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V.S. celebrates Juneteenth

Demonstrations honor the end of slavery in the United States


Valley Streamer Kira Mcmillan, 44, said she was protesting for her three black sons and daughter. 

“I don’t know if I’ll ever stop worrying when my kids leave the house,” she said, recounting how one son was placed in handcuffs 10 years ago for having a BB gun, but was later let go. Police, she said, told her at the time they “were trying to teach him a lesson.”

Mcmillan joined roughly two dozen other demonstrators, in the Hendrickson Park pool parking lot on June 19, or Juneteenth, as it has become known.

Juneteenth is a day of celebration in the United States, recognizing the official end to slavery in the country in 1865, with the final holdout state, Texas, agreeing to free its slaves. In 2020, however, the holiday has taken on a greater significance, coming less than four weeks after the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

With discussions of racism and police brutality at the forefront of the national consciousness, in Valley Stream, dozens gathered for two separate Juneteenth celebrations and renewed calls for equality and police reform.

One of those at Hendrickson Park was Valley Stream resident Kristelle Verneret, 23.

“I came here to be seen and to let them know that we aren’t going to take this lying down,” said Verneret, who is black. “I don’t think protests like this erase racism, but it brings it to the forefront, and it allows people to become informed that racism exists.” 

After Floyd’s killing, Valley Streamer Joshua Tabb said, he witnessed a number of protests against racism and was moved to take part in one himself. Tabb, who is also black, said he believed that Juneteenth should not be limited to celebrating the end of slavery in America, but should also be a day to demand change and unity.   

“People are so divided on topics involving race relations,” he said. “I would like everyone to come together and stop fighting.” 

Nicholas Moscato, 26, of Franklin Square, said he grew up in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood. Of Puerto Rican, Italian and Greek descent, he credited his parents and his diverse high school with teaching him acceptance of others. His upbringing, he said, motivated him to become involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and demand greater equality .

“People who choose to ignore history are bound to repeat it,” he said, noting he believes the United States was founded on racism. “Juneteenth should be the new Fourth of July, because it’s the day that people of all races can come together.”

Valley Stream North High School, Eisha Nasar, 18, who identifies as Pakistani American, agreed that Juneteenth should be recognized as a national holiday and perhaps replace the Fourth of July. She said sustained protests are vital to keeping race issues at the forefront, but should also lead to policy changes.

“I think events like this show solidarity in the community and momentum in the Black Lives Matter movement,” she said. “Black Lives Matter shouldn’t just be a trend, and we need to put more funds into helping our black brothers and sisters with mental health, social work, public health and education.”

After gathering at Hendrickson for roughly an hour around at around 1 p.m., the group headed east on Merrick Road.

Elsewhere, about two-dozen people had gathered in cars at the Valley Stream train station around noon, and readied to set out in a caravan. The demonstration was organized by the group The Right to Know Your Rights. Their destination was Westbury, where they met up with demonstrators from other neighborhoods.

“We’re celebrating Juneteenth because it was the emancipation of slaves in Texas,” said 17-year-old Sofia Pestantez from Hewlett, as she wrote in neon-pink marker the names of black Americans killed by police. “But there’s still work that needs to be done.”

She noted that the 13th Amendment still allowed for slave labor in prisons, and that the Louisiana police officers who killed Breonna Taylor, a black woman fatally shot in March after they had entered her home unannounced, had yet to be charged in her death.

In particular, Pesantez said it was important to hold protests on Long Island, where issues of racism tend to go unspoken.

“I think it’s important to let people know that police brutality is still present on Long Island as well,” she said, adding that in the past 20 days, 120 people had been killed by police nationwide.

Wills Henriquez, 53, from Hempstead, said he had attended four protests over the past month with his son and daughter, most recently in Elmont and Lakeview.

“Right now everyone’s united in the cause and everyone gets it,” he said of the sustained demonstrations. “I really believe this time it’s different, if we keep at it, that is, and we’re going to make tremendous progress.”

As far as Juneteenth was concerned, Henriquez, who is black, said he appreciated the wider recognition it was receiving this year, noting that traditionally its celebration had been relegated to black media and audience circles.

“I’m happy it’s getting out,” he said, expressing hope that it might receive more official recognition.

His son, Jean-Paul, 21, echoed similar sentiments, saying he was there to show love and acknowledgement for the holiday.

“This is definitely a unique time in our country’s history,” he said, adding that he could not recall a previous time when protests had driven the country’s president into a bunker for safety concerns, as was the case on May 31.

He, too, hoped for more federal recognition of Juneteenth, saying, “This is an important part about the country’s history.”

For Mcmillan, she said she regrets not reporting what she believes what had happened to her son a decade prior, but saw the day’s demonstration as a way to rectify it.

“Black lives are still not being treated as if they matter,” she said. “The situation with my son makes me more angry now because I didn’t do anything about it, but I’m here now. Today, I march for him.”