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SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - "People--Given All The Facts Are Fair"


By Karl Grossman

Fifty years ago what had been an outrageous annual Suffolk County tradition—the police raid on gay communities of Fire Island—came to an end. 

It took gay men taking their chances with juries of Suffolk residents—as proposed by a prominent, feisty, rough-and-tumble Suffolk attorney, Benedict P. Vuturo.

The juries, one after another in the fall of 1968, found the gay men rounded up in the raid on Fire Island in the summer of 1968, innocent. 

And that did it—the Suffolk Police Department finally stopped the raid.

There have been enormous societal changes in the last several decades in regard to gay men—as well lesbian women and others as others with a non-traditional sex identity. Indeed, there is a big movement acronymed LGBTQ—for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. And but three years ago, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage as a constitutional right in all 50 states.

What happened for many years to gays on Fire Island seems like a nightmare of another time—and it was.

            These raids on Fire Island every summer were a tradition began by the Brookhaven Town Police Department, as half of Fire Island is in Brookhaven. With the absorption of that department and nearly all others in western Suffolk into the Suffolk County Police Department in 1960, the perverse tradition was continued by the new county police force.
  I first became aware of the raids when hired in 1964 by the daily Long Island Press as a police-and-courts reporter covering Suffolk.  It was like pulling teeth sometimes to get information from the Suffolk cops. But after their annual raid on Fire Island, the cops wanted the media to know all about it—pitching to us not only the names and addresses of those arrested but their occupations and where they worked. The police effort was clearly meant to damage those arrested, to perhaps get them fired for being gay and being arrested in a raid on Fire Island.

            The two communities hit on Fire Island were Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, both in Brookhaven Town. The raids were made by boatloads of cops storming the beach. Prisoners were dragged off in handcuffs and brought to the mainland. 

Year after year, the 25 to 40 or so defendants, most of them from New York City and frightened about casting their lot with Suffolk locals, would plead guilty to various “morals” charges. Then one judge began sentencing some arrestees to jail, getting himself plenty of publicity. The Fire Island gay community had had it. 

The colorful Mr. Vuturo, former president of the Suffolk Criminal Bar Association, was retained by the Mattachine Society of New York to represent the arrestees in the next raid. That raid happened on August 24, 1968. 

The Mattachine Society prepared the Fire Island gay communities for the legal fights ahead by distributing a pamphlet in 1967 advising against “shortsighted” pleas of guilty and declaring: “Intolerable police state tactics continue because of our cooperation.” The pamphlet further said if one was arrested not to provide any more than name and address. “Never carry identification that contains the name of your employer,” it counseled. bb

Mr. Vuturo demanded jury trials for each of the 27 arrested in the 1968 raid. He told me he believed a jury of adults would never convict. He was correct. He won every trial. 

I covered the situation. When the defendants of that summer were arraigned in Suffolk County District Court, then located in Commack, Mr. Vuturo declared: “Outrageous…These men will be cleared of these notorious allegations.’” He said the men didn’t represent a public nuisance, weren’t annoying anyone. “The police actually sought these men out.” 

The trials were some scenes. Mr. Vuturo toughly cross-examined arresting officers demanding they tell in detail what they saw and did. The cops were embarrassed. And in his summations at the trials, he spoke dramatically about murders and other major crimes occurring in Suffolk and how, he declared, the Suffolk Police Department was wasting its resources storming Fire Island to round up gays. 

“To be on Fire Island—in Cherry Grove or Fire Island Pines—when the cops are there for a raid is to put your life in your hands,” he intoned. “The cops go and beat the bush. They grab you and handcuff you to whoever…Was a breach of the peace committed? Who saw it but the cops who went looking?” Mr. Vuturo said the men didn’t represent a public nuisance, weren’t annoying anyone and police had to search through beach scrub to find them. ‘The police actually sought these men out.’” 

For Mr. Vuturo it was a matter of “civil liberties are civil liberties.”

He hoped to lose one case so he could get to the New York State Court of Appeals or U.S. Supreme Court to try to have the laws under which the arrests were made ruled unconstitutional. But he never lost one of the “Fire Island trials” as they were referred to in court corridors during fall 1968.  

He said the victories proved “People—given all the facts are fair. People aren’t stupid. That’s what the jury system is all about.” 

