It has been a year of troubling news about race relations and lingering questions about civil rights, both nationally and locally. In recent weeks, rioting broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, over alleged police brutality and the killing of a young black man by a policeman. In nearby Hampton Bays, an alleged local representative of the Ku Klux Klan anonymously distributed racist pamphlets urging people to join the hate group.
At a meeting of the East Hampton Anti-Bias Task Force at Town Hall last week, which also included officials from Southampton Town, Lucius Ware, president of the Eastern Long Island chapter of the NAACP, touched upon the incidents and said there is still a significant need to fight racism by teaching tolerance.
“The necessity is now as ever it has been in the past,” he said. “The amount of hatred that is spewed today is more so in many ways that I have ever encountered in my relatively long years on this earth.”
Saying that police brutality has always been an issue, Mr. Ware noted the recent militarization of police, where departments are using heavy military equipment as a show of force. “We should be aware of that, and certainly, as citizens and community organizations, it is incumbent upon our towns and various police departments to be open about the equipment they’re using,” he said, mentioning what he called an overuse of Tasers to restrain people. “If you give a person enough time, whatever their situation is, they will calm down.”
The NAACP and Mr. Ware requested that Southampton and East Hampton towns make a strong statement after the KKK dropped fliers in Hampton Bays, as well as in Shirley and West Babylon, in August and September.
“Those fliers would not have appeared in Hampton Bays or up-island unless somebody thought that they’d be welcomed,” he said. “I would hope that our elected officials would let it be known [that] this is not the place for that, and do everything they can not to tolerate this.”
Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming said that although it didn’t appear as though the KKK targeted anyone in particular, the town should try to make the recruitment activities stop. She said Southampton Town is planning to screen a documentary called “The Shadow of Hate,” to promote respectful dialogue. East Hampton Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby said East Hampton Town also would show the documentary in the near future.
Mr. Ware insisted that words have an effect on race relations and illustrated that leading up to and during President Barack Obama’s time in office, people who questioned his birth records and vowed to “defeat everything he has to offer” were abetting racism.
East Hampton resident Rosa Scott questioned whether race relations have improved since President Obama took office. “In certain respects, certain things are better, but others, I think, are worse,” Mr. Ware replied. “Every single day, his actions or inactions get the most harsh criticism, more than any president in my lifetime,” he said, referring to Mr. Obama.
According to resident Judith Mitchell, African-Americans of all backgrounds are still being criticized on Long Island simply because of the color of their skin. “A young Jamaican college student told me that while working at King Kullen, a white customer told the manager that she didn’t want a black girl waiting on her,” she said.
An East Hampton resident, who asked not to be named, said there should be more celebration of successful African-Americans who were born and raised in East Hampton.
But Thelma Harris of Southampton said it’s not about being outstanding.
“I’m a common person, and I don’t want to be outstanding. I want to live where I want to live and not be frightened because of my color and forced to live in a neighborhood that is wretched,” she said. “My husband and I make six figures, but we were shown houses in the lowest possible neighborhood in the Town of Southampton. We’re interested in being able to have a home and a decent job, comparable to the way you live,” she said, referring to a white resident.
Due to the issues raised at the joint town meeting with the task force, town officials will schedule another meeting with Mr. Ware to discuss local race relations in a roundtable format.