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400 on LI shut down Sunrise Highway in Garner protest

Dwayne Smith, of Wyandanch, yells while holding a

Dwayne Smith, of Wyandanch, yells while holding a cardboard coffin as protesters march down Albany Avenue in Amityville during a Long Island Day of Action rally and march, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014. Credit: Steve Pfost

About 400 people on Long Island demonstrated Sunday against what they called police brutality in a rally and die-in, with scores lying on the pavement of Sunrise Highway in Amityville, stopping traffic in both directions on the major artery.

The gesture lasted for 4 1/2 minutes, symbolizing the 4 1/2 hours unarmed black teenager Michael Brown's body was left in the street after he was fatally shot by white police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

"We're going to die-in because so many brothers and sisters are dying at the hands of police. Michael Brown was shot six times by Officer Darren Wilson," said Jason Starr, director of the Nassau chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who was at the demonstration.

Police watched from both sides of the highway. They did not interfere and made no arrests.

"So what we're going to do is for four-and-a-half minutes is die-in right here on Sunrise Highway and shut this . . . down," Starr said.

The group repeated "I can't breathe!" for each of the 11 times that phrase was repeated by Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after an apparent chokehold was used during a confrontation with white NYPD officers in July. They also chanted in Spanish: "¡No puedo respirar!"

Community organizer Sergio Argueta, 36, of Long Beach, said the group aimed to highlight incidents of police excess on Long Island, too.

"We don't need to go to Ferguson," he said. "We don't need to go to Staten Island. We are Ferguson. We are Staten Island. We can't breathe."

Some members of the group later joined others to pack Holy Trinity Church in Amityville for a prayer service.

"The question is: When the videotape is not enough, and when the marches are over . . . what are we going to do as a country so we can move forward," Tracey Edwards, Long Island regional director for the NAACP and a Huntington Town council member, said at the church, referring to police actions captured on video -- as was Garner's arrest. "As Long Islanders, we have an opportunity to mark systematic and sustainable changes in our own local communities."

Many in the crowd rose from their seats as local leaders and activists invoked the events of Ferguson and Staten Island.

Assemb. Philip Ramos (D-Brentwood) urged churchgoers to raise their hands and repeat the chant, "I have it in my hands." He uttered that phrase several times, followed by different ending refrains -- "to bring about change" and "to improve our community."

The event was designed to "begin the healing process," said Roderick A. Pearson, president of the Islip NAACP, "to provide a place for healing and, secondly, to organize in a peaceful, prayerful way to express our voice against police brutality and racial profiling" and an opportunity to "look for solutions and reforms in the courts and community policing."

Clinton Morris, 52, an Amityville resident, said protests are "a good thing," but they won't fix the problems faced by minority communities.

"The problem that I have and many others have is, the first thing we need to do is deal with the issues in our own communities, which is the black-on-black crimes, drugs," Morris said. "We need to take care of that first . . . Yes, police officers are killing us, but we are killing ourselves also, and that needs to be focused on."

Leonard Canton, 72, a retired accountant who lives in Amityville said he felt "very proud" to take part in a protest like the ones he participated in during the 1960s, because some of the same racial problems remain.

"The issues are there. They never changed," he said. "They've been disguised in certain ways, but they never changed . . . There were no dogs or hoses, but brutality in any way is brutality."

Earlier, one protester, Wayne Whitfield, 52, of Hempstead, said he has been dealing with police profiling all of his life. When asked if the situation has improved since he was a teenager, he said: "Hell, no. It's worse now, because they just bother you for no reason."

Whitfield, who is African-American, said that a state or federal authority should investigate the officers involved in Garner's death, because he thinks they would offer a more independent review.

"For me, being in a community of color, this is not a new occurrence," said Rashad Mitchell, 28, a community organizer for the Long Island Progressive Coalition. "It's unfortunate that these occurrences are what it takes to galvanize people. But if anything, the last two months have been a tipping point . . . the time is now."

Joerise Tarry, of Long Beach, said when she was younger she remembers police spending more time in minority neighborhoods, and that they would get to know the people who lived there.

"I believe that they . . . [police] should be in communities and listen more," she said. "I'm here today because I would like to see a stop to police violence and gun violence."

With Scott Eidler

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