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What If They Had a Protest and No One Came?

‘Hate’ Group Protest Falls Flat in Great Neck Community

Despite all efforts to incite and provoke an entire community with anti-Semitic chants and signs, the Westboro Baptist Church’s small “hate” group failed to garner much attention from the Great Neck community during their daylong visit last Friday, Sept. 25.

Great Neck was advised of the impending protest a few weeks in advance, as the organization had to apply for (and by law be granted) permits to protest. Led by public officials, the police, rabbis and temple leaders, and school administrators, a plan was put in place to ensure safety and everyone was advised to stay away and not give the Westboro Baptist church the attention they sought.

The WBC, from Topeka, Kansas, protests world-wide and on this trip east, had spent time protesting around the metropolitan area. In Great Neck they brought their anti-Jewish, anti-gay, anti-America “hate” credo to the Chabad in Kings Point, to the North Shore Hebrew Academy High School, to Great Neck North High School, and to the Old Mill Road temples (Temple Beth-El, the Great Neck Synagogue, and Temple Israel). The group of seven included two children, one reportedly only 10 years old.

Starting off the morning at the Chabad in Kings Point, a small crowd, including a few anti-protest protestors, greeted the group. Mayor Michael Kalnick, the Kings Point Police and the Nassau County Police were much in evidence, but the police and media appeared to outnumber the protestors and the public.

Next, the Westboro Baptist Church group traveled south to the North Shore Hebrew Academy, where once again they were met with a large contingent of police and public officials, and very few onlookers. The police, both from Lake Success and from Nassau County, easily kept control, with the assistance of Lake Success Mayor Ronald Cooper.

Back at the north end of Great Neck, in the Village of Great Neck, by mid-afternoon the WBC arrived at Great Neck North High School. Any hopes of confronting the students were dashed, as the school dismissed students early. A group of about 50 people began to mill about, some forming an anti-protest group. North High Principal Bernard Kaplan noted that the crowd did not appear to include any of his students. The WBC was kept behind barricades, across the street from the high school. Again, there was a huge police presence, including four mounted police officers and a representative from the office of Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice. Mayor Ralph Kreitzman and Deputy Mayor Mitchell Beckerman worked with school officials and the police to divert traffic and to keep the protestors away from the public. It was a quiet half-hour protest.

By 6 p.m. the WBC were back in the Old Village, this time set up behind barricades at the southeast corner of Old Mill Road and Middle Neck Road, across from Temple Beth-El. At the request of the WBC protestors, they stayed at that location, forgoing their original plan to visit the other two Old Mill Road temples.

At Old Mill Road, a larger, more vocal group of anti-protest protestors were led to another corner. Traffic backed up and passers-by stopped to look. The police presence (about 40 or 50 officers) included the mounted police and Bureau of Special Operations officers, dressed in black, who suddenly appeared when the noise level suddenly rose. These officers perform anti-crime and other special types of enforcement actions for the police department.

The police presence, which included Inspector Steven Williams, commanding officer of the Nassau County Police Department’s 6th Precinct, and Detective Sergeant Gary Shapiro, deputy commanding officer, community affairs, Nassau Count Police Department Bias Crime coordinator, kept the public away from the protestors and kept vehicular and pedestrian traffic moving. Again working with the police, Mayor Kreitzman, Deputy Mayor Beckerman and Trustee Mark Birnbaum (village public safety officer), who were briefly joined by North Hempstead Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman, were relieved when the gathering broke up, right on time, at 6:30 p.m. All three expressed their pride in the community, a community whose majority simply turned their backs on the hate messages.

Det. Sgt. Shapiro had promised a “proper response” with all the necessary protection. Police protection was a huge presence, at times the media was a huge presence, but at no time did the protestors draw the huge crowds that were anticipated. In the end, Det. Sgt. Shapiro commented on how well the villages, the town, the village police, and the county police worked together. “Things went off quite well because of the preparation and communication between the entities before and during the event,” he told the Great Neck Record.

Inspector Williams followed the protestors and was a reassuring presence. He told the Record that “these things are certainly problematic … and it’s our job to ensure safety for the community, within the restrictions of the law … there are Constitutional rights, we must be fair.”

For Inspector Williams the greatest concern had been “if somebody is provoked to anger and the result would be the police’s problem … so we are careful to keep the groups separated.” He emphasized that “the best thing for us to do is prevention.”

Inspector Williams was pleased with the outcome of the day: “I think this community did very well. They are to be commended.”

Mayor Kreitzman was equally pleased, thanking the community and expressing “pride in their restraint in response to the reprehensive and offense demonstrations …” Also thanking the county and local police, school officials, religious leaders, and other officials and community leaders, Mayor Kreitzman said that “These negative protests brought our community together in unity … to preserve the peace, protect ourselves and show the respect and values that we and our institutions and organizations stand for and deserve.”

The school district, too, came together as a community, as well as a part of the greater Great Neck community. Great Neck Public Schools Board of Education President Barbara Berkowitz, expressing relief that the day was over, spoke of her pride in the schools: “ … we are extremely grateful at how well our administrators, staff, security and students handled this circumstance and for all the support we received from our elected officials and police …” She noted that “This unfortunate situation served as another opportunity for us to remember what makes Great Neck so special and to reinforce how our community has always come together in times of crisis.”

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Dolan thanked the police and village officials, who “were of invaluable assistance in protecting our children.” He, too, spoke with pride: “I am extremely proud of the staff and students of North High. To a degree others did not, they recognized the wisdom of ignoring today’s event at their school. Ultimately, we are better for having endured this experience together, and bonds within this community that were already solid, have been strengthened.”

The nine mayors on the Great Neck peninsula were in touch throughout the day. Great Neck Village Officials Association President J. Leonard Samansky, the mayor of Saddle Rock, arranged for all villages mayors to be in contact via the 800 mhz radios. Mayor Samansky said that this was “truly an American day in Great Neck.” He told the Record: “Each and every one of our residents, in spite of the ugliness demonstrated by the Westboro Baptist Church, protected the right to free speech and showed the power of our belief in faith and in our Constitution.”

So Sept. 25 came and went in Great Neck, with much preparation, but with little fanfare when the day arrived. Mayor Kreitzman’s words summed up the general feeling of those involved: “I believe this misguided and hateful group unintentionally has provided our community with the opportunity to come together and recognize the rights we, as Americans, enjoy and to reinforce the values we cherish.”