Peaceful protesting has roots stemming back to when black people didn’t possess or even have the opportunity to possess any civil rights. MLK Jr., the father of peaceful protests, sparked a movement that lasted for for decades. His marches were monumental and historical, fighting for equal rights that were denied, ignored and overlooked. These marches at times were met with opposition from law enforcement.
I attended a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest on Saturday in Riverhead at the circle near the hospital. It was very well organized with a diverse group of supporters. I positioned myself where I could observe the passersby in their cars. There was a variety responses from the cars. Some honked horns, gave a thumbs-up and raised their fists — and then there were the ones that put up their middle fingers. Last but not least were those who completely ignored the protesters with a grim look on their faces. I guess that’s expected in light of all the black killings at the hands of law enforcement all around the country — killings that were not justified and cops that were not held accountable.
Now here’s the twist. At the end of the protest when everyone was dispersing, in the parking lot of 7-Eleven a white man started yelling to the protesters to go home. I observed a few of the protesters go over to the man who was telling the protesters to go home. I don’t know what words were exchanged between them. However, I can assure you that they didn’t go to start an altercation after a peaceful protest.
Then I observed about five Riverhead police officers arrive at the scene. I believe that cops are supposed to de-escalate situations instead of escalating situations. You would assume that police officers are trained in de-escalating a possible altercation. However, in this scenario, the Riverhead cops created a barrier between the man and the protesters. It was if the police officers were protecting the man from the protesters.
I am not against people exercising their freedom of speech; it’s their right. But when that freedom of speech becomes a catalyst for violence, I am totally against it. This white man was inciting violence. If the police officers told the man to leave, he didn’t leave right away. So they held the barrier up. Now I have to question the integrity of the Riverhead Police Department. Why did it take an extended period of time for the white man to leave even after he was told to leave? Was he intentionally trying to provoke the peaceful protesters?
That barrier displayed distrust by police officers in our community. Why didn’t the police officers show faith and trust and talk to the protesters as well to talk to the white man about leaving? Instead they created a barrier. That’s not trust.
I felt like the police officers wanted the protesters to react physically. It was like they also wanted to incite a violent altercation instead of being proactive to de-escalate the situation. Creating trust within the community is being supportive of the protesters. Establishing a positive dialog with the protesters is being proactive. There was none of that.
Chief Hegermiller, I have to question of the integrity of our police department. What was that situation all about? Is there any trust built up in our community, especially the black community? I don’t want to think that they are among those cops who would kill our people without justification or probable cause.
Have positive inroads been established with trust? I did not see that at all on Saturday. Instead they protected a white man whose mindset was definitely against the BLM protesters. It was very clear what was most important to those Riverhead police officers. It was evident that the the police officers’ concern was that of the white man who wanted to incite violence. Where were the cops’ social skills?
I need some answers, some clarity. As you know, I am the lead person for the Eastern Long Island Brach, NAACP executive board and what we stand for. It is my duty and obligation to seek transparency in the pattern of policing in our community.
I need answers because the momentum of this movement will continue. It will continue across this country as well in Riverhead. I would hate to think that there exists racism among some Riverhead police officers. I am seeing a mindset of the 1960s protest movement when it came to law enforcement. I need some answers and not a watered-down justification lacking truth and transparency. Here is a window of opportunity for working together to create an innovative and sincere dialog, forming a bond of trust in the community with our law enforcement.
Lawrence Street is the lead person on the executive board of the Eastern Long Island Branch of the NAACP. He lives in Riverhead.
Editor’s note: Lawrence Street is a former RiverheadLOCAL columnist who wrote occasional columns about race issues for the website.
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