Tuesday’s march in Bridgehampton to protest the death of George Floyd concluded with a crowd of people laying down, kneeling, or sitting in the middle of Montauk Highway, shutdown by police. In complete silence, they were still for 8 minutes, 46 seconds — the amount of time Floyd had been left gasping for air with a police officer kneeling on his neck.
Southampton Town police estimated 1000 people came to Bridgehampton’s Main Street, not to celebrate the start of summer, but to voice frustration and call for change.
“How long did that feel like? Did that feel like an eternity? We didn’t even get done, we still have a minute left,” said Willie Jenkins, a Bridgehampton native who helped organize the June 2 protest. “Imagine how long he was on the ground not being able to breathe. Can you picture it? Can you see it now? Nobody was on your neck,” he said to the group.
“That felt like an eternity. Think about that. It’s not a black thing, it’s an everybody thing,” he said to applause. “But I’m damn sure going to say black lives matter, because we matter.” The crowd erupted again.
He said it was important no one get distracted by what has gone on elsewhere, including in New York City, where protests have turned at times violent.
“I don’t want anybody to get that confused. . . if they want to riot and loot that’s on them,” Jenkins said. “We’re peacefully out here protesting. We are strong.”
People of all color and ages came together in peace in front of the Bridgehampton Community House before marching up and down Main Street. Families, couples, friends, children, neighbors, strangers, and evenpets marched in unison, fighting against injustice.
“I saw someone put the information about the protest on Instagram and right away I knew I had to come,” said 22-year-old Shelter Island resident Tristan Wissemann, a recent college graduate from SUNY New Paltz. “I hope that everyone can just sympathize more with people of color and the fact that what they go through every day has been going on for years and years, and there hasn’t really been that big of a change, if any change at all. I just hope people gain more of an understanding through all this and that actual reform happens.”
Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was arrested by Minnesota police after a deli employee accused him of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Less than 20 minutes later, Floyd was pinned to the ground by four police officers, with one kneeling on his neck. Floyd was killed by that officer, who was one of several who heard the man calling for help, saying he couldn’t breathe.
A sea of handmade signs proudly held above heads read “Justice for George Floyd,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Silence is Compliance.” Chants of “George Floyd,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “No Justice, No Peace,” and countless more echoed throughout the hamlet.
The day after Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis Police Department fired all four of the officers involved, and, on Friday, May 29, Heppein County attorney Mike Freeman announced murder and manslaughter charges against Derek Chauvin, the officer seen most clearly in witness videos pinning Floyd to the ground with his knee pressing down on Floyds neck. The other three officers involved — Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao — all of whom can be seen participating in Floyd’s arrest, remain under FBI investigation.
Video of Floyd’s death from bystanders and security cameras surfaced shortly after the episode. The videos sent shock waves across the country and the world. Protests have occurred in major cities across the globe, including two in Riverhead this past weekend, where those in attendance delivered a message that systemic racism and police brutality cannot be tolerated any longer.
Lisa Votino, of Southampton, who helped organize the Bridgehampton march, said she reached out to Jenkins, who attended a protest in Riverhead on Sunday, asking to collaborate. Votino said her friend was instantly in on the idea, and Lisa Gagliardo asked how she could help. Similar protests are being planned in Southampton and East Hampton later this week.
“We need to have systemic changes to our justice system, from bail reform to police practices,” a woman from Southampton said. “It just has to be systemic changes across the country. It has gone on too long, and it’s just sickening.”
Tramar Pettaway, a 31-year-old from Southampton, said once he heard news of the protest he knew he had to participate. Asked what he hoped would come of protesting, he said, “The end of police brutality, and equality for all.”
Christine Heeren contributed reporting.