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On Juneteenth, protesters march in Riverhead to bring attention to inequality

Juneteenth, a day marked by celebrating the liberation of enslaved Americans, took on added meaning this year in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who died in police custody May 25.

Protests have persisted nationwide, including in Riverhead where a group of 75 marched down Main Street Friday, calling attention to injustice, inequality and police brutality.

“This is our independence, our Fourth of July,” said Larry Street, president of the Eastern Long Island chapter of the NAACP. “But the war is not over. There is still a cloud of racism, that shadow that still hangs over us.”

The demonstration was organized by members of the Riverhead Charter School community, according to superintendent Raymond Ankrum.

He said the protest was organized by white colleagues to show allyship amid national unrest. He said it was important to see action. 

“You hear a lot of people say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and then when it comes to actually showing up, people usually get silent,” he said. “That didn’t happen in this instance and I’m super proud of my staff for putting this together.”

Teachers, parents and students of the charter school all attended Friday’s rally.

As they marched from the riverfront to Town Hall, Shiniqua Miles of Riverhead led chants of “Black Lives Matter!” and “No justice, no peace, no racist police,” to the crowd.

Addressing the group at town hall, Ms. Miles called for unity.

“When [George Floyd] said ‘Mama, I can’t breathe,’ that gave me chills,” she said. “I have a Black son. At what age do he become a threat? He’s 10 years old. How can we work for our kids’ future if we don’t stand up for them today?”

Ana Mira of Middle Island brought her two daughters to the protest to show support and said she decided to enroll her children in the charter school because of the diversity. “We are Latin Americans and we have experienced discrimination, therefore I am trying to teach my kids that the value of a human is not based on color, but based on who they are,” she said.

Nick Timpone, director of academics at the charter school said equality and the Black Lives Matter movement have been at the forefront of recent discussions with students.

“We’re trying to figure out a way to help the kids understand what’s going on, what this all means what they’re seeing on TV,” Mr. Timpone said.

The protest was a follow-up to a virtual Zoom rally attended by over 100 members of the charter school community last week. 

Mr. Ankrum said 88% of their school demographics are Black and Latino children.

“Our kids look like the people this is happening to,” he said. “People are tired. They want to make some changes happen and the best way to make that happen is by civil, non-violent protest.”

Second grade teacher Roseanne Moscatelli vowed to stay active. “I acknowledge that I’m late to this fight,” she said, adding that charter school staff and alumni are working to create a Black Lives Matter committee.

Earlier this week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order declaring Juneteenth a holiday in New York State. Juneteenth is a celebration of June 19, 1865, the day the last American slaves learned they would be freed nearly two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone issued a similar order for Suffolk County today. He is also planning to mandate implicit bias training for all county employees to promote equity.

“While Juneteenth has traditionally been celebrated by the African American Community, it is important for all Americans to come together and recognize this holiday because of what it represents and stands for,” Mr. Bellone said in a statement. “As we commemorate the end of slavery today, we must remember that the end of slavery does not mean the end of racism.”

Civil rights attorney and Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, who is currently seeking the nod to run for state Senate, said she’s heartened to see young people leading the movement. “We were able to move the needle,” she said, pointing to several laws recently passed by state lawmakers.

As the lone Democrat and first African American on the Brookhaven Town board, Ms. Cartright said she’s dealt with discrimination, microaggressions and implicit bias regularly.

“What this movement is telling me beyond all things is that I can say I’m not alone in this anymore,” she said, since others are stepping up and speaking out about their experiences.

She drew parallels between June 19, 1865 and 2020. “There were laws in place and people didn’t even know the laws were in place. People didn’t know they were free,” Ms. Cartright said. “We are here in 2020 we have laws in place and people are still not being treated equally. Laws are not being enforced.”

Mr. Ankrum applauded the move.

Days before Mr. Cuomo’s announcement, the superintendent announced he would make Juneteenth a school holiday. “It’s amazing,” he said Friday. “It’s long overdue.”