Cynthia Braunskill of Riverhead organized a rally on the riverfront Saturday to open a dialogue with police about racism. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead resident Cynthia Lister Braunskill, a mother of nine, wants police to know what it’s like “to raise a black man in America.”

The video of George Floyd’s last moments of life on the pavement of a Minneapolis street, under the weight of three police officers, as he pleaded for his life, “touched my heart as the mother of sons,” Braunskill said.

I know every mother across the nation felt that, she said.

Braunskill organized a “Mothers in Solidarity” rally on the Peconic Riverfront Saturday afternoon to open a public dialogue with Riverhead Police.

“I want to know if [my sons] are stopped by police, they will be treated fairly,” she said.

In contrast with the loud protest simultaneously taking place on Route 58 Saturday, the “Mothers in Solidarity” rally was low-key, attended by more than a dozen people, including Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, Councilwoman Catherine Kent and Police Chief David Hegermiller.

Adrienne Jerry was one of several people to step up to speak out.

“What does it mean to be a black mother of a black child? It means raising your child in a world that has not changed much for our people,” Jerry said.

“It means loving them unconditionally when they are still trying to understand this fickle and unpredictable world. It means telling them there is no limit to what they can achieve and conquer,” she said.

“It means to teach them to stand strong against racism and inequality and break through all the road blocks that will be in front of them as they get older,’ Jerry said.

“It means to tell them to stay true to themselves because their lives have a purpose — we definitely have to make sure they know that — their lives have a purpose,” she said.

“It means not sleeping at night for fear of your child not coming home because of the color of their skin. It means staying on your knees in prayer every day and every night, praying that nothing will happen to them,” Jerry said.

“Sadly, it means teaching them how to act when stopped by police, who are supposed to be there to protect them,” she said.

“It means to teach them how to pray and continue to have faith. And I pray, I pray every day to our Heavenly Father that change will come. To all the mothers: stay strong, stay encouraged and stay prayerful, because black lives matter too,” Jerry said. “Power to the people,” she said, as she thrust her fist in the air.

Tijuana Fulford, founder and executive director of the Butterfly Effect Project encouraged the mothers and others in attendance to become active, saying that they cannot wait for officials to make things right.

“Our elected officials and or police department can’t do it by themselves. We need to be more. Stop going to the door and telling yourself you can’t walk in. Open the door. No more rallies, no more vigils, no more hashtags, no more names on shirts, no more,” Fulford said.

“We’re at a pivotal point in our community that we can be a part of the change we so desperately need,” she said.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar at the rally on the riverfront Saturday. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Aguiar spoke to the group about her career as a NYC police officer. She grew up in the South Bronx and became a police officer because she wanted to serve her community.

“When I was promoted I went right back to my community,” Aguiar said.

“As the first Latina here in Riverhead and all of Suffolk County, I had a challenge to get where I needed to go, but I was resilient. I studied. I saw what was going on. I looked for resources. I didn’t get to where I got overnight,” Aguiar said.

“And I understand that there are issues, there are concerns there are difference of opinions,” Aguiar said. “This cannot be resolved with anger, yelling… if you sit down and you iron out your differences and you come up with an understanding, that’s how you move forward,” she said.

Kent said she has “learned a lot in the past couple of weeks” and is “trying to be an active listener.”

“It’s time for action,” Kent said. “We’re ready to work. We have to reach out.

Marilyn Banks-Winter of the African-American Cultural and Educational Festival praised the Riverhead police chief as “approachable” and “very supportive.”

Hegermiller assured the group that “each and every police officer” in Riverhead was “appalled at what happened in Minnesota” and “that will not happen here.”

He said his door is always open. “We need your help, we need you now to come in and help us,” Hegermiller said.

The supervisor said she had read the governor’s June 12 executive order requiring local police agencies to work with their communities to develop policing plans.

“I will be starting a community outreach program it is going to be developed and it’s going to include the entire community,” Aguiar said.

“Nobody has a right to it. It is not going to be a public forum,” Aguiar said. “This is where people are going to sit down, share their opinions, research, see what other people are doing and together we make that plan.”

The governor’s executive order, titled “New York State Police Reform And Reinvention Collaborative,” requires every local government that has a police agency to “perform a comprehensive review” of police practices and policies for the purpose of addressing community needs and racial bias” and to “foster trust, fairness and legitimacy.”

It mandates the local government chief executive to “convene the head of the local police agency and stakeholders in the community” to develop a policing plan that includes “evidence-based policing strategies… studies addressing systemic racial bias… implicit bias awareness training… de-escalation training… restorative justice practices… community-based outreach and conflict resolution… violence prevention… model policies and guidelines promulgated by the New York State Municipal Police Training Council; and standards promulgated by the New York State Law Enforcement Accreditation Program.”

The order requires the local government to hold a public hearing on the plan and the town board must adopt or ratify it by local law or resolution on or before April 1 next year. Future state or federal funding will be conditioned on the local government’s compliance with this requirement.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.