By Sandra Dunn
month has passed since the murder of Marcelo Lucero in the Village of Patchogue. This act has left this seemingly quiet village—located about 18 miles from Southampton Town’s westernmost hamlet—reeling, and, together with Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, the county police force, and Levy’s hand-picked Hispanic Advisory Board, scrambling to come up with explanations and solutions.
Much that’s positive is going on in Patchogue and in other places on Long Island: task forces have been formed, events intended to help and heal a wounded community—both immigrant and native-born—have been held in churches and libraries, and multiple vigils and press conferences have called attention to the enormity of the crime.
Yet this story, in spite of its horrific implications for Long Island, has begun to disappear from the mainstream press. And a desire on the part of some to “not dwell on the past” and to “move on” has taken hold.
Out of respect for Mr. Lucero, his family, the immigrant community, and our collective future as Long Island residents, we should not move on until we have reached clarity. We must understand the incident properly, draw the right conclusions, and take appropriate action to unite a divided community.
Mr. Levy’s move to place the bulk of the blame on the seven teenagers charged with the crime is wrong. They are channeling their violent tendencies in a direction the surrounding culture established for them, or at least suggested and clearly permitted until it resulted in a death. His resorting to name calling when he labeled them “white supremacists” and his repeated insistence that the crime was solely about racism and hatred are clearly designed both to distance himself from and to oversimplify the complexity of this violent act.
The reality is as complicated as the swastika inside the Jewish Star of David on Jordan Dasch’s MySpace page; the swastika on the ankle of Jeffrey Conroy, whose friends of all colors showed up to support him at the arraignment; and the participation of boys with Hispanic heritage in the “beaner jumping” spree.
But this does not mean the incident is inexplicable. Whatever racist attitudes may have been at work in the collective mentality of this 21st century lynch mob, at least equally important is that they went “beaner jumping” because their habit of violence—occurring as frequently as once a week, according to one boy—required victims who were structurally vulnerable. That structural vulnerability was created by a set of laws, administrative actions, police practices, and a general climate characterized by inflammatory rhetoric and scapegoating for political purposes around the immigration issue. Mr. Levy created a situation where he could boast that there was only one hate crime in 2007, after creating a system that suppressed reporting of crimes by immigrants.
Increasing numbers of Long Island residents and leaders are urging the Suffolk County Legislature to refrain from enacting legislation that targets immigrants in a negative or punitive way. Likewise, each town, hamlet, and village should review its practices and the tone set by its government and community leaders.
So while the ground in Patchogue and even here in Southampton is stirring with energy, ideas and goodwill, without leadership from our elected officials in the form of a real willingness to tackle difficult issues in positive, forward-thinking ways, any grassroots efforts will be Band-Aid solutions at best.
In Southampton, we cannot afford to remain asleep and silent, as we have for many years, about the fact that immigrants have been showing up in our town to tend our lawns; to paint, build and clean our houses; and to care for our children. We cannot sit by complacently thinking, “It’s Patchogue’s (or Farmingville’s) problem, not ours,” or “That could never happen here.” We need only remember the deplorable acts that have occurred in our town as well as in neighboring East Hampton. (Recall May 2006 in East Hampton, when white teenage boys lured three Latino teens into a backyard shed and proceeded to tie them up and threaten them with a machete and a running chainsaw, while hurling racist insults at them.)
The town has an opportunity to be proactive and inclusive—to distinguish itself as a leader in local responses to immigration—with proposals and legislation that foster integration, respect and unity rather than exclusion, intolerance and division.
To this end, many South Fork elected officials, representatives from the business and education sectors, and other concerned citizens, with the leadership of State Assemblyman Fred Thiele and U.S. Representative Tim Bishop, and at the urging of many East End clergy members, have begun meeting to formulate a positive agenda to address the area’s changing demographics and local responses to it. As Patchogue, Southampton, and East Hampton begin to work proactively on ways to ease tensions in our communities, surrounding Suffolk municipalities may be inspired to do the same, realizing that the only approach to immigration—and the community’s reaction to it—that will work must be rooted in pragmatism, common sense, and reality.
Immigrants, regardless of the documents they had or didn’t have when they arrived, are here to stay, just as they have been at every other time when they’ve landed on American soil in large numbers, whether seeking religious freedom in the 17th century or seeking economic freedom through work and better opportunities for their families as they do now. Our town’s future depends on our leaders waking up to this fact and pursuing solutions that strive to unite, include and integrate all of our residents, not just those who were fortunate enough to be born here or to enter the country legally.
Our neighbors, our coworkers, our children’s classmates—whether they are native-born or immigrants—deserve this effort. Southampton Town’s future depends on it.