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Racist Facebook post opens dialogue on race relations in Riverhead

10/18/2017 6:00 AM |

The racist Facebook rant posted late Sunday by Dianne Kozakiewicz sparked a renewed dialogue about race relations in Riverhead Town, where about 20 people, mostly African-American, spoke Monday night at the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force meeting.

“In a certain way, I’m very grateful that this happened, because it’s opening the door to a bigger picture,” said Sister Margaret Smyth, a task force member who runs the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead and works to help Hispanic immigrants.

Few disagreed at Monday’s meeting that racism still runs rampant in a town that is more than 80 percent white, according to the most recent census data. But there was disagreement over what happens next: whether Ms. Kozakiewicz’s husband, Bob, should be held accountable as town attorney for his wife’s action and whether saying Ms. Kozakiewicz had a drinking problem — as Supervisor Sean Walter did at the start of the meeting — was a “cop-out.”

The highly contentious meeting lasted nearly two hours.

“As we all know, there are major racial problems in Riverhead,” said audience member Butch Langhorn, who is black. “There should be just as many white folks sitting here” in the audience, he said.

Councilman Tim Hubbard, the Town Board liaison to the task force, said it’s difficult to get people with a racist viewpoint to attend these types of meetings. They hide behind their keyboards online “and type their rants,” he said.

“But that’s the work that we’re supposed to do,” Mr. Langhorn replied. “To try and get them out.”

Mr. Walter said Ms. Kozakiewicz “is suffering from alcoholism,” but added that he wasn’t making an excuse. He said he has “nothing but love and admiration” for Mr. Kozakiewicz for sticking by his wife during the ordeal, and would not accept Mr. Kozakiewicz’s resignation as town attorney if he were to submit it.

He said Ms. Kozakiewicz’s post on Facebook “was probably one of the most horrific things I’ve ever read,” but asked people to “turn the other cheek.”

Mr. Walter added: “We can do something that maybe makes a difference. And instead of calling for resignations or marching on the town or holding prayer vigils … I’m asking for this one thing: Turn the other cheek.”

The supervisor’s remarks drew criticism from some.

“Wait a minute! Where’s the proof that she’s an alcoholic and what does that have to do with this conversation?” audience member Cindy Clifford asked. “This isn’t an anti-alcoholic task force!”

Marge Acevedo, a task force member and Riverhead Democratic committee chair, called the words in the Facebook post “appalling.”

“We are all shocked and disgusted,” she said.

She requested another meeting Monday and asked that the Kozakiewiczes attend to answer questions.

“When we close our eyes to prejudice, we enable it and make it acceptable,” Ms. Acevedo said.

Task force chair Connie Lassandro said they don’t have the power to make someone attend their meetings.

Ms. Acevedo said Ms. Kozakiewicz’s “rants” were not a one-time thing.

“What this task force really needs is to find out is if Bob Kozakiewicz condoned, enabled or looked the other way to his wife’s postings because if that’s true, that should deeply trouble us,” she said.

Ms. Acevedo also felt the task force should ask that the postings be investigated as a “hate crime.”

Ms. Lassandro said that “fueling the fire” isn’t going to help. She said the task force should vote on whether it was a hate issue and, if so, fill out a report and ask police to investigate, which is how it normally handles such situations.

In this case, Ms. Lassandro said, “it’s hateful but it’s not a hate crime.”

“And unfortunately, it’s covered in the Constitution as free speech,” said Mr. Hubbard.

Task force member Ethel Sussman said she doesn’t know either of the Kozakiewiczes.

“To me, this is like moving a stone and seeing everything that’s crawling out from under it,” she said. “I think it’s a mistake to think this is only about the Kozakiewicz family and what she said and did.”

Ms. Sussman said one only has to look at the hateful comments on any online story about a Latino person.

“There’s comments about building a wall and ‘get them out of here’ every time something happens,” she said.

Task force member Michele Lynch, who is also running for town council in November, suggested that a conference be held on racism and that Elaine Gross of ERASE Racism, a Syosset-based organization that seeks to promote racial equity, be invited to speak.

Audience member Larry Street of Riverhead said he feels “an honest and truthful dialogue [with] representation of white and black and whatever” is needed.

But Mr. Street, who is black, said that “generational curses” are often learned at a young age and passed down “from centuries to centuries.”

“If we think a one-shot conference is going to change racism and discrimination in this town or county, we’re crazy,” said audience member James Banks. “Because it is intrinsic. People talk about how we need to change other people’s way of reacting to things. No. We need to change ourselves, because that’s the only place we have the power.”

Mr. Banks, who is also black, is chairman of the Southampton Town Anti-Bias Task Force, as well as coordinator of multicultural affairs at Suffolk County Community College, and a member of the board of directors of the Urban League of Long Island.

He said that at the Southampton Task Force, “we sit down with the parties involved and mediate, discuss and talk about how to come up with a response. Then we bring it back to the larger body of the task force.”

Riverhead LOCAL publisher Denise Civiletti said every time they run a story about Latinos, racist comments follow. She said she once posted a story about four little girls who completed a leadership training program and one commenter said “they should be shot on sight.”

One audience member said he feels President Trump has given racists a platform. As for Mr. Walter’s suggestion to turn the other cheek, he said, “We’re running out of cheeks.”

Ms. Lassandro said the task force will issue a public statement on the incident soon, and hopes to set up a conference with ERASE Racism. In addition, she said, they hope to get more diversity on the task force itself, which is almost entirely white, and add representation from high school students.

Mr. Walter said he will open his office to have regular meeting with community members about race issues.

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Photo: Members of Riverhead’s Anti-Bias Task Force listen to audience members Monday during a discussion that centered on racism in the wake of racist Facebook comments posted by the town attorney’s wife. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

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