Black Lives Matter Protester Walks From Manhattan To Montauk ‘Lighting One Candle At A Time’

Taking a breather on the trek from Westhampton to Hampton Bays on Sunday. KITTY MERRILL

Leon Goodman’s silent march to protest police brutality isn’t exactly silent. As the 69-year-old Bay Shore resident is walking 118 miles this week from Manhattan’s 59th Street Bridge to the Montauk Lighthouse, he’s got a lot to say.

And that’s his goal.

“My mission I’m on,” he said, “is to engage people in conversation, those that would have it.”

A retired human resources professional for the MTA, Mr. Goodman hopes to interact with people along his march through the villages and towns of Long Island’s South Shore. Most days before he sets out, or after he’s completed his daily mileage, he shares stories of the people he meets along the way and conversations he has. His attire for the protest, sans bullhorn, chants or placards, is a black T-shirt and a black hat with the message “Black Lives Matter.”

Soft spoken, articulate, and elegant — even in T-shirt and special athletic shoes ( more on those later ) — Mr. Goodman explained his decision to march. As national unrest erupted in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, “one of the things I noticed from afar, the demonstrations became … some people decided to politicize what the demonstrators were doing and focus on businesses being burned, clashes with the police, I just sat back and said the message is getting lost. And the message is Breonna Taylor was shot while she was sleeping … the noise has been drowning out the message. I decided my march would be silent, because I’m from the old school, and the old school says silence is deafening.”

He’s adamantly not anti-police, he insists. “My march is not an anti-police march. My march is a march against acts of police brutality.” In fact, Mr. Goodman can point to an endorsement from MTA police he used to work with. “That’s a great honor,” he said.

“One of the retired officers, he said, ‘We know he’s right. We know he’s sincere. We know he’s honest.’ They looked at what I’m doing and said this makes sense.”

Organizers of Black Lives Matter protests and rallies on the East End agree. Willie Jenkins said, during an October 5 Facebook Live, “I honor and respect his efforts. We 100 percent support what he’s doing.” Like fellow activist and organizer Lisa Votino, Mr. Jenkins met up with Mr. Goodman when he reached the East End. “When he gets to the East End, we’re going to take care of him,” he said late last week. “We want to support him and share his story.”

“Needless to say, I absolutely love Leon,” Ms. Votino said Thursday. “Once he gets out here, we’ll have him covered.”

The pair encouraged community members to “consider keeping Leon company for a couple of miles along his way.”

“Find out why he felt driven to do this,” Ms. Votino said.

Mr. Goodman can list an array of reasons. His granddaughter is the same age as Breonna Taylor, shot in her sleep by police in Kentucky. A grand jury failed to indict the officers last week. By contrast, Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people while they were praying in church, was taken to Burger King for dinner after his peaceful arrest. The Boston Marathon shooter was peacefully arrested, and a young boy, Tamir Rice, was shot within five seconds while walking through a park with a toy gun. “We see treatment that is not equal,” Mr. Goodman said, succinctly.

Police departments need to stop closing ranks on what some describe as “a few bad apples,” he said. Senior management needs to get rid of people who are besmirching their department’s reputation.

“We all support law enforcement,” he stressed, but he asks Back the Blue and Blue Lives Matter advocates, “When you say you support the police, does that mean regardless?”
When tennis champion Naomi Osaka competed in the U.S. Open in Forest Hills, each day wearing a mask with the name of a black person killed by police, a reporter asked her what it meant. “She asked, ‘What does it mean to you?’” Mr Goodman recounted. She used her platform to generate the thought process, he noted.

“That was the thing that really inspired me … I don’t have the same platform as Naomi Osaka,” he said. “The only thing I have is the strength that God has given me, the muscles in my legs to put one foot in front of the other and walk from the 59th Street Bridge to the Montauk Lighthouse.”

As he spoke of his reason for embarking on the 118-mile trek, he allowed, “The idea just came to me. One morning I just woke up and said this is something I have to do.”
No stranger to racial profiling and prejudice, Mr. Goodman grew up in the South during the 1950s, when beatings and lynchings were what Black people could expect if they dared challenge Jim Crow laws.

Moving north and beginning to raise his own family, Mr. Goodman experienced profiling and tells the story of taking his 12-year-old son to Syms to buy a suit. “We were walking through the store and my son grabbed my arm and asked, ‘Why is that man following us?’”

It was store security and a scenario that plays out frequently when an African American is shopping, a story told any given Saturday at Black barber shops around the island, Mr. Goodman said.

The stories Mr. Goodman had to tell of his march so far, were uplifting. “The most unique phenomenon are the people who I run into along the way. I tell them what I’m doing and people share with me what they’re going though,” he said. He was walking through Queens and passed a community center that was hosting a health fair. A vendor there offered him a mask. Taking it, he thanked her and told her he’d just given his spare mask to a homeless man a few miles back.

