By Rashed Mian and Timothy Bolger
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s scheduled appearance at a Suffolk County Republican Committee fundraiser this week in Patchogue near where an immigrant was killed in a hate crime nearly eight years ago has sparked outrage among advocacy groups and the victim’s family.
Trump’s appearances frequently attract demonstrations wherever he goes, but members of the Patchogue community say Thursday’s event at The Emporium is particularly unsettling, given his controversial statements on immigration issues during the campaign. The venue is a short distance from where 37-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero was slain by a group of teenagers in 2008, revealing deep fissures within the community after it emerged they beat Hispanic immigrants for sport, dubbing it “beaner hopping.” Jeffrey Conroy, who was 17 at the time, is serving 25 years in prison after being convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime in the attack, and his six co-defendants were convicted of lesser offenses.
“I think it’s really insensitive…because its just three blocks away from where my brother was killed,” Joselo Lucero, Marcelo’s brother, told the Press. “To have somebody—which I believe he’s a bully, he’s reckless, he’s anti-immigrant—I don’t think it’s the right thing.”
Suffolk County Republican Chairman John Jay LaValle has said the $150-per seat event, which will have more than 1,000 in attendance, was scheduled two months in advance, but Trump wasn’t confirmed until a week ago. The Suffolk GOP regularly hold events at the night club and music venue owned by Frank Profeta, a local Conservative Party committeeman who testified last month at ex-Suffolk Conservative chair Ed Walsh’s federal fraud trial. LaValle and his counterpart to the west, Nassau County Republican Chairman Joseph Mondello, have endorsed Trump for the GOP presidential nomination.
“We believe this is an important part of the political process and is protected by the First Amendment,” LaValle said in a statement. “The Committee looks forward to continuing this tradition this Thursday night…And while we offer the greatest empathy possible to the family of Marcelo Lucero, who was brutally murdered by a group of teens in 2008, we can’t help but to be suspicious of the motives of those leading the charge to connect that vicious hate crime with Mr. Trump’s commitment to enforcement of immigration laws that have gone largely ignored by both parties, for 30 years.”
Suffolk County police and Village of Patchogue officials said they are coordinating with the Secret Service and community organizations to prepare for protesters expected to flood the area for anti-Trump demonstrations.
“We will not tolerate any lawlessness,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini told reporters Wednesday during a news conference at police headquarters in Yaphank. “Let’s remember that in this country, we are all entitled to express ourselves peacefully. We’re all entitled to our opinion.”
He said extra police, including undercover officers, will be patrolling the area. The commissioner also urged drivers to avoid the area since roads will be closed surrounding the venue Thursday, including Railroad Avenue, South Street and Second Street. Vehicles parked near the venue will be towed and the Long Island Rail Road’s Patchogue station parking lot will be closed.
“Because of where it’s at, there’s a raised level of awareness on the immigration issue,” said Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri, who said he isn’t happy about the event but didn’t ask the Republicans to move it, citing their First Amendment rights.
Also exercising their freedom of speech will be Lucero’s brother and several groups that have planned vigils and protests, including one called “Make America LOVE Again,” which will double as a fundraiser for the Marcelo Lucero Award Fund.
It didn’t take long for Trump’s appearance to draw a withering rebuke from immigrant groups as well as The New York Times editorial board, which called it “a wretched development, a disgraceful provocation by the Suffolk County Republicans and their chairman, John Jay LaValle.”
Lucero’s death still hangs over the community, and it was only two years ago that Suffolk police settled a U.S. Department of Justice probe into whether the department did enough to prevent hate crimes against Hispanics before Lucero was killed.
Opponents say the event is deeply insensitive because of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric on the issue of immigration. During his campaign rallies, he routinely reads the lyrics to “The Snake”, an Al Wilson song, while comparing Syrian refugees to deadly serpents. He reiterated that part of his speech during a massive rally in Bethpage last week.
“Trump’s campaign is filled with hate speech against immigrants and we don’t feel his hate speech belongs in Patchogue,” reads an anti-Trump rally event posting on Facebook from Long Island Progressive Coalition.
An event posting for the Lucero fundraiser at 89 North Music Venue said they intend to celebrate diversity with the help of local performers.
“We, the people of Patchogue, are joining together to demonstrate our commitment to building bridges, not walls,” the post reads.
The historic Congregational Church of Patchogue announced it’s holding a 15-minute silent rally and vigil dedicated to “Peace, Love & Understanding.”
“I think it’s important for people to have an opportunity to stop talking and to just sit wordlessly, silently, in silence for a period of time,” Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter, the church’s pastor, told the Press. The Congregational Church was the site of Lucero’s funeral.
Wolter believes a few minutes of silent reflection could be just as empowering as opponents trying to “outshout” one another.
“See if there’s any healing in silence,” he said. “Silence is a very potent tool.”
The church’s long-time pastor said he’s a “firm believer in free speech” and believes in those opposed to several of Trump’s positions could learn from what he has to say. However, he said, “Any reasonable person would not only move that venue but would look good for having done so…I think it would make Trump look reasonable.”
Sini and Pontieri noted that since the event isn’t moving, it will give Patchogue a chance to show the world how far they’ve come since 2008, when news of Lucero’s slaying gave the South Shore village and Suffolk a national reputation of being as a hotbed of anti-immigration fervor.
“The Village of Patchogue…has come a long way in recent years and tomorrow’s a good benchmark for that progress,” Sini said. “I’m very confident that we’ll show to the world… that here we respect each other, we treat each other with respect and dignity and we can peacefully express ourselves.”
Pontieri added: “The sense of community is much greater now than it was then.”
Trump has been criss-crossing New York State with the hope that his home turf would help him win more delegates in his effort to clinch the GOP presidential nomination over U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Ohio Governor John Kasich.
One of Trump’s most provocative proposals is to compel Mexico to pay for a wall that would keep undocumented immigrants from crossing the southern border into the United States.
“I love the Mexican people, I love Hispanics,” Trump said during his campaign stop in Bethpage before his fans began chanting “Build the wall!” He then asked the crowd, “Who’s going to build the wall?” The crowd shouted back: “Mexico!”
Joselo Lucero said the event is “reckless.”
“I think he should not even speak in Suffolk County at all, period,” he said.