Dick Leitsch, president of the Mattachine Society of New York, told me that the gay rights group had first considered hiring New York City lawyers, specialists in civil liberties work, to defend the arrestees in the next police raid on Fire Island. “But we figured the courts out there might view them as outside agitators,” he explained. So the society, he said, spoke to some members of the Suffolk County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the flamboyant Central Islip-based attorney Vuturo was recommended. 

Mr. Vuturo, a father of five, who went on to himself become a Suffolk District Court judge and died in 1991, was key to ending a travesty. And so were the Suffolk jurors who showed that the jury system works. And deserving huge credit are those gay men of Fire Island who stood up to prejudice and hate in a dark time. 

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.  


SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - "Living on the Edge in the Face of Climate Change" 


By Karl Grossman

Two Long Islanders deeply committed to the environment, actor Alec Baldwin and marine scientist Kevin McAllister, founding president of the Sag Harbor-based organization Defend H20, presented a program last week entitled “Living on the Edge in the Face of Climate Change.”

Held at the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum, it attracted 200 people and provided a basic message of, as Mr. McAllister said, “we need to acknowledge the reality of sea level rise” and take a variety of actions. “We have to educate ourselves” and “impart” our understanding to “elected officials and give them the strength to be visionary.”

A key problem, said Mr. McAllister, is that “elected officials think in two to four-year cycles”—their terms in office—but when it comes to climate change, planning and actions must be viewed over a 25-year span.

“The glaciers are melting and what does that mean locally?” asked Mr. McAllister. There needs to be a “sense of urgency. If we don’t take actions on the state to local levels, we’ll be losing our bays and beaches and a life-style that has defined Long Island.”

In a question-and-answer period at the end of the conversation between Messrs. Baldwin and McAllister, an audience member rose to say that environmentally “when I came out to Montauk to live, I wasn’t aware of what was going on” and “a great majority of people are not aware.” If “they knew” things could be different. “It is important to raise awareness…We need a bigger swell of people” and for them to influence their representatives in government. 

Declared Mr. Baldwin: “We need to keep doing this kind of thing and invite elected officials to come.” One elected official at this event was East Hampton Village Mayor Paul Rickenbach, Jr. 

The program began on an extremely hot and humid evening Thursday—coming amidst  weeks of blazing tropics-like weather, a reflection of the reality here now of climate change—with the two men linking their interest in the environment to growing up and living on Long Island.

Mr. Baldwin spoke of a boyhood in Massapequa where he gained a comprehension about that hamlet, indeed all of Long Island, depending for potable water on the sole source aquifer below, and that underground water table being “compromised.” Then, as an adult settling in Amagansett, he was involved in challenging the dangers “posed” to the aquifer in Amagansett by the “triple threat of herbicides, fungicides and pesticides.”

Mr. McAllister told of being “being blessed growing up” in Center Moriches, spending days on the bay, then moving to Florida where for 15 years he worked doing reviews of projects impacting on its coast, then returning to Long Island and dealing with the environmental challenges here to water and the coastlines. 

“Homesite development” has caused a “pinching off of wetlands” and their “inability to migrate,” to shift in natural processes. The response has been a demand for the “hardening” of the coast with sea walls and similar structures, making problems even more severe. “We have to arrest this trend…Let’s keep the walls off the coast.”

With sea level rise resulting from climate change, the situation is worsening. In the next 40 years, Mr. McAllister said, it is projected that there will be a rise of 16 to 30 inches in the waters surrounding Long Island. As to the dumping of sand on Long Island beaches to purportedly “nourish” them, Mr. McAllister said the “average” life span for sand-dumping on a mid-Atlantic beach is but three to five years, and the cost is gargantuan. 

Meanwhile, there are places on Long Island such as Mastic Beach which is at sea level now, and “the lawns people mow consist of wetland grasses…We’re talking about houses sitting in groundwater.”

“Where we have the ability to move back, we have to move back,” said Mr. McAlllister.

“We have to allow the shorelines to breathe.”

He said a “real breakdown” involves the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the federally-supported flood insurance program paying in many instances for structures wiped out by storms to be rebuilt where they had been. There needs to be a “one and done” policy. Paying for structures to be rebuilt in highly vulnerable areas “doesn’t make sense.”

