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Don’t let Donald Trump visit stir up racial tension in Patchogue

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign rally, Wednesday, April 6, 2016, in Bethpage. Suffolk Republicans said Trump will headline a fundraiser Thursday, April 14, in Patchogue. Credit: AP

Barriers will be erected Thursday night in Patchogue. That is both sad and ironic.

The village has tried hard to tear down walls between Latinos and other residents since the night of Nov. 8, 2008. That’s when Patchogue became the national epicenter of violence against immigrants, a stain affixed after Ecuadorean-born Marcelo Lucero was stabbed to death by seven teenagers. And things have changed for the better. Relations are improved. Immigrants have stepped out of the shadows. Last month, the best-in-parade award at the village’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration went to a group of Ecuadorean step dancers.

Now presidential contender Donald Trump is coming to the village to speak at a Suffolk County Republican Party fundraiser. Police will put up barriers to close some roads and parking lots to control anticipated crowds. They are alarmed at the specter of violence — an understandable concern given Trump’s incendiary language about immigrants, physical confrontations between opponents and supporters at many Trump rallies, and the likelihood that members of both factions will descend on Patchogue. This will be a test of county police and the Secret Service — and of protesters on both sides. They must respect each other’s right to speak, no matter how much they disagree.

Critics say the event should be canceled because the club at which it will be held is only 200 yards from the spot where Lucero was killed. But the distance is not really the issue. Would a spot one mile away have been any more acceptable? The fundraiser was planned there well before Trump accepted an invitation last week to appear at it. More powerful is the contention that his visit is opening old wounds.

We understand, though the stormy reaction also contributes to that. Eight years ago was indeed a dark time in Patchogue — and in Suffolk, where anti-Latino sentiment was widespread. None of the seven teens was from the village, but they descended on it one autumn night to engage in a pastime they called “beaner hopping.” As one of the seven said in court, “It’s when you go out and look for Hispanics to beat up.”

It was ugly and incomprehensible then and now. And as much as one might hear that hateful echo in Trump’s words today, it does not negate his right to speak. More important, his trip is a chance for Patchogue to tell the story of its progress. It’s hard to overstate the time and effort that went into building bridges within the community. Mayor Paul Pontieri worked with the library, county police, houses of worship, business leaders, Patchogue-Medford High School, and the residents themselves to try to build familiarity, trust and friendship. It’s made a difference. Some 35 percent of Patchogue’s residents are Latino and they live throughout the village, not concentrated in one neighborhood. That’s the counter to Trump. And yet, Pontieri says, “I sit here, and my stomach turns the way it did eight years ago.”

In the aftermath of his brother’s killing and in the midst of Patchogue’s renewal, Joselo Lucero told Pontieri, “It was a shame my brother had to die for us all to come together.”

It would be shameful, too, if a visit from Trump rips Patchogue apart again. — The editorial board