By Alec Giufurta, Cayla Bamberger and Gabriela Carroll
Hundreds of protesters filled the streets of Bridgehampton Tuesday evening in a display of both community and urgency, joining dissenters across the nation in an outcry over police brutality and systematic racism in America.
By around 5 p.m., the demonstrators flooded the lawn of the Bridgehampton Community House — the start and finish location for the protest. Signs in hand, they prepared to march on Montauk Highway, which was closed by Southampton Town Police.
As they walked, their chants echoed cries heard across the nation: “Say his name! George Floyd!” and “I can’t breathe!”
Protests have rocked over 140 cities nationwide over the past week after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and murder of Ahmaud Arbery by white men in Georgia, ignited long-standing tensions over charges of racial inequality and discriminatory policing in the United States.
“Injustice has reached a boiling point yet again,” said Lydia Carlston, a protester from Southampton. “There’s no way we can sit back and be silent. I just had to be here.”
At the event’s climax, protesters took to the ground, some kneeling, others facedown on the pavement. They held still for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the time that Minneapolis
Police Department Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd, killing him.
“I’m asthmatic and I wore this mask for five minutes,” said Justine Jiles, 29, of East Hampton, while kneeling on the side of the road. Fighting back tears, she continued, “I just can’t imagine someone putting their knee on my neck while I laid here on the ground.”
Demonstrations on the eighth day of nationwide unrest Tuesday were notably more peaceful, The New York Times reported. The organized demonstration in Bridgehampton, likewise, stood in contrast to some more violent protests and rioting nationally over the past few days.
Organizer Lisa Votino, 40, of Southampton stressed before the protest that it would be orderly, noting how her 7-year-old daughter would be with her at the event. The protest organizers also coordinated with the Southampton Town Police Department to close the road, according to an officer, and by 7:15 p.m. most of the crowd dispersed.
And while the crowd was predominantly white, the voices at the bullhorn throughout the protest were black — Trevon Jenkins, 19, from Southampton, commanded portions of the crowd.
“No justice, no peace — forget these racist police!” Mr. Jenkins chanted.
After the rally, Mr. Jenkins spoke to the larger implications of the demonstration, noting that while many protesters turned out to fight police brutality, black people are victimized in other ways because of “the white privilege that every white person that walks in America has.”
Though the East End hasn’t had a high-profile case of police brutality, Nia Dawson, 20, a college student and lifelong resident of Bridgehampton, said racism is just as pervasive here but often ignored in the majority-white, affluent area.
“I’ve been here all 20 years of my life, and I’ve experienced more racism than I can count on my hands,” Ms. Dawson said. “Now is the time to speak about things that so many of us have been so quiet about for far too long.”
Tanya Willock, an East Hampton resident, recounted racism that black people experience on the East End, from not being helped at grocery stores to being pulled over more frequently by the police.
“We feel like we’re in this bubble of safety,” said Ms. Willock, 26. “I hope that us doing this will show them that it’s not just everywhere else — it affects us here, as well, and the people of color in this community.”
Others at the protest sensed a reckoning with the beginnings of the civil rights movement.
Joyce Jackson, 72, from Water Mill, grew up in the 1960s as the movement peaked. “It’s like we’re just going back to where we came from, and I can’t,” she said. “I just can’t stand aside and watch this happen.
“I remember when people were lynched,” she said, “so we have gone almost full-circle.”
While recent protests were sparked by Mr. Floyd’s death, the history of police brutality in the United States was not forgotten: One of the main chants, “I can’t breathe,” has roots in the New York City police killing of Eric Garner in 2014, reemerging after Mr. Floyd said those same words at least 16 times, The New York Times reported, while trapped under the officer’s knee.
Even in response to the protests of the past week, police have resorted to violence to suppress often peaceful demonstrators. On Monday afternoon, protesters were tear-gassed in the nation’s capital to allow President Donald Trump to take a photograph at a church.
In Bridgehampton, some protesters, like Tia Weiss, 18, of East Hampton, feared that black people weren’t coming to protest due to fears of police retaliation. “The most important thing to me is that our voices get heard,” Ms. Weiss said.
Taliya Hayes, 21, of East Hampton said she appreciated the range of individual’s ages, races and backgrounds. “When you have this type of unity, nothing but good things can come from it,” she said. “I’m hoping that this is a revolution and serious change comes from this.”
Many black protesters appreciated the turnout by and support of the mostly white crowd.
“It’s up to the majority, which is the white community, to speak on these issues,” said Raya O’Neal, 24, from East Hampton. “It’s not the responsibility of the black people here to educate them and to motivate them to do the right thing.”
In response to national protests, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. released a statement invoking the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to encourage protesters and call for structural change. “Action is necessary now to enact the reforms needed to restore trust between law enforcement and every community that they serve in our state and nation,” the statement read.
Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren released a statement mourning George Floyd, and calling for accountability: “This is not an isolated incident — it is part of an endless cycle of pain experienced by communities of color going back as far as our nation itself.”
Sag Harbor Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy likewise urged those at a 2 p.m. meeting to realize the importance of the moment.
“We need to be better as a country and a community,” she said.
Ms. Mulcahy also acknowledged that a protest slated for Friday in the village was organized “by a young lady who is barely old enough to vote.” She called on residents to not only peacefully protest, but to maintain the momentum of the movement after returning home: “think about what else you can do.”
In Washington, D.C., the president vowed a crackdown on rioting, calling on state governors to deploy the National Guard and allow military police troops to enter cities.
The large-scale event came less than a week after Long Island began a phased reopening of businesses and public spaces closed due to COVID-19. Organizers provided complimentary surgical masks for some protesters, but 6-foot social distancing requirements were not always observed.
But to many in the crowd, the urgency of this moment outweighed the health concern posed by the pandemic.
“I was protesting my life, my brother’s life, my sister’s life, my mom’s life, and every black life that matters,” Mr. Jenkins said.
Additional protests are planned over the weekend across the East End. On Thursday, a 10 a.m. gathering with speakers, as well as a 6 p.m. demonstration, are planned at Agawam Park in Southampton Village. Another protest is organized for Friday in Sag Harbor at noon; a flier instructs participants to meet at the windmill.
In East Hampton, protests are planned on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Herrick Park.