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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Donald Trump’s speech: The view from the neighborhoods

Debra Cavanagh, president of the Central Islip Coalition

Debra Cavanagh, president of the Central Islip Coalition of Good Neighbors, stands in the Central Islip Community Park on Friday, July 28, 2017. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Speaking to law enforcement officials inside an auditorium at Suffolk County Community College on Friday, President Donald Trump likened Long Island to the wild, Wild West. Outside, in one of the communities Trump said he wanted to liberate by kicking out MS-13 gang members, it was anything but wild.

At least not on Friday.

At Stahley Street and Ray Court in Brentwood, where the bodies of high school besties Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas were found last year, neighbors tended to their cars and to their yards as Trump spoke. When the music one neighbor had been playing ended, the only sounds to be heard near the intersection — where memorials to the girls included fresh flowers and burning candles — were birds singing, and a band of squirrels rustling through the trees.

A little over three miles away, in Central Islip Community Park where the bodies of four young men were found three months ago, children ran about on the playground, under the watchful eye of their parents.

One community leader said there didn’t seem to be a lot of demonstrable interest in hearing Trump — no one could recommend local listening parties, or gatherings in public places where neighbors could together consider Trump’s words.

“I would have loved to have some of the civics from Brentwood and Central Islip talk to Mr. Trump,” said Debra Cavanagh, president of the Central Islip Coalition of Good Neighbors — which drew some 600 residents to a forum at the local Knights of Columbus hall after the April murders of four young men in the park.

Cavanagh, a Republican who supported Trump, said she moved to Central Islip in 1992 because it was so diverse. She said she listened to the president’s speech at home — and she liked what she heard.

“He speaks his mind, and not a lot of people like that,” said Cavanagh, who’s a math teacher.

What would residents have wanted to say to Trump — the first sitting president in memory to visit Long Island for something other than a dedication, a debate, a rally or a fundraising event — had he ventured beyond the boundaries of the college to talk to community residents?

“I want safety for all the kids, I want safety for everyone,” said Carlain Etienne, who was visiting the park with two of his children and two of their friends, echoing a sentiment that also was voiced — repeatedly — in Brentwood.

“I don’t want to be scared,” said Etienne, a 15-year Central Islip resident, who took the children to the park near his home on a rare day off from the three jobs he works in different hotels. “I want my kids living in a town like every other town.”

At the college, Trump in addressing MS-13 talked about more immigration agents, more immigration judges, speedier deportations and sanctions against sanctuary cities. He also told the crowd composed primarily of police officers “not to be too nice” when putting suspects in the back of their vehicles.

The remark drew applause from the crowd. But afterward, the Suffolk County Police Department tweeted that “As a department, we do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners,” — a reminder that came as no surprise since former Chief of Department James Burke is serving a federal prison term for beating up a suspect and trying to cover it up.

Cavanagh and some residents said they welcomed Trump’s attention, while others attended rallies to protest it.

But there seemed to be agreement on several counts:

It will take more than enforcement to root out MS-13 and keep it out. It will take money for schools, economic development and parks — including the one in Central Islip and Roberto Clemente in Brentwood, where residents can gather together.

Combating MS-13 also will — despite Trump’s rhetoric — rest on keeping good relationships between police and every segment of the community.

Finally, combating MS-13 will require that neighbors stay active, informed and work with each other.

“We had 600 people at our forum, and the next time we had 50,” Cavanagh said. “That’s not what we need.”

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