By Larry Gordon
On Tuesday, people in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway were in a panic. Owners of stores on Central Avenue spent the day boarding up their storefronts and posting signs that said “For Rent,” in the hope that potential marauders would believe the stores were empty and that there was nothing inside to steal.
After Mayor de Blasio announced a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. in the five boroughs, the mayor of Cedarhurst, Ben Weinstock, and the mayor of Lawrence, Alex Edelman, announced their own curfew of 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. A day later it was clear that this was a miscalculation that only instilled greater fear in residents of our Five Towns communities.
It turns out that this error was the result of watching too much news coverage of the violence and failing to understand that it is possible for there to be peaceful demonstration that calls attention to what some people feel is systemic racism in police departments around the country.
There are 800,000 police officers in this country and the overwhelming number of them do an outstanding job of protecting citizens in the communities they work patrol. There are, unfortunately, those who do bad things like the police officer who apparently killed George Floyd. That is not cause enough, despite the tragedy, to conclude that racism is pervasive in police departments. It seems that if you refuse to submit to that position, you are considered a major part of the national problem.
The preparation for possible trouble here on Long Island required coordination between two police departments — one in Far Rockaway, which is part of Queens, and the other in Nassau County. These departments have different types of orders they are charged with executing. As it turns out, both worked seamlessly in tandem with one another. The NYPD in Queens seemed to be allowed to run their own show, as the commissioner and Mayor de Blasio have their hands full with rioting and looting in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Overnight Monday and throughout the day on Tuesday there was a series of meetings between elected officials, police brass, and community leaders discussing the possibility that groups might break away and make their way across the Queens-Nassau border and begin breaking into and looting stores on Central Avenue.
More than a few residents in Lawrence and Cedarhurst hired private armed security guards to patrol their blocks overnight. A drive up Central Avenue before dark on Tuesday showed that some businesses emptied their stores of all inventory. Some were jewelry or silver stores; others sold children’s clothing or electrical appliances. The phrase we heard all day Tuesday about why business owners were taking such drastic action was, “Better safe than sorry.”
This doesn’t mean that what is happening in so many parts of the U.S. cannot happen here. But the involvement of longtime African-American community leaders like Congressman Gregory Meeks and City Councilman Donovan Richards, and the ongoing dialogue between Jewish community leaders and local church pastors made a productive and peaceful demonstration possible.
I was reluctant about going out to see what was going on up close, but after speaking with Shulem Klein and Shmuli Kassover of the Rockaway-Nassau Security Patrol (RNSP), I went along. After spending a couple of hours out there I came to the realization that I, too, was a victim of actions that flung a good part of the area into a panic.
Before we headed out, I spoke with Reuven Guttman who told me earlier in the day that he was going to assemble with the multitudes at the train station on Mott Street, the starting point of the march. He called me at about 6:30 p.m. to say that he was there and there were about 300 people assembled and beginning to move in the direction of Seagirt Boulevard.
I thought that this was a surprisingly underwhelming number, so when Shmuli texted to ask if I was ready, I said yes, and Esta and I jumped into his pickup truck and were on our way into the vortex of the news story.
This is a complicated story. More than anything, we have been victimized by a nonstop dose of news about wild and extreme violence. We hear about how most protests of Mr. Floyd’s death are peaceful and genuinely concerned about unbalanced police treatment of black men, but our thinking is clouded by violence, looting, and more violence.
So this is a tribute to all the leaders and police officers in Far Rockaway and Nassau County for being prepared for any eventuality. Prior to the event, the police expressed that they were confident that the march would be controlled and peaceful. The only issue was what would happen after the protest overlooking the Atlantic Ocean would break up, and whether there would be small groups of Antifa and other radical groups that would agitate and lead some people in the direction of violence.
The RNSP members are, to an extent, the eyes and ears of both the 101st precinct in Far Rockaway and the 4th precinct in the Five Towns. As we drove around, we stopped at several locations to talk with police. There was a clear and obvious police presence at all our shuls and yeshivas. They knew Shmuli Kassover, and when Shmuli received a call about some men hiding in bushes near Route 878, we scooted over quickly only to find about a half-dozen officers already there and having dealt with the problem. As we chatted, an SUV pulled up to the entrance of Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv with Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder inside the vehicle. The commissioner was on the scene and checking key points in the patrol strategy that was designed to avoid conflict and keep everyone safe.
The odd thing here was that after almost ten weeks of no local minyanim because of the coronavirus, most Minchah–Ma’ariv minyanim were canceled a few days after they started. The Agudath Israel of America issued a statement on Tuesday afternoon that religious services were deemed an essential service and were exempt from the curfew. Many so-called backyard minyanim took place, but once again the shuls were dark and locked up.
Demonstrating and expressing your opinion is an American right. Violence and looting are criminal acts. Unfortunately and to our detriment, Mayor Bill de Blasio has blurred that distinction. Here in the Five Towns, in our efforts to be careful we were thrown into a panic. Hopefully, next time we will know better. The lesson learned here is that we can indeed all work together.