It was less than 24 hours since the screenshot of a racist Facebook rant had gone viral across the social media platform. Many in the audience in the town hall meeting room were beginning to get frustrated.
Most had come to the anti-bias task force meeting to discuss the pervasive issue of racism in Riverhead town, which had bubbled to the surface in the obscene and public rant posted by the town attorney’s wife. But some members on the board of the task force, including its chairperson and the town supervisor, kept pivoting the conversation to the apparent alcoholism of the woman who made the comments and her need to seek treatment.
“I have no idea whether Dianne Kozakiewicz is a racist,” said Town Supervisor Sean Walter, to incredulous laughter and noises of disbelief. “She clearly has a mental illness. We have an opportunity here to potentially help a very sick woman.”
“You are derailing the issue!” yelled a woman from the back of the board room.
“I’m not derailing the issue,” he countered. “Racism is a societal problem.”
A few minutes later, he again emphasized the town’s need to help the woman who wrote the post. “I’m not downplaying what she did, but I don’t want to lose anybody in this room, and I don’t want to lose her,” he said. “The opportunity that I see here is to try to help her – in helping her, we do God’s work to correct the problems that we have here.”
Connie Lassandro, chairman of the task force, stood from her chair. “An alcoholic,” she began, but was interrupted by another shouting audience member:
“What does alcohol have to do with this conversation? Is this an alcoholic task force?”
Later, a Riverhead resident who identified herself as a recovered alcoholic said that blaming alcohol is a “cop-out.”
“A drunk person speaks a very sober mind,” she said to applause. “I am sick of hearing you talk about how she was drinking.”
It was a theme that was repeated frequently throughout both the anti-bias task force meeting Monday and the town board meeting Tuesday night, when about a dozen people addressed the racist post during the public comment portion of the meeting. Community members were not interested in discussing Dianne Kozakiewicz’s alcoholism, and many said her comments reflected a larger issue in Riverhead town.
“When I looked back at the posts that were on her page, I saw a lot of people liking them, hearting them,” said Tijuana Fulford, director of the Butterfly Effect Project, during the town board meeting Tuesday. “Not one person said that’s wrong. Not one person deleted her. Not one person said I’m not going to talk to her. Not one person.”
A higher standard
The post first surfaced in a screenshot late Sunday night, shortly after Dianne Kozakiewicz went on a late-night, profanity-filled rant calling a group of black teenagers “n*****s” and urging them to “go back to Africa.” Kozakiewicz, who served on the Riverhead school board in the ’90s, has since deleted her Facebook, but her timeline was filled with posts expressing similar sentiments, calling NFL football players “BLACK BRATS” and saying that they should “leave my beautiful country.”
Bob Kozakiewicz, Dianne’s husband of 30 years and the Riverhead town attorney, apologized the next morning. “Her rant in no way, shape or form reflects my views,” he told RiverheadLOCAL. “I am so very sorry.”
For some residents, however, his apology was not enough.
“If you are married and you live in a house with someone, you know what’s going on in their life,” Sal King, who posted the screenshot that went viral, said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “To be saying those things on Facebook for months on end, and have mutual friends commenting and supporting those ideas, he had to be aware what’s going on.
“If it was a big deal to him, he should have told her to delete her Facebook,” King added. “It’s disturbing.”
Bob Kozakiewicz, a former two-term town supervisor, was defended by many at the town board meeting Tuesday night, both in the audience and on the town board. The town supervisor repeatedly stated that Kozakiewicz was not “guilty by association,” and said he was “deeply offended at the idea that [Bob] should be punished for his wife’s statements.”
But civil rights lawyer Frederick Brewington said Monday that as town attorney, Kozakiewicz needs to be held to a higher standard.
“It brings serious questions about his ability to serve,” Brewington said. “The town attorney is the primary protector of the constitutional rights in the town. As the head legal official, his responsibility as a town attorney could not be more clear.”
He added that it is likely that this is not the first time Kozakiewicz has heard such statements from his wife. “What is being discussed behind closed doors in this household?” he asked.
When the wife of a public official is openly making such racist statements, it also erodes the public’s trust in its government, Riverhead resident Larry Street told the anti-bias task force on Monday. “When things come out like that, you ask yourself, who do we trust?” Street demanded. “When they say things like that about us, we can’t trust nobody.”
The problem, Street continued, goes beyond Kozakiewicz. “She’s not the only person who thinks like that,” he said. “There are millions of other people that have those same feelings, but they won’t say anything about it. They’ll hide it, they’ll mask it, they’ll be tone deaf.
