Inspirational messages carry the day in Stotzky Park

On Saturday, one day after Juneteenth, a group of mostly Black men and women gathered at Stotzky Park in Riverhead for an afternoon of fun mixed with inspirational messages.

Riverhead police closed off a portion of the parking lot to give a little extra space for “Unity in the Community,” which was organized by local resident Eric Williams and featured speeches from community leaders and candidates for public office. It was a summer cookout with a voter registration table and a DJ — and it was aimed at bringing together individuals who want to see Black men and women treated with equality.

Held in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the protests and community events that have followed, that issue weighed heavily on the minds of those in attendance.

“I want to start off by saying rest in peace George Floyd and to everyone else who lost their life over police brutality,” said Mr. Williams, who organized the first of Riverhead’s recent rallies in the same spot just three weeks earlier. “Things haven’t changed too much since the days of Brother Martin [Luther King Jr.] and Malcolm X.”

Mr. Williams’ remarks kicked off more than 90 minutes of speeches, including a powerful plea from Kyle Braunskill of Flanders — who works as a mentor for inmates and at-risk youth — for young Black children, men and women to change their perceptions of themselves for empowerment.

Riverhead police officer Byron Perez and organizer Eric WIlliams. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

“From the time you were little somebody’s been teaching you things — the media, your family, society. Ninety percent of what you do is learned behavior,” he said. “You don’t give it no thought, but you do it. It’s learned behavior. But is it right?

“There’s no more time for us to live in mediocrity — because we’ve been taught it,” said Mr. Braunskill, executive director of the nonprofit Safe Harbor Mentoring program, where volunteers work with inmates to prepare them for life on the outside. .

He reminded the audience that they are living through history, that 2020 is a moment people will recall decades later.

“Someday, when you get older and you’re talking to your grandkids and they’re going to ask you about what happened in 2020,” he said. “They’re going to ask you what you did.”

He said he hopes that thought is a trigger to take positive action.

Jim Banks of Southampton, a founder of the African American Educational and Cultural Festival and a professor at Suffolk County Community College, said Black men and women need to “look at who is controlling the narrative,” explaining that most of our country’s leadership — in government, education, business, media — is white. White supremacy is not just the hate groups people tend to associate with the term, he said.

He encouraged those listening Saturday to take action to make a change.

“We can replace the racism and we can replace the system of white supremacy with social justice,” the Vietnam veteran said.

Others who spoke Saturday included Riverhead Town police officer Byron Perez — who Mr. Williams noted, as Riverhead’s first Hispanic officer, was among the first local cops to truly listen to the Black community — and Assembly candidates Laura Jens-Smith and current Councilwoman Jodi Giglio. Town Board members Frank Beyrodt and Catherine Kent and Highway Superintendent George “Gio” Woodson also dropped by, as did Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, who presented the group with a Juneteenth proclamation from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Marilyn Banks-Winter, a co-founder of the African American Educational and Cultural Festival, said the goal is to host the event each year on a Saturday around Juneteenth.