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L.B. looks for more change

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Last June, hundreds of people marched on the Long Beach boardwalk to protest the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis the month before. They carried signs and chanted “We want justice!” and “I can’t breathe!” They were joined by city officials and members of the City Council, who rescheduled a meeting so they could take part.

The march in Long Beach was one of thousands that took place across the country in the wake of Floyd’s death. They were held in villages and towns across Long Island.

Black and white residents of Long Beach and nearby areas expressed hope that things would change, but many see little evidence of that now, a year later. Some even said they believe matters have gotten worse since the Floyd protests and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I want to say yes, there’s been change,” said Aimee McNicholas, of Lido Beach, who sat drinking coffee with friends last Sunday morning at the Starbucks across from City Hall. “But there are still people with a backwards mentality.”

McNicholas, a former BOCES teacher in Freeport and Uniondale who described herself as “a very liberal Democrat,” said that expanding the educational system would help bring about positive change.

A friend seated next to her made clear he was her political polar opposite. “I’m a realist,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “Things are never going to change.” He compared protesters to “barbarians.” But then he added, “We disagree, but we can all sit here together. Nobody has killed anybody, yet.”

Marlene Hahitti, who lives in Manhattan and Long Beach,

said the issues raised by the Floyd killing and BLM are complex, but she had noticed more of an effort among people to talk about them. “I feel people want to work together,” said Hahitti, who is a sales director. “People seem to be listening. Not always agreeing, but listening.”

A man in Kennedy Plaza who identified himself only as Grant A. said he had come to Long Beach five years ago from Missouri, and immediately noticed a contrast. Long Beach and New York, he said, “are open and diverse.” “There’s more awareness of different people here,” he said. “Here, a person is a person.” Race relations, Grant said, are better now.

But Beth Zimmerman of Long Beach, who runs a nonprofit organization, said she thought matters had gotten worse, the result of politicians dividing the country. “I believe all people matter,” she said. “We should be able to say that.”

Vincent Chielo, of Inwood, who was walking his dog through Kennedy Plaza, said he did not see an improvement in race relations. “At the end of the day, everything is politically motivated,” he said. “The only way to change things is to get the stakeholders to the table,” he added, referring to political leaders on the left and the right. “But that’s not happening.”

Chielo, who is white, said he felt “stereotyped” these days. “I was born and raised in Queens,” he said. “Racism isn’t in me. I don’t see color.” But he said he felt that protest marches had unfairly characterized people.

To be sure, the BLM movement has been felt in Long Beach. In March, new Police Commissioner Ron Walsh released a draft of the department’s reform plan, which aims to strengthen ties between the community and the department. The City Council has adopted the plan.

The council has also approved a resolution to designate Juneteenth — a celebration of Black freedom — an official city holiday, following a number of Long Island municipalities in recognizing the day that slaves in Texas finally learned they were free after the Civil War — June 19, 1865.

The council authorized City Manager Donna Gayden to enter into an agreement with the city’s Civil Service Employees Association and the Commanding Officers Association to add Juneteenth to the list of paid holidays, at no additional cost to the city. And, the city has upgraded the pay of some employees, including sanitation workers, who had been receiving part-time pay for full-time hours.

But Runnie Myles, president of the North Park Civic Association, said it was difficult to be overly optimistic about future improvement of the situation for Blacks in Long Beach. “I don’t see real change yet,” Myles said. “We did get some new policing” in North Park. “But the summer will tell how that plays out.”

Rabbi Jack Zanerhaft, of Temple Emanu-El in Long Beach, said, “It feels like things have changed, but stayed the same.” On one hand, Zanerhaft said, there is more discussion of rights, and more interest in justice and equality. But at the same time, he said, there are still shootings of young Black man and attacks on Asians and Jews.

“We still have a lot of us-and-them,” the rabbi said. “But every step is a step closer to equality.”