North Shore stands against Charlottesville violence

North Shore stands against Charlottesville violence
About 20 people came to a vigil and rally in Great Neck on Sunday responding to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Karen Rubin)

By Noah Manskar and Janelle Clausen

President Donald Trump’s thoughts about last weekend’s outbreak of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, have been in flux this week, but North Shore officials and activists did not hesitate to condemn it.

About 20 people came to an impromptu vigil in Great Neck on Sunday in response to the death of a woman who was protesting the “Unite the Right” rally in the college town.

The neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups for whom the rally was organized met hundreds of anti-racist protesters on Saturday. One, Heather Hyer, died after white supremacist James Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd, the authorities said.

“Everybody felt they just needed to be together with like-minded people because they were so horrified by what had taken place,” said Karen Ashkenase of Great Neck, a member of the activist group North Shore Action who helped organize Sunday’s vigil.

Leaders of the white supremacist “alt-right” movement organized the Unite the Right rally to protest Charlottesville’s planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. Participating groups included the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement and the white supremacist group Identity Evropa.

Rally attendees marched through Charlottesville last Friday night with torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan, according to media reports.

President Trump initially did not explicitly condemn the violence by white supremacist groups, instead saying violence “on all sides” must stop to unite the nation. It took him until Monday afternoon to reject the KKK and say that “racism is evil.”

But he reversed course at a press conference Tuesday, blaming the violence in part on “alt-left” counter-protestors and saying “not all of those people” at the rally were white supremacists. The remarks equated white racist groups with anti-racism protesters, drawing praise from former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke and Richard Spencer, a white supremacist “alt-right” figure.

Ashkenase said Trump’s response to the weekend’s events worries her.

“I tell you, I cry when I think about what America has come to now and where the leader of this country is leading us,” she said.

Local politicians condemned the rally as a gross display of racism and hatred, and on Tuesday expressed anger at Trump’s about-face.

U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) used the strongest language, saying Trump “is a racist. Period.”

“He’s gone out of his way to make that clear, so let’s not tip-toe around it. He’s a racist,” Rice wrote on Twitter Tuesday evening.

Coleman Lamb, a Rice spokesman, said Trump has a history of racism, including his public support of the false claim that former President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.

Even setting all that aside, when the President of the United States repeatedly goes out of his way to defend the KKK and neo-Nazis, he deserves to be called a racist,” Lamb said in a statement.

Nassau County Legislator Laura Curran, a Democratic candidate for Nassau County executive, said the president’s “false equivalencies are abhorrent.”

When you’re being complimented by David Duke you are on the wrong side of history, and from all this, it is clear we are approaching a dangerous tipping point,” Curran said Wednesday at a press conference.

Jack Martins, the Republican county executive candidate, said Trump “missed the opportunity to be necessarily clear” in condemning white supremacists. Martins also said there is no “freedom of expression for hate.”

“This isn’t a time for politics, this isn’t a time for half-measures and it isn’t a time for equivocation,” Martins, who voted for Trump, said Wednesday at his own press conference. “It’s a time for the country to come together.”

 County Comptroller George Maragos, Curran’s Democratic primary opponent, did not respond to Trump’s remarks Tuesday. But of the weekend’s violence, he said on Twitter, “We all reject & feel disgust w/ the #WhiteSupremacist & racist tragedy in #charlotesville. Bigotry & hatred should have no place in America.”

Steve Markowitz, chairman of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, said he was “particularly struck by the very strong anti-Semitic tone of a lot of it,” comparing the rally to gatherings in pre-World War II Nazi Germany.

“My father fought in World War II, against the Nazis. We shouldn’t have to fight that war again, especially here on our own soil,” U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) said on Monday.

Nazis and the KKK once had a strong presence on Long Island. Yaphank was once home to Camp Siegfried, a summer camp that promoted Nazi ideology to youth in the 1930s. The enclave of homes that was built there had a rule limiting residency to people of German descent until this year, the Associated Press reported.

In his book “The Power Broker,” the journalist Robert Caro wrote that KKK leaders controlled Suffolk County’s Republican Party in the 1920s, and the flagpole outside Islip Town Hall was once dedicated to the local Ladies of the Klan, which had donated it.

The Klan has active chapters in Hempstead and Hampton Bays, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups nationwide.

While political tension is palpable, Markowitz said he could not imagine violence like that in Charlottesville erupting on Long Island today.

But William Bailey, a community organizer with the Long Island chapter of New York Communities for Change, isn’t so sure.

As the white supremacists and counter-protestors clashed on Saturday, Bailey and his group were camped out in tents protesting segregation in Garden City. Passers-by shouted racial slurs at the group and told them to “get a job,” Bailey said.

Based on what he saw in Garden City, which he said is one of the most segregated places in the country, Bailey said it only would have taken one person responding the wrong way to spark something.

“On Long Island, it’s just the strike of the match,” Bailey said.

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