A group of young people from Huntington met with state, county, town and community leaders to demand equality following a racist Facebook rant directed at them while they peacefully marched against police brutality at a George Floyd protest early this month.
The young people, part of a new organization called Leaders of the New School, said they were upset at being disparaged in such a hateful way and they wanted to turn a negative experience into a catalyst for change in their community. That meant addressing racism head-on with those in power.
“We feel like we are going to bring a lot of problems to the attention of the town council and a lot of important people on Long Island,” said Amaru Jones, 22, of Huntington Station. Officials need to acknowledge what is happening in the community, he said, and to "promote diversity and inclusion." Jones is one of the founders of the Leaders of the New School and a recent college graduate who will soon start a job as a U.S. history teacher.
The group has held three peaceful marches through town and captured the attention of those they had targeted for a meeting: elected officials.
Among those at the meeting were Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart; District Attorney Timothy Sini; State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport); Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci and town board members Mark Cuthbertson, Joan Cergol and Ed Smyth; and the superintendents from the Huntington and South Huntington school districts.
The officials at the three-hour meeting last Thursday in Northport patiently answered the well-researched and sometimes pointed questions on such topics as policing policy, town hiring practices as they relate to minorities, and ways government can help single-parent households and protect people living here illegally.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone couldn’t be at the meeting but sent Deputy County Executive Vanessa Baird Streeter. Bellone has agreed to meet with the group on June 23.
The meeting gave the newly minted community leaders an opportunity to speak with officials, who agreed to hold future meetings and promised to get back to the young people with responses to unanswered questions.
Kevin Thorbourne, the group’s mentor, said the point was to get the conversation started and to show the young people they have the power to hold elected officials accountable.
Thorbourne said for the past three weeks group members had spent hours each night talking, studying and researching to get ready for the meeting. He uses a sports analogy to convey the benefit of commitment and focus.
“I tell them don’t practice halfway all week and then bring your game on Saturday,” Thorbourne said. “You have to bring it hard every day. And they did. They were prepared.”
The catalyst for forming the New School organization was the Facebook rant of Luigi Petrone, co-owner at the time of Tutto Pazzo restaurant on New York Avenue. He went live as the young people marched June 1 in downtown Huntington, calling them “punks” and “little animals, savages.” He also threatened to bombard them with watermelons.
Huntington resident Gabrielle Salko, 20, a Marist College student and a New School member, said the meeting with elected officials was about bringing change.
“Police brutality and systemic racism is real and it’s happening in your community to people you know and others you may love,” she said. “It’s something as a country we are reckoning with and it’s time we really move forward on these issues.”