Civil rights advocates are set to protest Friday as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions comes to the federal courthouse in Central Islip to discuss gang violence in Long Island communities.
The attorney general’s impending visit triggered denunciations Thursday from civil rights activists who cited Sessions’ history with minority communities and questioned his use of gang violence as a justification for President Donald Trump’s strict immigration enforcement.
The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and the longtime president of SUNY Old Westbury, called Sessions “an overt racist” and questioned his involvement.
“His track record is not one that gives me, or I think a whole lot of people, any confidence that he has the sensitivity with how to address the issue of violence” in a minority community, Butts said in an interview. “He has said and demonstrated by his actions that he is opposed to immigration, period. Legal or illegal. He has demonstrated no regard for people of color.”
Butts, in a letter to Newsday published Thursday, wrote: “I understand that Sessions is the attorney general, but I believe in my heart that he is an overt racist. Most positions he has taken across his political career are vile and divisive.”
Sessions’ office did not respond to a request for comment. With his trip to the Island, he becomes the highest-ranking law enforcement official to speak out against slayings in Central Islip and Brentwood that police and other law enforcement authorities believe are linked to gangs — particularly the brutal MS-13 group.
Eleven people, most of them young Latino men and women, have been killed in the last year. About two weeks ago, the bodies of four young men — bludgeoned and mutilated — were found in a Central Islip park; authorities have not made any arrests in those slayings.
Other rights advocates echoed Butts’ concerns during a news conference Thursday, ahead of the planned demonstration at 8 a.m. Friday near the federal courthouse in Central Islip.
Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood), whose district also includes Central Islip, said while residents want something done about the violence, “most of us understand, in the district, that . . . the issues around gangs are complex.”
Making immigration a part of the discussion about gangs, Ramos said, is “an attempt by the Trump administration and Mr. Sessions to justify their belief and their message that immigrants and young immigrants are people who intrinsically have a propensity for violence.”
Sessions has made it clear that he wants to see a crackdown on MS-13 and other groups, paired with immigration enforcement.
“Because of an open border and years of lax immigration enforcement, MS-13 has been sending both recruiters and members to regenerate gangs that previously had been decimated, and smuggling members across the border as unaccompanied minors,” he said in an April 18 speech.
Butts, in his criticism of Sessions, referred to recent comments that the attorney general has made about immigration and a history of actions and positions that civil rights leaders have said were damaging to African-Americans. Some of that stems from Sessions’ years as a U.S. senator from Alabama and a U.S. attorney there.
During the confirmation hearing for Sessions’ current job, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) highlighted a March 1986 letter written by Coretta Scott King. In the letter, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. opposed Sessions’ confirmation at the time as a federal judge, alleging that he used his power when he was a U.S. attorney to intimidate black voters.
Law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Secret Service and Suffolk County Police Department, did not comment on security arrangements for Friday’s event.
Suffolk County Assistant Police Commissioner Justin Meyers said in a statement: “As a police department, we are not going to engage in political rhetoric. We are meeting the attorney general of the United States to discuss law enforcement issues relating to MS-13 and how the federal government can further assist in our mission to eradicate that gang from our communities.”
On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that 25 State Police troopers will join Suffolk County police and the FBI in the anti-gang effort, with the state also contributing aircraft and expertise in intelligence and electronic surveillance.
Butts, who plans to join Friday’s protest, said he sees parallels between civil rights struggles of the past and current issues affecting immigrants.
“We abhor the violence committed against people here on Long Island,” Butts said, “but how can Sessions speak to make it clear that we are trying to stop that violence and not paint an ugly picture of all immigrants here on Long Island?”
In his letter to Newsday, Butts invited Sessions to attend a forum scheduled Friday at SUNY Old Westbury titled Voices Against Violence, bringing together members of the community with law enforcement and elected officials to discuss race and violence. On Thursday, he announced the event was indefinitely postponed, because Sessions’ visit prompted some of those participating to say they could not come.
The call to protest against Sessions, circulated on social media, was titled “United against hate!” and said Sessions would “use this difficult moment for our communities to advance his hateful anti-immigrant agenda and turn this into a political issue.”
Make The Road New York, an immigrant rights organization that has an office in Brentwood, on Thursday issued a joint statement by 20 advocacy groups, criticizing Sessions’ involvement.
Their comments against anti-immigrant rhetoric hearkened back to the 2008 murder of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant killed in a hate crime in Patchogue, following local tensions over illegal immigration.
“What we do not need is a divisive figure like Jeff Sessions coming up from Washington to try to turn our tragedy into one of his polarizing political talking points,” the group’s statement said. “Suffolk County residents have lived through what happens when divisive politicians try to scapegoat immigrants and turn us against each other. We have the scars to prove it, and we refuse to return to that chapter of our history.”
With Nicole Fuller