Suffolk Closeup

eod-2015smmby Karl Grossman

Last week, the morning after the Orlando massacre, I was at a meeting of the board (I’m a member) of the Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity and Human Understanding, which its chairperson, Rabbi Steven Moss, opened by discussing the murder of 49 people in Florida and attacks on LGBT people in Suffolk.
Rabbi Moss, long-time chair, too, of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission, also led a prayer for the victims of the Orlando attack and for ending hate. Among the center’s programs is one titled “Embracing Our Differences.” And it’s now embarked on a “Liberty Express Mobile Museum” project. A van with exhibits on slavery, including in Suffolk, and the Holocaust would travel to schools and communities here.
During the prayer, my eyes shifted to a glass case in one of the center’s exhibit rooms at Suffolk County Community College in Selden holding one of those broadly-striped uniforms worn by people in Nazi concentration camps. In addition to millions of Jews and other minorities, I thought of the many thousands of homosexuals sent to the camps who wore that uniform. Hatred of homosexuals has also been a great bias.
Nowhere, of course, on the levels of the Nazis or the killings by the ISIS supporter in Orlando, in Suffolk for many years there was a formal ritual of going after homosexuals. When I became a journalist here in the 1960s, the Suffolk County Police Department was still conducting its annual raid on the gay communities of Fire Island.
Boatloads of Suffolk police would make a night-time assault on Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, dragging off men in manacles. They wouldn’t challenge their arrests, most being from the city and frightened about casting their lot with Suffolk locals. My first beat on the daily Long Island Press was covering police and courts and in notifying the press about the arrestees, the cops made a point of stressing where they worked and what they did. They wanted to get these guys in trouble.
Then, in 1968, the Mattachine Society of New York arranged for Benedict P. Vuturo, the president of the Suffolk County Criminal Bar Association, to represent those arrested. He demanded jury trials for all 27 men caught in the exercise in homophobia that year. Benny believed that Suffolk citizens wouldn’t convict them—and he was right. I covered those trials in which Mr. Vuturo would tell juries about how with real crimes happening in Suffolk, the police were storming Fire Island rounding up gays. Those trials marked the end of the Fire Island raids.
Hatred of those “different” is so outrageous. Cailin Riley wrote a terrific story in The East Hampton Press and The Southampton Press after the death of Muhammad Ali about a long friendship that began between film and television producer Peter Israelson of East Hampton and the famed boxer in 1979. They were working together for two weeks on a series of commercials for Ford Motor Parts filmed in Alaska. “At night, we’d watch the Northern Lights dance through our hotel window. Neither of us had ever seen anything like that before,” recalled Mr. Israelson. And, he noted, “When we left Alaska after the production, he delayed our flight for hours in kissing every single baby on the plane. No one minded—he was that charismatic and loving. That shoot was one of the great privileges of my life.”
How did a Jewish filmmaker and a Muslim who just happened to be one of the greatest athletes of all time get thrown together in an Alaskan hotel room? Muhammad Ali couldn’t get a hotel room on his own—because he was black! Mr. Israelson insisted “he is with me” so the hotel let him stay—with Peter. And a life-long link was born.
That was 1979. Not 1879 or 1929 or 1949.
Hatred towards those “different” is far from over. Just last month and also in April, Scott Greene, who had been a Suffolk police sergeant, was given jail sentences for stopping 20 Latino drivers for supposed traffic violations and stealing cash from them while doing so. The 25-year police veteran from Shirley got caught in a sting in which he stopped an undercover Latino officer and—with video rolling—stole cash from him.
More than money has been taken from Latinos in Suffolk. In 2008, 37-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero lost his life in Patchogue, murdered by a gang of seven teens lead by one bedecked with a Nazi tattoo. The gang specialized in what it called “beaner hopping”—attacking Latinos.
As to racism directed toward African-Americans, in February in U.S. District Court, the owners of the 107-unit Mayfair Garden Apartments in Commack agreed to a $230,000 settlement for discriminating against blacks. The lawsuit was brought by the, thankfully, highly-active Syosset-based organization ERASE Racism and the Fair Housing Justice Center of New York.
Bias must be vigorously fought and we must, indeed, embrace our differences.

Filed in: Suffolk Closeup

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