Riverhead’s state of emergency, issued last Tuesday night, is based on rumors, half-truths and lies.
As we’ve seen too many times in post-fact America, it may be a great way to get lots of attention and score interviews on cable TV.
But it’s no way to govern.
Riverhead officials didn’t even bother to check into rumors being spread by the vigilante, admitted-liar, right-wing talk-radio shock jock and failed NYC mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa about NYC’s plan to bus migrants to “gang-infested” Riverhead.
Seems they didn’t even bother to discuss it with the town’s own chief of police, who told RiverheadLOCAL there was “no credible information” about this. “Just rumors.”
After Sliwa claimed on air Tuesday he had “breaking news” that property owners in Riverhead were already negotiating with the city, Riverhead officials sprang into action and several hours later, an emergency declaration was signed, sealed and delivered.
Aguiar told RiverheadLOCAL Tuesday night there was going to be “a high influx” of homeless migrants coming to Riverhead. “Well over a thousand,” she said. The owners of three unidentified places of lodging were already negotiating with NYC officials, she said.
“We got word tonight that they were putting certain people on buses, and it made me act,” Aguiar said.
Wow, they were already putting people on buses? They were on their way? The danger was imminent. She had to act to protect her community.
And where did this information come from?
“Different sources,” Aguiar said. She acknowledged she knew about Sliwa’s rant earlier that day and said she had a recording of the broadcast. And, she added, “I did speak to him.”
On Wednesday, when we canvassed motels and hotels across town, we couldn’t find a single one that said they had been in contact with city officials. And there were no buses carrying refugees rolling into town.
That afternoon, Council Member Tim Hubbard told us the emergency declaration was “based off of” Sliwa’s statements on air.
Predictably, the supervisor’s story about issuing the declaration has since evolved. In an interview with Newsday TV on Wednesday, she said the town heard about the Riverhead-bound migrants from “law enforcement.” (“Not us,” the Riverhead police chief told us.) On Thursday in a Newsmax appearance with Curtis Sliwa, Aguiar said she “checked everywhere” — including “intelligence” — to verify what she’d heard about people being put on buses Tuesday. And in other interviews, she changed her reasoning altogether. There were no longer people boarding buses. Instead the order was “pre-emptive.” As we know, those buses supposedly being boarded Tuesday night never showed up here.
Consider that the supervisor — with the approval of the Town Board — seems to have signed an emergency order like this on the say-so of someone like Sliwa, who has admitted in sworn testimony to lying about “news” he faked in the past.
With this lie, Sliwa didn’t cite any sources. City Hall is filled with “rats,” he explained on the air.
He didn’t return our call requesting an interview.
Why did Sliwa single out Riverhead? Was it that he spent a little time in our town eight years ago after then-Supervisor Sean Walter invited the Guardian Angels to patrol our streets? That move earned backlash from Riverhead Police, Town Board members and downtown business owners, who all said it was unnecessary and would reflect poorly on the town.
At the time, Sliwa called Riverhead the “epicenter” of Latino gang activity because the county jail is here — an assertion vehemently denied by Police Chief David Hegermiller.
There evidently wasn’t enough activity to sustain the publicity hound’s interest in patrolling Riverhead, because Sliwa and his band of red-jacketed self-proclaimed guardians soon disappeared from sight.
But last week, Sliwa’s interest in Riverhead was suddenly revived.
“The county jail is right there filled with members of MS-13 and 18th street,” he said, referring to two notorious Latino street gangs. A “number of locations in Riverhead” had already “reached out to Eric Adams’ administration and they are saying they will accept illegals now,” Sliwa said on air Tuesday.
He went on: “Riverhead is flush with illegals. There are a lot of folks who have MS-13 who actually stay in Riverhead, so they can visit their shot-callers, the generals of their gang who are housed in the Suffolk County Jail.”
OK, so follow his “logic.” NYC Mayor Adams is looking to bus homeless refugees who have crossed the U.S. Southern border out to Riverhead because “Riverhead is flush with illegals” and the county jail here is filled with MS-13 and 18th Street gang members.
Something about this gibberish must have really resonated with the Riverhead Town supervisor, though, because less than nine hours later she signed an executive order declaring a “state of emergency” in the town. The order purports to prohibit local places of lodging from housing “migrants and/or asylum seekers.”
But that’s not the only lie spread by Sliwa that Aguiar relied on. In our Tuesday night call, Aguiar cited a made-up story about homeless vets being evicted from a shelter in Orange County to make room for migrants as another reason for her emergency order. This is something Sliwa was loudly peddling in his on-air tirade last week: the claim that “they’re kicking out veterans” from the Crossroads Hotel in Newburgh, Orange County.
Problem: That story, reported by The New York Post on May 12, was a sham. A hoax. Fake news.
It took actual reporting by actual journalists at a local newspaper to uncover and debunk the lie. Then on Thursday, the State Assembly member who spread the lie and used it to attack the federal government’s management of the migrant crisis, admitted it was false and said he’d been duped into believing it by a nonprofit veterans group.
But it was too late. The lie had taken on a life of its own. And people like Aguiar — people in power, people making decisions that impact public safety — were repeating the lie without investigating whether it had any basis in fact. And officials like those in Riverhead were already making serious decisions like issuing an emergency declaration based on falsehoods and inflammatory fear-mongering by right-wing media and likeminded politicians.
This should trouble each and every one of us — no matter where you stand on immigration issues, no matter what you believe about why the present refugee crisis exists, or what you believe should be done to solve it.
Public policy must be grounded in facts and should be made after thoughtful deliberation and discussion. It should not be a knee-jerk reaction to a loudmouthed, attention-seeking, admitted liar who makes a fine living by stirring the pot and using a major media platform for his own political gain. Remember, Sliwa was the Republican nominee for NYC mayor in the last election, which he lost in a landslide, and now spends much of his time on air attacking the mayor, “Dems” and “libs” who are out to “destroy” the city and our very way of life, he rants.
That’s no way to make public policy — never mind policy as serious and consequential as the declaration of a town-wide state of emergency.
We’d like to believe the supervisor and members of the Town Board did not intentionally gin up a false narrative to advance a political agenda — their own, Sliwa’s or the national Republican party’s.
But that was exactly the consequence of this wrong-headed declaration.
However, the alternative explanation for this fiasco is that our Town Board is just plain reckless, and unwittingly allowed our town to be used to amplify a false narrative. That offers no more comfort. They should know better and the residents and taxpayers of this town deserve better.
Aguiar should rescind the emergency declaration, stop show-boating, and act like a responsible local leader.
The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.