Editorial: Demonstrators should not be ignored in Riverhead

07/14/2016 12:44 PM |

Black Lives Matter in Riverhead

On Monday afternoon, Dallas Police Chief David Brown addressed the nation during a press conference about the tragedy facing his city and the difficult time in history Americans are living through.

Mixing humor with sadness, Chief Brown spoke candidly of the exhaustion he felt after a black man fatally shot five white Dallas police officers last week — just days after two black men were shot to death by officers in other U.S. cities.

As a top cop and black man himself, Chief Brown brings a unique perspective to the national narrative, which too often has painted the issue as one in which citizens are either pro-black and anti-police or vice versa, with no room to be anything in between.

Coincidentally, the chief’s address took place just one day after more than 100 local residents, most of them black and from Riverhead and Southampton towns, took to the town border on Peconic Avenue in a demonstration inspired by the national Black Lives Matter movement. There, they shared how they felt about the recent deaths of black men at the hands of police officers from around the country — as well as the need to strengthen the relationship between local law enforcement and Riverhead’s black community.

Noticeably absent from the protest, which lasted more than three hours and eventually made its way to Town Hall, was anyone from the Riverhead Town Police Department or Town Board, or many of the town’s most prominent black community members.

The protest was a grassroots effort organized by frustrated residents — including some with criminal records, which angry detractors were quick to point out on social media this week — and many community leaders turned a blind eye to the day’s events. A News-Review reporter attempted to interview Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter about the demonstration, which he allegedly tried to postpone, and was twice told “no comment.” Town Police Chief David Hegermiller didn’t even bother to return this newspaper’s phone calls about the protest.

No incidents on the scale of those in Louisiana, Minnesota or Missouri have ever occurred here in Riverhead. But does that mean the pain felt by the residents who gathered Sunday should be ignored by their own public officials?

When a small group of people protested outside the former Riverhead Planned Parenthood office last August, Mr. Walter joined the demonstration and was even photographed holding a sign reading “Abortion kills children.” While nobody expected him to participate in Sunday’s protest, couldn’t he at least talk about it?

True leadership comes when you recognize your constituents’ concerns — even if you don’t share them — and offer to work toward a solution.

At his press conference in Dallas, Chief Brown said police in that city are hiring. He called for demonstrators to “get off that protest line and put an application in” to directly address the concerns they have about policing in their communities.

It was a powerful plea from a leader looking to confront the problems in his city head-on. Despite the color of his skin, there is no doubt Chief Brown stands on the opposite side of the issue of those who are protesting. Yet he’s still willing to be part of the conversation.

Photo: Willie Jenkins of Bridgehampton addresses protesters who marched to Riverhead Town Hall on Sunday. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

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