Peaceful protests sprung up across Suffolk County over the weekend in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, which has sparked riots and demonstrations across the country.
The police actions leading up to Mr. Floyd’s death were captured on video by bystanders as he begged former officer Derek Chauvin for nearly 10 minutes to take his knee off of his neck so he could breathe, as bystanders also begged the police to stop and three other officers looked on.
The four officers were fired but only Mr. Chauvin had been charged as of Sunday afternoon, as cities across the country were thrown into chaos, with peaceful protests giving way to nights of violence, fires, looting and officers spraying tear gas.
Riverhead was the site of two peaceful events Sunday afternoon, a vigil at Stotzky Park and a protest in support of Black Lives Matter on Main Street organized by Riverhead High School students later that afternoon.
Both drew large crowds of peaceful demonstrators demanding an end to police violence against African Americans in America.
The vigil in Stotzky Park was organized by Eric Williams, a security guard at Riverhead High School who has helped his father, Larry Williams, put together Riverhead’s August Stop the Violence Basketball Tournament for the past 13 years.
Eric Williams, who is black, said even though he organized the peaceful vigil, he wouldn’t let his two sons come because he did not know if there would be violence and he feared for their safety.
“This has to stop. It has been going on so long,” he said of police violence and killings of African Americans.
Mr. Williams, a self-described social butterfly, got word of the vigil out to his network, and more than 100 people showed up in solidarity.
“I’m here because as a Caucasian woman I will never know what it’s like to be in the skin of a black person,” said one attendee, Donna Cox of Middle Island.
“I’m aware of white privilege, and I will speak up and not tolerate it,” she added.
Lifelong Riverhead resident Levina Polite, said she came to the vigil because she’s friends with Mr. Williams and “enough is enough with the brutality.”
“I have brothers who went through different things that haven’t been nice,” she said.
“This dies down and then starts back up again,” she added of tensions with the police, adding that in the year 2000, police were brutalizing black men who didn’t resist arrest, and in 2020, not much has changed to police behavior.
She added that police guidelines “sure don’t say to put your knees on the back of someone’s neck when they’re in handcuffs.”
Angela Smith, who grew up in Greenport but now lives in Bellport, said she was happy to see the unity on display at the Stotzky Park event.
“Everyone is out here of one accord because we see that it’s unjust,” she said. “We are the targets, as black people. Death is not a sentence for a bounced check.”
Ms. Smith said she believes this protest movement has become so broad in part because the officer who choked Eric Garner, a black man on Staten Island who died in police custody after telling officers he couldn’t breath, was not brought to justice.
“He got away. We’re not going to give you a chance to get away,” she said of the officers in Minneapolis.
While she was “absolutely not surprised” to see another video of a black man being murdered by police, she said she was surprised to see the other officers standing around, not intervening, as Mr. Floyd begged for his life.
Ms. Smith said that, growing up in Southold Town, she’d seen “a lot of abuse of power” by law enforcement.
“There’s a lot of stereotyping on the East End,” she said. “Where there are predominantly white people, you’re going to predominantly see white officers.”
“Slavery was not abolished, it was pacified,” she added. “I pray that things get better and laws change.”
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone praised protesters throughout the county in his Sunday afternoon media address.
“I want to thank everyone out there doing this peacefully, expressing their rights as American citizens in a lawful way,” said Mr. Bellone, who had earlier condemned the police killing of Mr. Floyd.
“If you want to make change that is lasting, that matters and will affect people’s lives over the long term, you have to change structures,” he said. “that is why we have focused on systemic changes here. That is how we make progress.”
The Suffolk County Police Department has had a long history of discriminatory practices, which led the U.S. Justice Department in 2013 to issue a consent decree requiring the county to ensure nondiscrimination against Latino residents in its policing practices.
Mr. Bellone said the 2017 indictment of former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota has also helped the county instate more equitable criminal justice practices.
“He used his power in ways that were abusive and corrupt and hurt peoples’ lives,” he said. “He oversaw systematically denied to black males in this county evidence that could have been used to try to prove their innocence in court.”
“The type of neckhold used in this video is not something our department authorizes,” said Suffolk County Police Chief Stuart Cameron. “We train officers first to deescalate verbally and use force only as a last resort, and if they have to use force, to use the amount minimally effective for the objective.”
“Many of our officers were shocked to see the video,” he added. “For the most part, their feelings are in line with the protesters.”
A South Fork protest is in the works for Tuesday, June 2 at 5 p.m. at the Bridgehampton Community House. More details are on Facebook.
South Fork New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele weighed in on the unrest Monday morning.
“Change never comes easy. Protest has been at the core of needed change throughout our history. It is clear that this is not an isolated incident. It has been repeated too many times across our land. Yet, nothing has changed. I support those who petition their government to change the circumstances that continue to lead to these injustices,” he said. “At the same time, violence solves nothing. As Dr. King said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” It is time for each of us to do what we can to light a candle and help drive out the darkness. It is my hope that the State Legislature will be part of that effort. Transparency and accountability are a necessary part of driving out the darkness. Action is necessary now to enact the reforms needed to restore trust between law enforcement and every community that they serve in our state and nation.”