Roughly 250 people gathered on Main Street in Riverhead Friday night, standing in solidarity with the tens of thousands seeking asylum into the United States at the country’s southern border — and in protest of the inhumane treatment occurring at ICE detention centers.
The crowd stood in front of the First Congregational Church, and a few storefronts, for the 30-minute “Lights for Liberty: Riverhead, NY” candlelight vigil — part of a national call for action.
Organizer Angela DeVito of South Jamesport is a member of Indivisible North Fork, a group “dedicated to stopping Donald Trump’s dangerous and authoritarian agenda,” according to their Facebook page. She said the motivation behind the peaceful demonstration was to “let our voices join with those across this country and across the world who are protesting this to say, ‘This is not what America is.’ ”
“We do not put children in cages,” she said. “We do not put children in environments with unsanitary conditions where disease can roam rampant and where children die. We don’t separate them from their families. This isn’t America, not my America — which is just as good as anyone else’s.”
Ms. DeVito said she was overwhelmed by the turnout. Residents from Sag Harbor, East Marion, Southold, Greenport, Wading River and Brookhaven Town participated. A silent vigil was held at the start for 15 minutes. Then people who wished to speak addressed the crowd.
“You have to stand up against cruel and inhumane treatment of children in our American concentration camps,” said Mick Hargreaves of Riverhead. “You’ve got to show up and you’ve got to stand up. I was kind of blindsided by the power of the silent candlelight vigil … we’re just shining our little light. And I noticed that the cars passing by, there were neither beeps in support nor catcalls. The cars were passing by silently. So the power of that silence, it seeps through to everybody, I think.”
Mr. Hargreaves said he expected counter-protesting, though less than a handful of individuals stood opposite the demonstrators, looking on without participating.
“It seems to follow a pattern,” Mr. Hargreaves said. “If there’s counter-protestors, they just stand there silently and stare because maybe they don’t have any ideas.”
But, Mr. Hargreaves said, when 250 people are standing on one side of the road against cruelty toward children and inhumane treatment, “to stand on the other side of the road and stand against it necessarily means that you’re for it. And I look at people like that — why does that guy need to stand over there? Why isn’t he with us?”
Rev. Sean Murray, pastor at the First Congregational Church, said it is important not to underestimate the power of prayer.
“This is effective,” he said, “because this is just people standing in solidarity. And people founded our nation and make a difference.”
Kevin Salvatore of Sag Harbor, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, said that there is a great deal of anger being directed toward individuals and small numbers of individuals within the Trump administration. The ICE immigration detention centers, which many are likening to concentration camps, started before this administration.
“[They] started under Bush around 2003, I believe,” he said. “They continued fine under Obama. So, this is something that is much broader than just say, Trump. Trump is a very ugly manifestation of a very normal and very American aspect. And a lot of it has to do with white supremacy and capitalism and so, the concentration camps that are kidnapping refugees caused by the wars we’ve initiated down in Honduras, the governments we’ve destroyed because let’s say they are not favorable to us — those refugees are fleeing our conflicts.”
A number of those who seized the opportunity to speak to the crowd discussed their ancestor’s trials and tribulations entering America. One woman spoke of the empty Riverhead streets she has recently taken note of — saying the fear people are living with, is evident.
“People are afraid that their children are going to be ripped out of their arms and that they are going to be detained,” she said.
Another woman spoke of how discussions can be had with those who have opposing views.
“I think if each one of us goes out and finds those people who are just so blocked with hate, and are just not getting it – if we can each try to reach one or two of them, maybe we can start to make a difference and maybe there’s a ripple effect that we can kick into motion.”
Maxine Kleedorfer of Calverton said to the group: “It’s happening all over again. I feel that these camps are concentration camps and like they always said, ‘First, they come for the Jews, then they come for the Protestants, then they come for the Catholics. Who’s going to be left?” she asked. “We can’t allow this to go on again. Not in our country in 2019.”
Those in attendance agreed that the silence was powerful.
“You have to stand there and think about why you’re there,” Mr. Hargreaves said. “You stand there in silence, and pretty much all I can do is review the photos I’ve seen.”
Rev. Valerie Freseman, a minister at First Universalist Church of Southold, said her faith calls her to act with justice and compassion toward people and to respect everybody’s dignity and worth.
“This mandate to help the stranger in our land is one of the oldest tenets that there is,” she said. “It cuts across many different religious traditions … No matter what city we’re in, I think that we need to speak up and say something and let our voices be heard in whatever way possible.”
Ms. DeVito said the level of divisiveness and hate that she sees in America today is far greater than it was in the ’60s when she was growing up.
“We’ve really truly pigeonholed people and we’ve created a lot of fear,” she said. “There is a lot of fear and it’s not just for people who fear that they’re going to be asked for documentation, it’s everybody.”
Top photo caption: Demonstrators in Riverhead Friday night. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)