Editorial: Statues And Lives

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There have been numerous Black Lives Matter protests held in Suffolk County in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis in May. Here in the five towns of the East End, there have been nearly a dozen, and they’ve all been well-attended and peaceful — free of violence, free of looting, free of vandalism. Organizers here largely worked directly with police to plan events that are safe and respectful. The events included uplifting speeches and inspiring expressions of solidarity.

It’s a very different picture than you’d get listening to U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin. To hear Mr. Zeldin speak and to read his op-eds and tweets, one would think his district has been overrun by rioters and is rife with mob violence, arson and toppling statues. That couldn’t be further from reality here.

Give Mr. Zeldin his due: His first statement on the death of George Floyd was a strong tweet, just days after, when he said the officer who killed Mr. Floyd “should be arrested, charged, prosecuted & imprisoned for homicide.” He noted, “I come from a law enforcement family & love our police, which makes me that much more disturbed.”

He joined fellow co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations a short time later in a statement “condemning the murder of George Floyd and calling for an end to systematic racism in America.” The statement called his death “nothing less than a modern-day lynching” and noted: “The protests surrounding the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are stark reminders of how deeply embedded racial injustice is in the United States.” He later tweeted, “The whole country is united behind George Floyd and his family.”

It was a strong, courageous stance — the right one. Which makes his steady stream of invective since so baffling.

In tweet after tweet, in op-eds, in statements, Mr. Zeldin has painted a dark picture of America. Ignoring hours and hours of protests, and thousands and thousands of protesters, he has scanned the internet for every brief clip of violence or vandalism, and offered each up, with comment:: “There is good reason for a protest. There is no acceptable reason for this” (May 30). In mid-June: “A ‘mostly peaceful’ protest is not a peaceful protest.” Ten days later: “The people who are tearing down these statues all across our country are breaking the law. Most of these statues are being ripped down illegally. ARREST THEM!”

There was plenty about “looting, arson, illegal toppling of statues, shootings, calls to defund the police” (June 26) and “crazed rhetoric, Marxist organizing and illegal acts” (July 5).

But never another word about the very real issues that sparked the protests in the first place, nor any attempt at a complicated discussion of how to address those grievances and change policing. He’s directed his outrage at the loss of white statues, rather than the loss of Black lives.

Instead, Mr. Zeldin simply doubled down: The answer was more police spending, not less. Appearing on Fox News to discuss calls for cuts to police budgets across the country, Mr. Zeldin insisted: “Americans want law and order. They want safety and security. When they see crimes, they want to see arrests.”

His language began to change: This election, he said, involves “a battle for the soul of our country.” A June 28 tweet: “The soul of our country, which is inherently good, pure and beautiful, is under attack. It must be successfully fought for and defended.”

The congressman has run face-first into the point the protesters are making, but missed it anyway. Americans want to feel safe around law enforcement — not in fear of their lives. He ignores the nuances and the diversity of opinions among people who, at a minimum, want an end to police practices that result in absolutely avoidable deaths.

Had Mr. Zeldin observed just one of the ongoing protests on the East End, he’d know that his constituents here are calling for police officers to be subject to the same laws that they are. There is no evidence of the “American carnage” the president is trying to resurrect, from his inauguration speech, this time targeting fellow Americans instead of immigrants from elsewhere. It’s simply citizens using the First Amendment as it was intended, to bring about change.

Mr. Zeldin, a Republican, voted against the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that passed the Democrat-led House in June. The bill would provide a national police misconduct registry, improve police training, promote de-escalation tactics, prohibit racial profiling, ban “no-knock” warrants, and incentivize chokehold bans.

In a Facebook post the day after the vote, he pointed to the fact that the Republican-controlled Senate doesn’t like to pass bills that the Democratic leaders in Congress are advancing. He took no position on the actual content of the bill.

To take a cue from one of Mr. Zeldin’s tweets, it must be said: A “mostly principled” stance is not a principled stance.

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