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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Violence sparks grassroots activism in Suffolk

The residents of Brentwood are watching. And organizing, and leading.

While elected officials bicker over the proper way to invite each other to meetings, the residents are forging a grass-roots movement against gang violence that is reaching across Long Island. A Facebook group - Brentwood Residents Against Violence Everyday - had 2,319 fans as of Monday. It kept its fans posted when County Executive Steve Levy, who's running for governor, came to neighboring Central Islip Monday to announce his own crackdown on gangs.

Lenny Tucker, BRAVE's executive director, got no word from Levy about the crackdown. Instead, he got a Facebook message on his cell phone saying, "Steve Levy is currently on Carleton Ave with cops doing street patrol and traffic checks . . . "

He rushed to the scene, where he talked, briefly, to the county executive just as Levy was about to get into his car. And within a few hours Tucker had posted an update of his own:

"He offered me an appointment," wrote Tucker. "Wondering why he wanted to meet with JUST ME, and not my team. Really wondering why he did not know who I was, especially after all the meetings, articles in the paper, phone calls and letters."

Nonetheless, Tucker said he is scheduled to meet the county executive Tuesday at 2 p.m. Levy, in a letter distributed at a later protest outside his Hauppauge office, said he would hold a community forum in Brentwood March 29 - news that BRAVE members also promptly posted.

As for Levy's announcement of more traffic checks in the community? "I really don't think that traffic checkpoints will reduce violence and gang activity," one resident wrote later.

Three weeks ago, Brentwood and Central Islip had no common civic center. No nascent neighborhood watches. No community advisory committee. And no popular form of instant communication.

That changed, almost in an instant, with one meeting, when community residents pulled themselves together against the gang violence that has, with six murders in six months, turned suburban streets into a slaughterhouse.

And the grassroots movement is growing.

Last week, more than 200 residents in Huntington crowded Town Hall demanding action against gangs in Huntington Station, where there have been two shooting incidents in two weeks near an elementary school.

Monday afternoon, Jon Cooper, the county legislator representing Huntington, and DuWayne Gregory, the legislator representing Wyandanch, which also is seeing an increase in gang-related violence, were two of the speakers at a Stop the Violence rally in Hauppauge.

"I have never seen the communities come together so fast," Assemb. Philip Ramos, whose district includes Brentwood and Central Islip, said as we sat in his office. "It's a level of civic activism this area hasn't seen in decades."

In Brentwood, they're organizing community watches. And, through Facebook, discussing everything from the best brand of paint to fight graffiti to the best programs to keep teenagers in school and off the street. They're also working with police at the local precinct.

Ramos said he plans to seek state legislation that would create a gang court, modeled on the successful drug courts, where young men flirting with gang life would gain a chance to work their way back into society.

Meanwhile, the community will continue to act on its own initiatives, unwilling to wait for every elected official to get on board. By Monday night, before and after pictures of a wall along Brentwood Road near St. Joseph's Convent were posted. Before, a graffiti covered wall. Afterward, a newly painted, clean surface. Beside it were seven photos of young people who have died violently in Brentwood in recent months.

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