Commentary: Bridge the Gaps which Separate Us

by Michael O'Neill

Two years ago, the East Hampton Anti-Bias Task Force invited the police departments from Southampton and East Hampton to a viewing of the acclaimed film, “Farmingville” and to hear from then Farmingville Police Chief Kenneth Rau, Det. Sgt. Robert Reecks of the Suffolk Anti-Hate Crime Unit, and Joseph Rizzo, Special Agent of Homeland Security (the old INS) who had been dispatched to communities having notable difficulties between racial or ethnic groups to help calm potential hot spots and discuss policies of municipal policing that could facilitate resolution of conflict.

A Year + Surveillance

Chief Rau had stationed an officer near the scene of the day laborers' shape-up site in an unmarked car after recording complaints that men were urinating in the open, making lewd comments to female passers-by, threatening people, fighting and littering " the exact same charges cited by the mayor of the East Hampton Village and repeated to the newspaper as true.

He made it a habit of stopping by for 10 or 15 minutes every morning for a year and a half before the outbreak of turmoil that made Farmingville synonymous with nativism opposing immigrants.

He told the South Fork police that he had initially accepted the charges as true, but after many months he saw clearly that the charges were false, completely fabricated.

Quite the opposite, the accused men were the object of racist curses, had objects tossed at them, and had cars swerve as if to run them down. Hostile individuals photographed them or drivers who stopped to hire them.

Time Breeds Respect

Over time he grew to respect these men who were only trying to earn a living lawfully. He and his officers found them respectful and cooperative. In fact, the police attention helped stopping the robbery of these men that had been occurring frequently. They were instrumental in settling disputes between employers and day laborers, going after one person in particular who had cheated several men of wages. He noted that even with the police mediation these men always got the short end of the stick. He added sometimes problems did arise with the workers, but then they helped, including bringing in a culprit accused of stealing something from a job site.

Lessons from Other Areas

Agent Joseph Rizzo gave added examples from communities in NJ, NY, CT and PA. He reported that planned policies for the new immigrants reduced the tensions and helped deal with strains in the fabric of social cohesion, but he said the police can not be expected to do the work of elected officials, churches, schools and other institutions bridging the gaps of separation between different elements of the community.

Bridge the Gaps

The South Fork sorely needs its churches and other institutions to bridge the gaps which separate us. We need the kind of bold vision that Nassau County Executive Suozzi demonstrated in Glen Cove when he was supervisor there. Against the very same fabricated complaints, he showed the imagination and common sense to provide a work center for day laborers in Glen Cove who also had no where to go but on the sidewalks, curbs and streets. Opening a work center here makes good sense for all parts of our community.

Michael O'Neill is Chair of the East Hampton Town Anti-Bias Task Force