Videographer: Independent/Christine Heeren
Hundreds turned out Sunday afternoon in Riverhead in support of George Floyd, delivering a message that systemic racism and police brutality cannot be tolerated any longer.
The Enough is Enough Rally’s assembly in the parking lot of Stotzky Park drew well over 100 people to show solidarity in their outrage of how Floyd, handcuffed, died when a Minnesota police kneeled on his neck, suffocating him May 25. About a dozen speakers urged the crowd to incite change rather than violence, as some protestors have in cities around the country in recent days.
Later, in a non-permitted assembly organized by a Riverhead teen and billed as a Black Lives Matter protest, at least 200 people marched through the streets of downtown Riverhead. They convened at the Riverfront, walked up Main Street chanting things like, “No justice, no peace,” and congregated by the gazebo at Riverhead Town Hall, where the names of known victims of police brutality were read.
“They are trying to rule George Floyd’s death as underlying disease. He was murdered,” an organizer who only said her name was Anubia, from the gazebo. Despite charges brought against the officer, “They’re still trying to say that the police were not in the wrong.”
“No more silence. Silence is violence. Silence is loud,” she said. “To all my Americans here today — speak up.”
At both events, most attendees wore masks to prevent the transmission of the novel coronavirus. Gatherings of more than 10 people is technically still prohibited under New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive orders.
During the group’s march back into town, they demonstrated in the middle of Main Street. Some sat, others kneeled, and some laid prone with their hands behind their backs — Floyd’s position while he pleaded with the officer to get off of him.
The police presence was a stark contrast to the rally earlier in the day, where there had been very little. Town of Riverhead, Town of Southampton, and state police officers stood by wearing helmets and holding shields. A command van was parked around the corner from the police department at the ready. Some protestors yelled at police officers. No violence was reported, though.
Organizers asked to hear from the police, and Riverhead Police Chief David Hagermiller, who had been keeping an eye on the protest from a vehicle, and addressed the crowd.
“I’ve been here 38 years. I’m protecting you every day. These guys are protecting you every day,” he said, motioning to the officers behind him. “We’re doing our jobs. If there’s a problem with us, you come to me and we talk about what happened.”
Some people screamed about their grievances with local cops, with one woman saying an officer told her, “You’re next,” during an altercation amid the march.
Another man asked why there are not more minorities on the police force. The chief said he would like to hire more, but there are not many on the county’s Civil Service list.
At the rally in the park, Malyk Leonard, a Riverhead native, said the answer lies within the community, which he noted is predominantly black and Latino.
“Do we have police that actually represent the community? If not, go to the police station and sign up to become a police officer,” he said. “We talk about inequity in education, but let’s ask ourselves, do the board members represent us? Do they look like us? If not, run for the board.”
“If you don’t want to run for office, vote,” Leonard continued. “If you’re not registered to vote, go to the post office, go to the DMV, go to town hall and vote out the people who are not doing anything for us and vote people in who can actually do something for us.”
Evelyn Hobson, a Riverhead police officer, said as a black woman, and mother of a young black man, she “checks all the boxes of who is affected by systemic racism, and questions actions of some officers.”
“I understand the pain, the rage and the anger, but expressing it through violence and damage to property is counterproductive as opposed to productive,” she said to the crowd. “If your house is on the verge of falling down you don’t snatch away the cornerstone, you reinforce it, you work together to strengthen the foundation.”
Eric Williams, a security guard at Riverhead High School who helps organize the annual “Stop the Violence” basketball game in Riverhead, put the rally together, getting the proper permits and promising a peaceful protest. But, he said, he refused to bring his 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter out of fear it would turn violent.
“Let’s do this peacefully, together,” said Lawrence Street, the president of the Eastern Long Island branch of the NAACP. “This is nothing new,” he said of police brutality. “I could stand here and talk about the problems to you guys, but it’s about a solution to the problems. We need to start thinking about what do we do about this.”
“The only way that we can make a difference right now is that we need to vote,” he added. “Get out and vote.”
Several local politicians were also in attendance. Riverhead Councilwoman Catherine Kent quoted James Baldwin, who said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
“We cannot begin healing unless we honestly face our problems,” she said.
The Rev. Arthor L. Faber said the time to stand silent is over. He told a 25-year-old story about the time he was on his way to work at Stotzky Park. The then-14-year-old was walking with an egg sandwich and an Arizona iced tea when a sheriff pulled over and made him sit on a curb while he dumped out the can.
“He wanted to make sure that I knew who I was, and who he was, and to never forget this experience,” Faber said. “I can’t say that I’m Mr. Floyd, because I’m still here talking. And I can’t say what his intentions were, but I can tell I felt violated . . . I can tell you I felt humiliated over a can of iced tea.”
Just nine months earlier, Rodney King had been dragged out of his car and beaten by Los Angeles cops.
When Faber told his mother, a police officer, what happened, “You know what advise she gave me? God bless her — ‘Don’t say nothing,’” he recounted. “I loved my mom, and I didn’t know then, but she was a product of her environment too. But I do know now that the time for us to remain silent is over.”
Christine Heeren contributed reporting to this article.