About 100 people gathered outside the Central Islip federal courthouse Friday morning to demonstrate against the attorney general’s visit, sending the message that “immigrants are welcome here.”
The demonstrators gathered about two hours before Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed law enforcement officials during a stop in the same community where the bodies of four young men were found in a park just over two weeks ago — the latest violent incident in Central Islip and Brentwood to be investigated as a possible gang-related killing.
In his speech, Sessions said the government’s mission is “to demolish” MS-13, the group authorities say are responsible for a series of savage slayings here.
Sessions laid out elements of the government’s battle plan against the gang, and defended the president’s immigration policy as one that ensures immigrants come to the country legally.
Before Sessions spoke, the demonstrators chanted “Sessions go home” and “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here.”
Suffolk police officers from the department’s Community Oriented Police Enforcement Unit supervised the peaceful crowd gathered at Spur Drive North and Eastview Drive.
The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and the longtime president of SUNY Old Westbury, was among the demonstrators.
“We are here because we do not believe that Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is the man who can actually speak to the violence that is affecting so many of our communities,” Butts said. “We think his insensitivity, his racism, his bigotry — all of that excludes him from being able to hear what the real needs are.”
Butts also emphasized that Sessions “needs to speak to the people who are directly impacted by this violence.”
Sessions was scheduled to meet privately with crime victims during his stop on Long Island.
“He needs to talk, not just to the parents of those who were killed, but he needs to talk to all the people because this violence issue, coupled with the immigration issue, is a very complex one, and you cannot deal with that just simply with one aspect of our community, with the police or law enforcement,” Butts said.
Authorities set up a penned-off area for a handful of counter-protesters who supported Sessions.
Vincent Rasulo of East Patchogue carried a large yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag.
“I’m here to support the attorney general in his message to fight MS-13,” said Rasulo, a member of the Brookhaven Republican Party committee. “Anything he can do to come in here and solve this problem, I’m in favor of 100 percent.”
Of the demonstrators protesting against Sessions, he said: “I totally support them being here. I just don’t agree with what they are saying.”
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who introduced Sessions before the attorney general’s speech, said it was “disgraceful” that people were protesting Sessions’ visit, adding that they should be “on their knees” thanking him.
Shortly after the speech only a half dozen demonstrators remained as police took down the barricades. The final two counter-demonstrators chatted amicably with their opposition as they all left.
Earlier, Gabriela Castillo, coordinator of the protest and of the Long Island Civic Engagement Table, which promotes civic participation among communities of color, said Sessions was not at the courthouse to help make Brentwood and Central Islip safer.
“I don’t think this has anything to do with public safety,” she said. “I think this is a convenient opportunity for him to make political talking points and to promote an anti-immigrant agenda that has been promoted by this administration from the beginning.”
Sessions and President Donald Trump have blamed what Trump called the Obama administration’s “weak illegal immigration policies” for MS-13 violence. Defenders of Obama said he focused deportation efforts on violent criminals, including gang members.
“Our community needs healing and an effective solution to the challenges we’re facing in this area,” Castillo said. “Sessions is coming here to further fan the flames and tension. Promoting an anti-immigrant agenda will not solve these issues or help the community in any way, shape or form.”
About 10 Catholic nuns from the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood were at the protest.
Sister Catherine Fitzgibbon said she and the other sisters are at the demonstration in part to represent immigrants in the country illegally who fear participating in such a high-profile protest.
“They’re afraid they’re going to be picked up and be deported,” she said, “I think it’s important to see this is not an immigration issue. It’s a tragedy and an issue of gangs.”
Fitzgibbon said teenagers join gangs because they’re looking for self-acceptance, but anti-illegal immigration crackdowns deter young people from joining programs that would help them resist and avoid gangs.
“We are showing up to change the narrative,” Sister Rosalie Carven said. “Their narrative is immigrants are takers, not givers, that they don’t contribute to society.”
Around her, demonstrators shouted, “Say it loud, say it clear, immigrants are welcome here” and “Say it loud, say it clear, Sessions you’re not welcome here.”
Sister Jane Reilly said Suffolk County police in the Brentwood area and local residents have slowly been building up trust with each other. She said Sessions and others tying the killings in the area to immigration policies may destroy that fragile trust and deter residents from cooperating with the police.
With Andrew Smith