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Smithtown officials alarmed by reaction to planned rally

Smithtown Councilman Thomas Lohmann said he has responded

Smithtown Councilman Thomas Lohmann said he has responded to false information posted on social media about protests. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Smithtown officials, alarmed by the social media response to a flyer for a rally planned in the town this weekend, are asking residents to be skeptical of rumors as they attempt to contact the event organizer and coordinate a response by Suffolk police and the town’s public safety department.  

“We are saying to residents, ‘Take a breath,’ ” said town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo, who wrote a letter to residents that is now posted on the town website asking for calm. “There is goodness in this community and it is imperative that people don’t focus on the negative they see in social media.”

The flyer began circulating on social media groups used by town residents last weekend: two masked people, silhouetted by the flames of a burning building on top, and a young black woman at what appears to be a 1960s civil rights march on the bottom. “Black Lives Matter Protest” read text announcing a rally Sunday afternoon and giving the address of the Stop & Shop on West Main Street.

The response from town residents, who are predominantly white and affluent, was mixed on platforms such as Nextdoor and Facebook. Some expressed bewilderment at plans for a demonstration in a town that has had few, even as thousands marched elsewhere on Long Island and in New York City to condemn racism and police brutality after a black man, George Floyd, died after he was pinned to the ground with an officer's knee on his neck. Some expressed support, with one poster suggesting the event could provide a learning experience for children and noting that other Long Island rallies have been peaceful. 

But on Smithtown Dads, a Facebook page where discussion typically involves lawn care and restaurant recommendations, one poster suggested forming a “human chain of law-abiding citizens along Main Street.”  Others, jokingly or not, suggested they would arm themselves with guns or baseball bats and hockey sticks. One, prefacing his comment by saying he had no proof, spread a rumor about police finding palettes of bricks in town, prompting Councilman Thomas Lohmann, a former law enforcement officer who maintains close ties with those still on the force, to post himself: “Completely false!” 

There are no such piles, Lohmann said, adding that town public safety and Suffolk County police officers will be present Sunday. Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder also released a statement Wednesday dispelling rumors about false claims on social media that yellow crosses that were being painted on items, which have been spotted around the county, are not markers for protesters to strategically place bricks or weapons to use to commit violent acts.

In an interview, Lohmann said Smithtown firefighters would also be on duty and town workers would remove trash receptacles from Main Street as a precaution, though he expected a peaceful event. "We're not a racist community," he said. "We embrace people who want to come here. It doesn't matter what race you are, what your religious beliefs are." 

A spokeswoman for Stop & Shop wrote in an email that the company “is incredibly saddened by the death of George Floyd, and we understand the profound impact this has had on our communities. We are aware of the protest slated to take place at our Smithtown store. This protest was not planned by or affiliated with Stop & Shop; however, we do respect the community’s right to protest peacefully.”

A Suffolk police spokeswoman wrote in an email that officers have been present at a number of events where “participants have conducted themselves in a peaceful and lawful manner." 

The purported organizer, whom Garguilo believes is a former Smithtown resident, did not respond to a message sent over Twitter. Dylan Rice, a Smithtown resident who is challenging Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James), said he had exchanged messages with a person whose account gave only the name Caitlin and who said she was 20. 

Rice said Caitlin told him she wanted to prompt discussion about job opportunities, credit-building opportunities and real estate, a sometimes fraught topic for a region with a history of de facto segregation. Rice said he believed her intent was “not to stir violence, but to stir a conversation that needs to happen.” 

Christopher McNamara, Greater Smithtown Chamber of Commerce president, said the business group’s chief message to members was that authorities were working to ensure the event would be peaceful. “I believe in the First Amendment, the right to assembly, the right to protest, and what happened to Mr. Floyd was horrible,” he said. “By the same token,” violent demonstration is unacceptable, he said. “We want to make sure cooler heads prevail.”

Garguilo said town officials were trying to reach the event organizer to offer town hall as a location for the rally because of safety concerns at Stop & Shop, located on a hill where cars sometimes speed. 

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