hosted as well. That June protest was created by students at Stony Brook University, who submitted the permit application which was unanimously approved by the village board at its June 15 meeting.

The Setauket Patriots’ post said that march shut down Main Street for four hours, but a TBR News Media reporter who was on the scene said it only lasted for two, and after holding speeches at Village Hall the crowd quickly disbursed.

The Setauket Patriots also wrote that despite comments from detractors that the parade would be a rally for President Donald Trump (R), the march “is a July 4th Parade PERIOD.”

“It’s not a Trump rally, but anyone who attends is free to wave whatever flag they want because that’s what this country  is built on,” the post continued.

As of Tuesday, June 30, village officials said they have worked through the application with a Setauket Patriots representative. The group paid the application and safety fees attached to the permit application, which has been sent for review. Because the next official village meeting is scheduled for July 6, Palumbo said the village trustees and mayor are to be polled on the application, but no decision has been made as of time of reporting. Because July 4 is a federal holiday, the decision on the application must be made before that date.

In mid-June, the Port Jefferson Fire Department announced it would not be hosting its annual parade, and in a letter, Todd Stumpf, Port Jefferson Fire Department chief, cited COVID-19 concerns as why it was being canceled.

In May and early June, the village considered hosting its annual fireworks show at a later date than July 4, but by June 15 had canceled the show it usually hosts at East Beach, with officials citing safety needs and an inability for people to socially distance considering the numbers of crowds who usually come down for the annual display.

This post was updated July 1 with a comment from a Setauket Patriots representative.

News12 reporter Kevin Vesey is confronted by protesters at a rally in Commack on May 14. Photo by Rita J. Egan

At a recent rally, protesters of the lockdown asked why a reporter’s job was deemed essential when theirs weren’t. The question is a fair one, even though the way it was posed at a May 14 rally in Commack had reporters fearing for their safety.

Dissatisfied with the way News 12 Long Island’s Kevin Vesey reported a previous rally that took place May 1, protesters began to approach him aggressively as he took video footage with his smartphone for Facebook Live, which quickly went viral over the internet. First, there were two women with megaphones and then a few others joined in the shouting match. Vesey’s response was to keep backing up as he answered them calmly and continued recording.

One of our editors was also reporting on the scene and was on hand for the confrontation, moving in closer to hear the protesters’ concerns. It was concerning the way the small crowd questioned “who was essential” with such anger. With distrust in the media growing for years, exacerbated by constant “fake news” remarks, there seems to be less and less places safe enough for local reporters to simply report the news. 

If our reporter could have answered the question posed by the angry protesters and interrupted Vesey’s replies, she would have told them that if the media wasn’t deemed essential during this time, elected officials would only communicate with the public if they felt like it. They could put out whatever information they wanted to without being challenged.

President Donald Trump (R) did not calm the situation when he took the viral video of Vesey being confronted and lauded the small band of protesters, giving them and others the green light to their anti-free press rhetoric and intimidation. What should happen if Trump’s words result in violence toward journalists? 

What if that violence was directed at one of our members at our local newspaper? 

If we weren’t deemed essential, there would be no one there to ask the questions that are on people’s minds. You see, journalists are not creative writers. We don’t decide what we want to write every day and then make it up as we go along. We attend press conferences, we conduct interviews, we research — and we ask the questions that we believe are on our readers’ minds.

And when those in our coverage area have something to say, we print their letters to the editors, and we cover their events and rallies as best as we can. We do everything in our power to get the facts straight and to represent both sides of an issue if people on each side are willing to talk.

The Setauket Patriots, one of the organizers of the protests, apologized to Vesey for his treatment, saying they hope the reporter will offer fair coverage of the group’s events.

That is what reporters set out to do. Though we are forced to recognize we are human, and sometimes we make mistakes, a rally in Commack, New York, is not a place for such tense conflict. No reporters on such a scene should be fearful for their safety. We are there to relate what is on protesters’ minds in their own words.

While it’s understandable that people are in distress about their livelihoods, Vesey should have been approached in a less aggressive manner and with respect to personal space, especially when he obviously tried to respect the health of the people around him by wearing a mask and trying to keep 6 feet away.

Americans ask that the media be fair; we ask the same of Americans.