“I gave away the extra mask I was carrying,” he said. “It was replaced down the road.” When he told her what he was doing, “She literally started crying. She said, ‘You don’t know how this touches me. I have two sons and every night when they go out, I worry if they’re going to come back.’”

Further east, he met a biker in Wantagh. “He said, “I feel really bad about what’s happening. I’m sorry. Let me give you some money.”

“I told him, ‘No thank you, this is not about me. This is about the acts of police brutality. And my walk is a response to that.’” But then, Mr. Goodman continued, sighing, “he ended the conversation by saying if only they’d complied, they’d still be alive.” From there, the protester said, the conversation became, “Let me tell you what we see, as African Americans.”

Since his march and concurrent posts on social media commenced, Mr. Goodman said he’s been heartened by the responses. After he told the story of a conversation with a person he passed along the way, a friend opined, “That’s lighting one candle at a time.”

“It dawned on me, that’s what my march is about,” he said. “One candle at a time. I may not change many minds. But the minds of people who take the time to listen to why I’m doing what I’m doing, either it’ll make them more staunch in their opposition to what I’m trying to do, or they’ll say, ‘Wow, I never thought of it that way.’”

As he lights those single candles, Mr. Goodman is grateful for the support he’s received and determined to keep his march low key. “Unless someone asks me what I’m doing, I’m just a guy walking down the block wearing attire that makes a statement,” he said.

As for his fancy footwear, Mr. Goodman is not a long distance walker. After seven days walking, on Thursday, he was feeling good, and energetic, and expressed fascination with smart sneakers that measure his mileage, steps, and even send inspirational messages through Bluetooth. Covering 10 to 11 miles per day, his route along the South Shore comprises legs from train station to train station. Reaching the day’s destination, he’ll board a train and head back to Bay Shore.

Mary Alyce Rogers and Dr. Alexis Gersten drove up and down Montauk Highway from Westhampton to Shirley on Friday, looking for Mr. Goodman. Finally seeing him on the side of the road, Ms. Rogers sprung from the car hoisting a sign that says “Black Lives Matter.”

“I wanted you to see that,”she told Mr. Goodman. Tears flowed.“We were having our moment, and all of a sudden, this maybe 35-year-old white male rides by on bicycle, and I’m thinking he’s going to say something positive, it was a beautiful moment, and he said something.”

“What he said was, ‘More white people are killed by police than Black people,’” Mr. Goodman related.

“He made one of those ridiculous fake news statements,” Ms. Rogers continued.
She swore at him, but Mr. Goodman asked, “Why don’t we converse about it, so we can have a dialogue?”

The man yelled the statement again.

And then it escalated.

“I stood between them, because I am not going to let anything happen to this brave incredible man who’s walking to Montauk for all of us,” Ms. Rogers recounted.
Luckily, she said, the man spoke of his time in the service, and “eventually he disappeared.”

He didn’t want to have the dialogue, and, Mr. Goodman observed, “All I can say is that this march made me even more aware of the circumstances by which we live, and it’s also given me the opportunity to communicate with people.”

Sometimes those communications are brief, and silent.

Earlier Friday, Mr. Jenkins and Cierra Gioielli, East End BLM organizers, met Mr. Goodman to walk through Center Moriches. The trio came to an intersection, and stopped.

“A gentleman in a truck pulled up,” Mr. Jenkins said. “He had the typical Trump flag in the back and he had the big police flag on the other side of the truck. He looked at us and, obviously we’re all wearing Black Lives Matter stuff and, we looked at him.”

“We looked at him, and we smiled,” he added. “Cierra waved at him. We smiled, he smiled at us and was on his way.”

Mr. Jenkins continued, “That’s how it should be. Just because you disagree with somebody’s views, you don’t have to berate them or talk crazy to them … He has his view, and I’m sorry he feels that way, but that’s his opinion. … And that’s everybody’s right. That’s what makes America actually great.”

“Step back and be human,” the activist said. “You can have your opinion and voice, but be respectful … and you can still get your point across. Mr. Goodman is getting his point across and it’s spreading.”

Filmed on Facebook Live as he walked with Ms. Rogers and Dr. Gersten, Mr. Goodman asked his companion Friday afternoon, “Tell me why you’re out here.”

“I’m out here because you matter,” Ms. Rogers said. “I’m out here because you matter to me.”

She said she “got robbed” growing up in a “red line district” on Long Island and didn’t even get to meet any Black people until she moved to New York City.

Long Island is among the top 10 most segregated metropolitan communities in the nation.

“This is a really messed up way to live and I want to change my community, Westhampton Beach, to be something different,” Ms. Rogers said.

She has two biracial children, one looks Black, “and I saw how they were treated differently and it’s insane and it has to change.”

