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Long Islanders chant 'I can't breathe' at protest for George Floyd

Hundreds marched in Hempstead to protest the death of George Floyd. Protesters started outside town hall and marched to Hempstead Turnpike. Credit: Newsday / Staff

This story was reported by John Asbury, Daysi Calavia-Robertson, Alfonso A. Castillo, Paul LaRocco, Steve Pfost, Antonio Planas, David Olson, Colin Stephenson, and Dandan Zou. It was written by Olson.

Long Islanders on Friday took to the streets for a sixth day of protests against police brutality and racism, with some chanting “I can’t breathe,” the words George Floyd uttered before he died in Minneapolis with a police officer’s knee at his neck.

“Get your knee off my back,” chanted more than 1,000 people gathered at Hempstead Town Hall to mourn and protest the killing of Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in what a Minnesota medical examiner’s office declared a homicide. 

Protesters then marched up Peninsula Boulevard and Hempstead Turnpike in the rain through Uniondale to Eisenhower Park.

The protest was one of at least 12 scheduled from western Nassau County to the East End.

In Central Islip, about 100 people blocked traffic on Carleton and Suffolk avenues, their arms locked together, after Suffolk police unsuccessfully tried to move them off the road. Another 75 stood nearby. Earlier, some had lain on Carleton, holding signs and chanting.

In Hempstead, Shaunte Malone, 32, of Hempstead, stood protesting with her daughter Maleah, 8, who held a sign saying “no justice, no peace.”
“It’s their future. I don’t want to be killed by police who are supposed to be protecting us,” she said of her four children. “Basically I want them to stand up for what’s right and be at peace with everybody as one.” 

Will Thomas, 54, of Malverne, marched down Peninsula with Alec Jones, 42, of Hempstead and his 14-year-old son.
“We’re marching for the oppression of our people,” Thomas said. “We respect and love everyone but oppression and police brutality is a reality. It’s time for us to speak up and march. It’s enough already. We’re dying. I’m afraid of letting my 18-year-old son go outside.”
Jones said, "We’re not just walking for George Floyd. We’re walking for our community to make a stance. We’re about love. We’re not the animals and rioters they want to display us on the news and the media.”

At a protest on a busy corner in Mount Sinai, Isabella DiPalermo, 17, said it was inexcusable that over years and decades of police killings similar to Floyd’s, little had seemed to change. 

“We’ve been stuck in this place in time for way too long,” she said. 

The demonstration, attended by about 100 people, illustrated the particular power of this protest movement to penetrate predominantly white suburbs.

The hamlet has a black population of less than 1%, according to census data. 

“This community, more than anybody, needs to see what is happening, and be on the right side of history,” said Isabella Panag, 15, a Mount Sinai High School student who organized the protest. 

Panag, who is of Indian and Dominican descent, said she was disturbed to see some classmates recently participate in an online meme that makes light of Floyd’s killing. 

“In my community I feel like people don’t really understand,” she said.

The group took a silent knee for the nearly nine minutes that Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck.

Participants mostly received honks of approval from passing motorists, although one man screamed “Blue Lives Matter,” prompting a profanity in return. 

In Valley Stream, a march slated to stretch six miles along Sunrise Highway into Freeport began just as the rain did. 

At least 150 protesters carried signs with messages like "You don't have to be black to feel angry" and "4 cops locked up. WE AIN'T DONE YET."

Chauvin on Wednesday was charged with second-degree murder — in addition to previous charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter — and three other officers who were at the scene were charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.

Protest organizer Olivia Mance, 23, of Freeport, who attended the first protest in her life on Monday, said, "This is something that is so deeply rooted in the fabric of America that … without all you out here right now, nothing is going to change. Everybody has a voice. And it starts right here." 

Mance and other organizers with bullhorns went over some chants with the crowd. 

“One of the chants you should be familiar with is, ‘No justice,’” said Mance, eliciting a response of “No peace.”

With four Nassau County Police officers in reflective vests in the lead, the protesters began their sojourn east on Sunrise Highway, stretching for several blocks, but staying on the sidewalk. 

Along the way, passing drivers honked their horns. Some pulled over to take pictures and voice their support. 

As they sought shelter from the rain huddled under the tracks at the Rockville Centre LIRR station, Irene Ippolito, 57, of Valley Stream, said, "It's my responsibility as an American citizen and a human being” to protest.

“If you're not out here, you're not for decency,” she said, her face tinted blue from her rain-soaked face mask. 

In Central Islip, Kristina Rodriguez, 30, and Britnae McFadzean-Tillett, 30, both of Central Islip, said seeing their hometown Target store boarded up ahead of the protest that started there broke their hearts, so much so that the longtime friends started a Change.org petition asking the company for answers.

The petition, signed by more than 300 people, asks the retailer why it boarded up the store in Central Islip, a predominantly minority community, ahead of the protest, while stores in predominantly white areas such as Sayville, where protests have also taken place, are not boarded up.

“This message is contradictory to Target’s recent Twitter statement in which they said they’d take a stand against racism," Rodriguez said.

McFadzean-Tillett said she reached out to Target and was told the decision was made by the Central Islip store. “But when I called to speak to representatives at the store they pointed me back to corporate, saying the directive to board the store came from them,” she said.

Target did not respond to requests for comment.

About 35 people protested in Glen Cove, chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, these racist cops have got to go” and singing “Happy Birthday” to Breonna Taylor, a black emergency medical technician who was shot to death on March 13 by Louisville police and would have turned 27 on Friday.

Sarah Barbey, 23, of Glen Cove, told the 10 police officers at the demonstration that “you are allowed to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Breonna Taylor, who should be alive today.”

They did not join in.

Yajhayra Reyes, 25, of Glen Cove, said that in addition to protesting, “We need to educate everybody about voting” to choose elected officials who will make changes “so that we don’t have to go through this every single time. It’s not fair, you know?”

Off the Montauk coast, more than 100 surfers splashed water high into the air as part of an international “paddle-out” to show solidarity with protesters. A paddle-out is a surfing tradition to celebrate life and remember lives lost.

Rhonda Harper, 52, founder of Black Girls Surf, started the event, which she said occurred in more than 100 places worldwide. She said in a phone interview from Senegal, where the California woman has been for months because of travel restrictions, that it shouldn’t have taken Floyd’s death to amplify the message that "black lives matter."

"They should have always mattered.”

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