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Protester: 'It's not about black and white. It's about right and wrong.'

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Long Island protesters express their views on the marches taking place across Long Island. Nicole Bey, 51, of Wheatley Heights, and Kevin Franciotti, 33, of Mineola, are among those who spoke to Newsday. Credit: Howard Schnapp; Linda Rosier

George Floyd's death set off a torrent of emotions across Long Island, with some saying it's past time for police reform and others decrying the burning and looting that occurred in some cities across the country.

Floyd, an unarmed black man, died on Memorial Day after Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, pressed his knee to Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes. His death set off protests across the U.S., including a series of peaceful ones on the Island.

"Why did the government allow it to get this bad?" said Nicole Bey, 51, of Wheatley Heights, who has been out protesting. "It's not about black and white. It's about right and wrong."

Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder, and the three other officers were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

Amid the protests, there's also a belief expressed that leaders were afraid to take enough action to protect the public against those breaking the law.

"Just gain control," said Rebecca Tepper, 43, of Merrick. "Stop letting people run amok in the streets."

Here are some thoughts of Long Islanders about the protests. 

Nicole Bey, 51, Wheatley Heights

Systematic racism, black people killed by police, an unjust judicial system and a racial divide have been simmering for generations, Bey said. She is angry about all these things. Her voice is hoarse from calling out day after day at demonstrations outside the Town of Babylon municipal building.

"We the people will no longer stand for a broken government, corrupt law enforcement and the racism and injustice that has plagued America," Bey said. "We know we need law enforcement, but we want to get rid of the racist cops."

Bey participated in protests previously, for Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street and Occupy the Hood. "We marched, we dispersed, and that was the end of it," she said.

Bey sees a new generation of young protesters — black, white, Hispanic and others — who refuse to remain silent. She helped form "We the People at Suffolk County," a group, she said, that's intent on peaceful protest that leads to change.

She has employed a few tactics to ensure the protests don't get out of hand. When people choose to join them, she takes down their names and phone numbers — even as she picks their brain about their intentions.

"We're looking out for agitators," Bey said. "Agitators make it bad for all of us."

Bey believes people already have taken the first step toward change, simply by protesting. The next step is improving the communication and relationship with the powers-that-be.

"We need to develop a relationship with the politicians, and a healthy relationship with law enforcement," she said. "There's two sides to everything, and we need to understand what they're thinking."

Bey has advocated for better policies for investigating incidents of suspected police brutality. Also, police officers should be evaluated every six months or a year to make sure they are emotionally stable, Bey said.

"They are no different from soldiers. People can break easily," she said. "This is a person with a license to kill."

Rebecca Tepper, 43, Merrick

Tepper watched as Merrick became a flashpoint in the protests. When protesters appeared last week, homeowners came out on the street and confronted them. After some tense moments, the demonstration ended as it started, peacefully. 

Tepper, who did not participate in that incident, said she understands both sides.

As for the protests, she said, "I think there is an issue there. I understand that. But coming down on the police is wrong. There's a lot of good cops. It's a few cops giving them a bad name."

She also said she sympathizes with the Merrick residents who came out to confront the protesters.

"I think the protest was actually fine," she said. "I think there were some people concerned about what it would turn into. ... I think it was fear, that's what brought them out, to protect their businesses and their homes."

It's when Tepper sees the looting and burning elsewhere, especially in New York City, that she becomes upset. She believes those committing crimes don't represent the protesters.

Dre Tuosto, 26, West Hempstead

As Tuosto stood with protesters in Merrick last week, he said he reflected on the many times he was pulled over by police for no reason and the time he got in a fight with a white man and he was the one arrested.

"The whole thing is — it starts with the police; they're racist," he said. "Black people are being profiled, judged, pulled over because of the color of their skin."

He added, "I can't say all police are bad, but I think it's the majority."

The death of Floyd, he said, pushed something in him over the limit, prompting him to attend several protests on Long Island.

"You see it happening over and over again," he said. "That's the last shot."

His arrest, he said, happened about four years ago and came after a white man at his job started making racist remarks to him and attacked him. 

"His white parents called the white police," Tuosto said, adding that the charges were eventually dismissed. 

Tuosto recalled one time, he said, when he was pulled over by police after a friend threw a cigarette butt out the car window. 

"Your heart sinks. It's a feeling of being guilty, when you're not," he said. "You're trying to figure out how bad it's going to go."

He has some definite ideas for change, such as the banning of chokeholds by police.

"That's a no-brainer," he said. When the officer put his knee on Floyd's neck, "It wasn't legal or right."

Kevin Franciotti, 33, Mineola

The protests are long overdue, Franciotti said. 

"These are expressions of long-standing frustration," he said. "These images have come in year after year of white police killing and brutalizing young black men, and it's horrifying. There's a sense that nothing has changed."

Franciotti is a substance abuse counselor and said he's seen the war on drugs ruin people's lives. He wants to pull back the policing and switch to more treatment and addiction prevention.

He sees the protests through the lens of a mental health professional.

"What happens when you have tens of thousands of people out of work, undersupported by unemployment, pent-up in their houses without mental health services offered … and then something as horrifying as what happened in Minneapolis happens," he said. "I think that's a recipe for civil unrest."

He said he sees police departments as "overfunded and over-resourced institutions of oppression," which, he added, "can only be changed by budget cuts and severe limitations on their authorities in order to prevent abuse."

Change, he said, comes through policies and government budgets. He would like to see the "demilitarization" of the police.

Phil Young, 40, Ronkonkama

Young draws a clear distinction between the protesters coming out because of the death of Floyd and his perception of the recent demonstrations to reopen businesses during the COVID-19 crisis.

"We are not like the 'reopen people' who acted like COVID-19 was a hoax, and all they wanted were their creature comforts, and they laughed in the face of a pandemic that was killing people left and right," he said. "They were laughing and pointing fingers when we knelt."

The groups coming out in the name of George Floyd, he said, are outraged over the death of black men at the hands of police. 

"He died in the street crying for his mother," Young said.

Young said he has attended a handful of protests over the past week, including in Commack, Port Jefferson and Huntington. He stands, he said, at the front lines, leading chants such as "No Justice, No Peace" and "Black Lives Matter." He said he's also taking moments to have intense conversations with fellow protesters about the state of America.

He gives good marks to the way the Suffolk Police Department has handled most of the demonstrations.

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