Mr. Baldwin commented that if changes in the approach towards the coast aren’t made, “we can’t imagine” the consequences resulting from climate change. He said “everybody out here cares, they care deeply” and need to join with their representatives in action.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.  


SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - By 2050 Oceans Will Have More Plastic Than Fish


By Karl Grossman

Suffolk Legislator Kara Hahn last month joined with environmentalists and the county’s Single Use Plastic Reduction Task Force in calling for Suffolk to “declare independence” from plastic straws. Given the name “Strawless Suffolk,” it is an important campaign considering, as Ms. Hahn noted, “Every day, Americans discard a half a billion plastic straws, many of which find their way into oceans and inland waterways, which to put in perspective could wrap around the Earth 2.5 times per day.” 

And, as she emphasized, in “Suffolk County, which boasts some of America’s most beautiful beaches, a thousand miles of shoreline, and waterways teaming with marine life, the innocuous plastic straw has become a tangible threat to the county’s tourist-driven economy, littering our beaches with debris and threatening turtles, birds and other marine life.”

Plastic straws are the tip of a plastic iceberg.

A study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum concludes, “If plastic continues to be dumped at its current rate, the oceans will carry more plastic than fish by 2050,” notes the website EcoWatch. And, EcoWatch cites a report of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) that determined “as much as 51 trillion microplastic particles—500 times more than stars in our galaxy—litter our seas.”

Those findings call out to be repeated—“the oceans will carry more plastic than fish by 2050,” and, “as much as 51 trillion microplastic particles—500 times more than stars in our galaxy—litter our seas.” 

Outrageous and totally unacceptable! 

The destruction of marine life from plastic is happening everywhere. Last month, on a beach in Spain, “yet another terrifying reminder of the ocean’s plastic pollution problem, a dead sperm whale has been discovered with 29 kilograms of plastic waste inside its stomach,” reported the website ibelieveinmothernature.com. There was a ghastly photo accompanying the article of the whale, its mouth open revealing loads of plastic. In Thailand in June, a whale was found having died after swallowing 80 plastic bags. Here in Suffolk in June, on the beach at Shinnecock East County Park in Southampton, a leatherback sea turtle was discovered dead last month, believed to have drowned from plastic found in its intestines.

“The planet is on the edge of a global plastic calamity,” was the headline of a June article by Erik Solheim, executive director of UNEP, in The Guardian. It stated, “Now, after a century of unchecked production and consumption, convenience has turned to crisis. Beyond a mere material amenity, today you’ll find plastic where you least expect it, including the foods we eat, the water we drink and the environment in which we live. Once in the environment, it enters our food chain where, increasingly, microplastic particles are turning up in our stomachs, blood and lungs. Scientists are only beginning to study the potential health impacts.”

“Since we began our love affair with this now ubiquitous material, we’ve produced roughly nine billion tonnes of plastic,” said the piece in The Guardian, published in the U.K.  and distributed internationally. “About one-third of this has been single-use, providing a momentary convenience before being discarded. The straw in your average drink will be used for just a few minutes, but in the environment, it will last beyond our lifetimes. In your shopping trolley, a plastic bag will be used for less than an hour, but when they find their way to the ocean they kill more than 100,000 marine animals a year.”

“Current projections show that global plastic production will skyrocket in the next 10-15 years. This year alone, manufacturers will produce an estimated 360 million tonnes. With a booming population driving demand, production is expected to reach 500 million by 2025 and a staggering 619 million tonnes by 2030.”

“Avoiding the worst of these outcomes requires more than awareness,” declared the article. Necessary is a “wholesale rethinking of the way we produce, use and manage plastic.”

Suffolk County has taken some pioneering action on plastic. 

In 2010, a year after the Suffolk Legislature passed a first-in-the-nation law barring the sale here of baby bottles, sippy cups, pacifiers and other products used by children that contain the plasticizing agent Bisophenol-A, acronymed BPA, New York enacted a statewide ban based on the Suffolk model. Other states followed and in 2012 came a federal ban. Research has found BPA to be a cause of cancer and other maladies. It’s especially toxic to youngsters. Grassroots action was key. The Suffolk law stemmed from Legislator Steven Stern being made aware of the dangers of BPA by Karen Joy Miller, founder of Prevention is the Cure, an initiative of the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition.

Far more action against plastic is necessary—worldwide.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.  

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