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Mix of people drawn to LI protests against police brutality, racism

More than a week of protests across Long Island were spurred by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Marchers spoke to Newsday about their motivations and goals. Credit: Newsday staff

It’s been like no other movement that Long Islanders can recall. Protests against police brutality and racism after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis have emerged in Long Island communities large and small — in places where African American and Latino people are a majority, and in locales where few people of color live.

The organizers and speakers are also a mix. Some are black and say they or someone they love easily could have been Floyd. Others are white, Latino and Asian and say they want to show their communities that you don’t have to be black to fight against racial injustice.

Olivia Mance, Freeport

Mance was 14 when unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin was shot dead by a neighborhood-watch volunteer. She said she was too young to connect that tragedy with a pattern of police brutality against people of color. Now she can.

“It’s gotten to the point now where I’m 23 and I’m extremely aware of what’s going on, I’m extremely aware of the connotation of race and what it means be a black person in America today,” she said. “It’s gotten to the point where complicit silence — you’re part of the problem. I could no longer be silent.”

Mance, of Freeport, helped organize a June 5 march from Valley Stream to Merrick — only three days after attending her first-ever protest — and another on June 8 from Massapequa to Copiague.

Seared in her memory is a day about 12 years ago when one of her brothers was in middle school and police spotted him and two friends playing tag in an abandoned lot.

“He was afraid, and he didn’t know what to do, so he started to run,” she said. “And the police officer pulled out his gun and said, ‘I am going to shoot you if you do not stop moving.’ ”

She thinks about how her brother could have been killed if he had not stopped.

“It’s not something that’s taken as innocent child’s play,” she said. “They’re automatically assumed to be doing something wrong or violent.”

Jason Thomas, Massapequa

Thomas grew up a few miles east of Olivia Mance — but in a world apart.

Mance’s neighborhood is racially mixed. Massapequa, where Thomas, 21, lives, is 0.6% black, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

“I see white people look at [nonwhite] people in the street just going for a walk and staring them down, like, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” said Thomas, who is white.

He sees how when he and black or Latino friends are in local stores, employees will follow them — but never him.

Thomas worked with Mance and about eight others to help organize the June 5 and June 8 marches. In Massapequa on June 8, some passersby honked their approval as the interracial group was preparing to march. But others shouted “I’m glad he’s [expletive] dead” and “[expletive] you, go home” from their cars.

“A lot of the kids I went to high school with still to this day don’t understand the struggles that people of other ethnicities and races face,” he said. “They were never exposed to it growing up, and they may never have been exposed to it when they went to college, so they have a lot of ignorant viewpoints.”

That’s why Thomas said it’s especially important to hold Black Lives Matter protests in places like Massapequa.

“If they think black means bad, and then they see a ton of black, white, Hispanic, et cetera, people coming together and marching peacefully together — well clearly you’re wrong,” he said.

Andrew Ocasio, Levittown

When Ocasio spoke about police killing people of color during a June 7 protest in Farmingdale, he was speaking from heart-rending experience. His mother was shot dead by a police officer in upstate Canandaigua in October 2017.

Ocasio, 26, of Levittown, believes his mother, Sandy Guardiola, 48, may not have been shot if she were white instead of Puerto Rican.

“I think she would have been approached way more carefully than she was,” he said.

Canandaigua Police Sgt. Scott Kadien shot Guardiola to death while she lay in her bed, according to news reports. Guardiola was a parole officer and police were checking on her welfare after she didn’t show up for work — even though, lawyers for her family said, she was on approved medical leave. 

An Ontario County grand jury ruled the shooting justified. Ocasio and his sister, Alysa Ocasio, filed a federal civil rights suit against Kadien, the city of Canandaigua and others in October 2018. The case has not been decided. 

Ocasio is convinced Kadien lied when he said Guardiola fired her service weapon at him first. He was not hit.

A former New York City chief medical examiner, Dr. Michael Baden, told the Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester in 2018 that Guardiola was shot in a position in which she was not a threat to Kadien. Baden also helped perform an autopsy on Floyd on behalf of his family.

Without video evidence like in the Floyd case, many people automatically believe what police say, Ocasio said.

“We see what happens on video these days, but there’s more that’s not on video,” he said. “There are thousands and thousands of different cases, just like my mom’s, and that needs to change. People are being murdered in cold blood and there’s no justice being served.”

Isabella Panag, Mount Sinai

Panag, 15, said she organized a protest in her hometown of Mount Sinai after she was appalled by how classmates thought a meme showing smiling white kids re-enacting Floyd’s death was funny, and how adult residents were denigrating Blacks Live Matter protests on social media.

“They had the wrong idea of what the whole Black Lives Matter movement was,” she said. “I thought if they see a peaceful protest in their neighborhood, then maybe they would stop and reconsider what they thought.”

Less than 1% of Mount Sinai’s population is black. Most of the protesters were white, she said.

Panag is of Indian and Dominican ancestry, and she felt the sting of bigotry after Donald Trump’s 2016 election, when white kids in her middle school taunted her by yelling “Build the wall!” in her face. “I realized that Long Island is actually pretty racist at times,” she said.

Reaction to the protest was mostly positive, she said, but, she added, “If it were all black people, we wouldn’t have gotten the support that we did. They’d be like, ‘They’re back at it again.’ But since it was a mix of people, that makes a big impact. You’re most likely to sympathize with people who look like you, unfortunately.”

Stephanie Burke, Shirley

Burke, 48, has lived her entire life on Long Island. The Shirley woman, who is black, never imagined she’d see thousands of Long Islanders, many of them white, protesting against police brutality and racism.

She believes a key reason is that the young people often leading the demonstrations are more likely than their elders to have friends of different races and ethnicities — just like her three sons.

“Maybe seeing George [Floyd] opened their eyes: ‘This could be my friend’s dad, this could be my friend’s uncle,’ ” Stephanie Burke said.

Burke and her husband Rodney Burke, 55, a pastor at Abundant Life Church of God in Holbrook, worry about Rodney Jr., 19. He sometimes hangs out with friends in parking lots of fast-food restaurants, just like other teenagers. 

“God forbid he pulls out too fast and his music is blasting” and a police car is nearby, she said. “I may be creating scenarios in my mind but that is the fear black mothers have.”

The size and diversity of the protests has given Burke hope. Yet despite the legislative and cultural victories the protests already have spawned, Burke is not Pollyannaish. True change won’t happen overnight, she said.

“At the root of the matter is the change in people’s hearts,” she said. “But this is a start.”

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