“So we’re not dealing with a small little thing here,” he said. “This is a big thing.”
‘It’s not just her’
In statements to the town board and in interviews with RiverheadLOCAL, local residents in the black community emphasized repeatedly that race problems in Riverhead run far deeper than a single Facebook rant.
Some are systemic, such as a lack of representation in town committees and the police department.
Others are more direct, like encounters with racist neighbors and employees at local businesses.
Dwane Eleazer, Riverhead resident and founder of Stop the Violence basketball tournament, remembers overhearing a car salesman at a Riverhead dealership referring to another black customer: “We’d better make this sale today, or else this n****r isn’t going to buy the car.”
When Eleazer went to the dealership sales manager, he was told, “I don’t want to get involved with that.”
“Racism is all over the place,” Eleazer said Tuesday. “It’s presented to you in different ways. That was more blatant, but it’s all over.”
Several people spoke about the struggles black people face that their white neighbors will never need to worry about.
“We have to teach our children a whole different way of living,” said one woman at the anti-bias task force meeting. “A whole different way of wearing your clothes, a whole different way of acting when you’re stopped by the police, a whole different way in school – a whole different way period, because of the color of our skin.”
Tijuana Fulford says she worries for her son, who is 12 years old and already almost six feet tall. “When we ask how come black people are not on the boards — how come they are not part of the town – it’s because the same comment Dianne made is echoed in our every moment.
“Every time I meet someone, the first thing I worry about is, ‘Are they going to see me, or are they going to see a black lady?’” Fulford said at the town board meeting Tuesday. “Are they going to see me or my big hair? Are they going to see my hair pieces? What part of me are they going to see?”
Rebecca Jennings, who grew up in Riverhead until she joined the U.S. Army at age 18, said that when she graduated Riverhead High School in 1987, she did not remember there being any black teachers or administrators there.
“Kids need to see other people of color thriving, in positions of leadership,” Jennings said in an interview Tuesday. “When the college fair came, they sent me and a bunch of the black folk to the gym, where the army recruiters were. We didn’t get sent to the room where everyone was talking with the SUNY schools.
“The community needs to be inclusive, to take advantage of all the richness that everyone can bring to the table so we can all be a part of it,” Jennings said.
‘Making a change’
Shaping Riverhead into a more inclusive town was a desire expressed by many who attended this week’s meetings and spoke in private interviews with RiverheadLOCAL.
If the town is truly committed to having a more diverse workforce, Jennings said, Riverhead should make more of an outreach effort to the black community.
“If you’re going to be intentional about diversifying our public servants, go to predominantly black areas of the country and recruit,” Jennings said. “Send some school board members to historically black colleges and recruit for some teachers. Help subsidize the move. Listen to other places that have diversified their leadership and ask how they did it.”
The police department could also do more to expose young black children to police officers in a positive way, Dwayne Eleazer said, as well as intermingle more within the black community.
“We’ve offered to play the police department in a basketball game, a softball game – different events to get to know these guys,” Eleazer said. “I’ve tried to get them to set up a tent at the [Stop the Violence] tournament, so the little kids could get to know the police. Instead of riding in the back seat, let them look in the front seat for a change,” he added jokingly. “So far, nothing’s come of it.”
Sal King echoed his sentiments. “The police don’t know our community,” he said. “They only know people when they arrest them. They’re not involved in any community activities.”
At the anti-bias task force meeting, board members discussed organizing a conference with the not-for-profit group Erase Racism to educate town officials and local residents, as well as taking a more proactive approach on race relations in Riverhead.
“I have felt frustrated with the task force, to be perfectly honest, because I think we have not been proactive enough,” said Ethel Sussman, a member of the task force board. “It’s disrespectful to the people of this town to act as if this is just a one time thing.”
James Banks, coordinator of multicultural affairs at Suffolk County Community College and Southampton anti-bias task force chairperson, told Riverhead’s task force it should focus on ongoing programs that promote dialogue within the community.
“It needs to be a real constant effort, a constant experience of introspection,” Banks said. He described Southampton’s grievance process within its task force, where complaints lead to a meeting of both parties involved to “mediate and discuss.”
Many people felt that such a meeting with Bob and Dianne Kozakiewicz would be an opportunity to heal for the community.
“We want to sit down face to face with them,” said King, who first shared the viral screenshot of Kozakiewicz’s rant. “Not to yell at them, not to verbally abuse them, but to talk peacefully as grown adults about the situation.
“People like this need to hear about how it affects our community.”
Denise Civiletti contributed reporting.
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