While the Black Lives Matter movement across the nation was shaken to its core this past week after the killing of five police officers at a demonstration in Dallas Thursday night, in Riverhead Sunday afternoon more than 150 protesters took to the streets to unabashedly rekindle the movement’s message.
Many in attendance insisted that, while all lives matter, no one started saying “All Lives Matter” until after people started saying “Black Lives Matter.” Some shared stories of their own harrowing encounters with the police. Others held signs harkening Martin Luther King’s words and reminding passers-by that nowhere in the phrase Black Lives Matter is the word “only.”
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter had urged protesters to not go ahead with the march after what happened in Dallas Thursday, and Riverhead Town Police officers weren’t anywhere to be seen as the crowd swelled in size just after noon.
The group, organized by Riverhead resident Vanessa Vascez-Corleone, met at the westernmost edge of the parking lot behind downtown Riverhead, then crossed onto Peconic Avenue, lining both sides of the street, while the bravest among them took to the middle turning lane to egg on the chanting on both sides of the road.
Chants of “Black Lives Matter,” “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “No Justice, No Peace” were met with boisterous honks and raised fists from many passing motorists, but not everyone was in the mood to hear the protesters out. When one white woman rolled down her window, irate, to shout that all lives matter, protesters held high signs echoing her own words.
One white man strolled by with an American flag and a German shepherd that lunged at the protesters, though it was difficult to tell from his demeanor whether he intended to harass them or was just passing through.
At the height of the three-hour-long protest, about 150 people lined the street, though many arrived and left throughout the afternoon, including mothers with children exhausted by the heat and, perhaps, by the realization of all that was at stake.
Riverhead police officers were nowhere to be seen, though the crowd marched across the river and into Southampton Town’s jurisdiction, just north of the Riverside traffic circle, where half a dozen officers stood not far from their squad cars, hands on their belt buckles or thumbs in their bulletproof vests, stoically watching the crowd gathered both in the center of the street and along its edges.
But occasionally, a rare tenderness broke through.
Police gently touched the shoulders of protesters to guide them out of the street to let ambulances en route to Peconic Bay Medical Center through.
Some protesters walked up to the police and shook their hands.
And one man wearing a red shirt carrying a dayglo sign that read “Dev & Ko Real Talk All Lives Matter” walked up to each car and truck that passed, looked the driver in the eye and said, quietly, “Your life matters. All lives matter.” Nearly everyone who met his gaze nodded in agreement.
As the protest was winding down, a DJ was setting up in a gazebo behind the Main Street parking lot. His sound check? The O’Jay’s “Love Train.”