They were there in fewer numbers than at the height of the June protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but a steadfast group of supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets in Southampton Saturday afternoon in response to a large gathering of support for law enforcement, Back the Blue, that had taken place earlier Saturday on the same site.
Labor Day Weekend tourists and diners on the sidewalks seemed befuddled to see the tight-knit group marching through downtown Southampton shouting the names of black people who had died at the hands of police officers, just before a pandemic-inspired street festival, “Southampton in the Streets,” was to shut down traffic. The HooDoo Loungers, a New Orleans-swing and soul band, were doing a sound check for the festival at the Southampton Arts Center, but stopped as the marchers walked by, while tourists on park benches sat, mouths agape, unsure of what to make of the marchers.
In Agawam Park, just before the march began, one man began confronting protesters, demanding to know why they thought black lives were more important than other peoples’ lives. The crowd responded by telling him they loved him too.
“We do support the police. We don’t want that to be misconstrued,” said one of the march’s organizers, Willie Jenkins of Bridgehampton, as the crowd of several dozen people began to gather. “But we do believe black lives matter, and we’re going to keep shouting about it.”
Another march organizer, Lisa Votino of Southampton, who has long helped organize progressive rallies on the East End, said she’d recently gone to a Back the Blue rally on her birthday to learn more about that movement, and was disturbed by the political rhetoric, anger and racist language she’d witnessed at that rally, including one marcher who called a young black woman who was counter-protesting a f%$*ing gorilla.
The Back the Blue rally in Southampton that morning had been, in comparison, a subdued event.
“I went there hoping for the best. I went there hoping I would be proved completely wrong about everything and I wasn’t,” said Ms. Votino of the rally she’d gone to on her birthday. “I couldn’t understand why Back the Blue was coming to this community. If anyone has been to any of the other protests out here, they’ve all been amazing. There’s been no complaints on our side and no complaints on law enforcement’s side. It really begged the question, ‘why do people feel there needs to be a Back the Blue rally out here?”
“We want to let people know that times have to change,” said Debra Peters, a retired teacher at Southampton Elementary School who was among the first to arrive, waving a large Black Lives Matter flag at the edge of Agawam Park. “We have to start to recognize inequalities. This has been going on for so many years. We have to vote to make that change.”
Ed Smith, a member of the Brookhaven Town Democratic Committee, said he was “surprised at the amount of intolerance” he’s seen toward Black Lives Matter in the weeks since the initial groundswell of support for the movement, after Americans throughout the country were shocked by the video of a police officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nine minutes while he begged for his life.
“People feel threatened that we’re going to take something away from them and give it to black people,” said Mr. Smith, who added that he believes, to make real change, the U.S. has to integrate housing along both racial and economic lines and provide everyone access to a quality public education.
Tanish Lindsay, founder of Love at the End in Montauk, said “nothing” has changed since the movement coalesced in June.
“The only thing I see is a defense mechanism,” she said. “Back the Blue is more boisterous. They’re letting us know they’re not behind our movement,” she said, adding that supporters of law enforcement are trying to tie Black Lives Matter to violent anarchist groups.
“They’ve seen us. There’s nothing violent about us,” she said of a series of near-daily peaceful marches that took place on the East End in June. “I am for the good cops out there. I want accountability and justice for the victims being taken senselessly.”
She said that, on the East End, she believes police departments should attempt to hire a more diverse group of police officers.
Ms. Lindsay said she had also participated in that morning’s ‘Back the Blue’ rally.
“It was just people walking around with flags and wasting tax dollars,” she said. “I do appreciate police officers. We do love them and appreciate what they’ve done. We’re not attacking them. I wanted to ask them how we can help unify our communities. Creating ‘Back the Blue’ is starting a war. You’re not helping. It’s very sad. It hurts.”
Ms. Lindsay said that, when she originally saw the video of George Floyd’s murder, she was enraged.
“I took a look at myself and I said ‘I can’t approach it in this way,'” she said. “I have to have some sort of empathy toward the police. It’s a process, and it’s definitely a marathon. My goal is love and unity for all.”
Ms. Lindsay said her organization is now working to support businesses owned by people of color, and higher wages as well.
“Who says all lives don’t matter?” she said. “No one says that.”