Holding her infant daughter, who’s 18 now, swaddled in a baby carrier against her chest, Ms. Rogers was in a local card store when she overheard two white teenage girls talking about how they didn’t want to travel to watch the local basketball team play in Wyandanch “because there were too many black people there … and I started shaking, and I’m thinking, “Holy crap, I’m raising her in this town.”

She approached the teens telling them they can’t make racist statements in a public place. “And they said, ‘We’re not racist’… And they really did not believe they were. And that was my first indication that this is a scary place … it’s really not very evolved, it’s a little bubble. And we’ve been experiencing things like this through my daughter’s eyes the entire time … Microaggressions people with white skin don’t go through and don’t understand.”

People don’t want to know, don’t want to confront their underpinnings of racism because it’s uncomfortable, the white mom said. “But we have to know and we have to grow and we have to be together.”

An “amazing” coalition of Westhampton Beach School alumni has formed in the village, with a focus on equity, equality and racial justice, Ms. Rogers reported. “At first I thought it was gonna be BS, but it’s the real deal,” she said. The School District hired consultants, two Black professionals, to guide the group through the process.

At the first meeting of about 75 people, she recounted a young, white, male police officer said he’d been to diversity training, but realized there was more to know. “He said, ‘I joined this group because I want to learn more,’” she said. Interacting in diverse groups is how, Ms. Rogers said, “We can come together and we can make change.”

“I walked with Mr. Goodman today to welcome him to our community and to keep him company while he walked,” Dr. Gersten said. “He’s a lovely man.”

By the end of the eighth day on the road, Mr. Goodman completed 86.67 miles.

Leon Goodman

He was clearly surprised and delighted Sunday afternoon when he began to offer an update. Filming a Facebook Live post at the train station in Westhampton he was greeted by Zoe Oka of Riverside. She displayed a poster — a portrait of Trayvon Martin inscribed with the words by civil rights activist Ella Baker, circa 1964: “Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”

“I was in shock,” Mr. Goodman related Monday. “It was so totally unexpected. But so many positive things have happened so far, I shouldn’t have been shocked.”

John Donahue and Melissa Sidor, Westhampton residents, walked up to join him. Then, Mary Alyce Rogers joined, as did Cierra Gioielli. With Ms. Oka providing an escort car, staying nearby with snacks, extra masks, and water, the group hiked from Westhampton to Hampton Bays on Sunday afternoon, covering about 9 miles.

The hours and miles passed amiably. Several passing drivers honked their horns in a show of support; the passenger in one Jeep hollered, “Trump 2020.”

On Sunday, Mr. Goodman’s aim of having positive dialogue with people he met along the way morphed into bonding with supporters and new friends. Barring a police officer in Quogue inquiring about Ms. Oka’s car periodically stopping along the shoulder, no strangers confronted the group or its leader with questions. Instead, Mr. Goodman solidified budding relationships with supporters who walked along with him, pausing to document the journey with photos at municipalities’ entrance signs.

In East Quogue, a repeat of a moment from Friday. As the group ambled down Main Street, Kim Galway stepped out, held high a sign that said “Black Lives Matter,” and joined the march for a few miles. She said she was honored to welcome him to East Quogue. Ms. Rogers had done the same in Eastport on Friday.

At the outskirts of Hampton Bays, Ms. Votino joined, too. An activist who organized myriad BLM rallies on the East End, she said, “I joined Leon for two main reasons. The first is that I love our community. It is an honor to walk with him through the East End and share our community with him. Second, there have been those that criticized the Black Lives Matter movement because of the protests. Now we are silently walking to protest police brutality. What will the criticism be now? I honestly hope that if someone is criticizing, that they come have a conversation with us.”

“It feels good to continue the movement to make black lives matter,” Ms. Votino continued. “Protests are great, but this is an issue that we will have to find ways everyday to keep the message going.”

Asked to describe why she felt compelled to meet and join Mr. Goodman, Ms. Oka said, “I am happy to do anything I can, or participate in, for the Black Lives Matter movement. I have always been anti-racism and abuse of power, especially police brutality. This far out east, there is limited opportunity. Leon’s walk is symbolic and inspirational, so I stopped everything to join in.”

The day’s walk passed without negative interaction, but as members of the group gathered at a local restaurant for dinner afterward, they were approached by a woman who seemed intoxicated. “She got up and started yelling at us,” Mr. Goodman recounted. “She said “I’m here to have dinner. I’m sick of this politics. Take that shit someplace else.”

Later, after she left, a woman who had been sitting with her apologized, and said she was embarrassed and supported the BLM movement.

With heavy rains predicted for Monday and Tuesday, Mr. Goodman planned to resume his march on Wednesday and travel from the Hampton Bays train station to Southampton. He hopes to reach the Lighthouse by Saturday.