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‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstrators take to Riverhead streets

07/10/2016 4:15 PM |

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Shortly before 1 p.m. Sunday, Carlton Jordan stood in the middle of Peconic Avenue in Riverhead.

Surrounding him were more than one hundred demonstrators holding signs and chanting phrases like “hands up, don’t shoot” and “black lives matter.” 

Mr. Jordan of Southampton, held up a copy of the July 8 issue of the New York Daily news. On the front page were the images of both a slain police officer in Dallas, Texas and Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, La.

It was Sterling’s name and the names of other high profile victims of police brutality that Mr. Jordan called as he held the paper up.

The names came from around the country, but on Sunday the protest made its way to Riverhead.

“It’s indescribable,” said Mr. Jordan of the emotions he felt as he read the names of dozens of victims. “They’re dying way too young.”

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Carlton Jordan of Southampton reads off the names of young black men killed by police. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

The event was organized in a grassroots effort this weekend by Vanessa Vascez-Corleone of Riverhead, who said she felt from what she’d seen on social media that the people in her town were ready to speak out against a perceived mistreatment of young black men by law enforcement.

She said she organized a similar protest in reaction to the Trayvon Martin killing in 2012, but only about 10 people showed up. This time she was supported by more than 100 people — about 80 percent of whom were black and joined by white, Hispanic and Asian protestors — who spent more than two hours straddling the Riverhead/Southampton town border on Peconic Avenue before marching to Riverhead Town Hall on Howell Avenue. 

Darnesha Miles, who helped organize the event, said the march was to show Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter that the protest remained peaceful after he asked them to wait two weeks before holding the demonstration. Reached by telephone, Mr. Walter declined comment Sunday afternoon.

After visiting Town Hall, a small group of demonstrators returned to Peconic Avenue to continue chanting about three hours into the protest.

Ms. Vascez-Corleone said she was pleased with Sunday’s turnout and the way passersby mostly offered support in the way of peace signs, fist pumps and words of encouragement shouted from the windows of their cars. She said the difference between now and the demonstration she held four years ago is the reaction the community has had to several recent police shooting incidents around the country.

“Black men are being singled out and murdered by police because they become either scared or through prejudice,” she said. 

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Fred Miles of Riverhead leads the chants from the middle of Peconic Avenue. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Among the more vocal demonstrators Sunday was Fred Miles of Riverhead, who paced the sidewalk and the street, often leading the chants. He said that after more than an hour of shouting he was not ready to quiet down.

“It’s for the cause,” said Mr. Miles, who added that he felt the relationship between Riverhead’s police force and the black community could be dramatically improved.

Riverhead police were largely absent from the demonstration. Instead eight officers from the Southampton Town Police Department stood off to the side and observed the protest. Sgt. Scott Lewis said they were there to ensure public safety and that they were working with organizers of the demonstration to make sure it remained peaceful.

Larry Williams of Riverhead called the tensions between African-American communities and police departments around the country “nothing new.”

“But as for our local police force, things have gone relatively well other than some bumps in the road,” he said. “It has never culminated in a murder.”

About midway through the Peconic Avenue demonstration, a loudspeaker was passed around and different protestors took turns sharing messages for the crowd. Veleda Spellman of Riverhead spoke of her son’s recent arrest, which she said was unwarranted and prevented him from graduating high school on time. John Mosquera of Brentwood grabbed the megaphone to urge demonstrators to stand up for their rights.

“I’m glad I’m here instead of just sitting back,” he told a reporter, adding that this is the first protest he’s ever attended.

Donna Montez, a Native American from Southampton who described herself as an unenrolled Shinnecock Indian, said she attended because she wants to see unity for all people. She burned sage in what she called a Native American ritual to bring purification and positivity to everyone.

“I am disheartened by what has happened with these police departments and our justice system,” she said. “We need change. One life lost is too many.”

With reporting from Jen Nuzzo. Photos by Grant Parpan.

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