Standing on the sidewalk at a busy intersection, Baldwinite Justin Williams held up a cardboard sign to protest gun violence last week as people drove by and honked or gave him a thumbs-up.
Throughout the week, he and a few other people stood on the corner of Grand Avenue and Sunrise Highway displaying homemade signs that promoted messages of acceptance, tolerance and love.
“This was just me trying to deal with my own hopelessness,” Williams said. “I decided to just stand on the corner and project, and connect with people who I know are feeling like I am. My purpose is just to make myself feel better, because I’m feeling hopeless, I’m feeling angry, I’m feeling disgusted, and I’m feeling like I’m not doing enough, so this is what I choose to do — and it is making me feel better.”
Williams, a local teacher, said he went to bed on Aug. 3 to the news about the shooting in El Paso, Texas, that left 22 people dead, and woke up to the news of the Dayton, Ohio, shooting the next morning that killed nine. The week prior, a man shot and killed at least three people at a food festival in California. In the wake of the three most recent mass shootings in the U.S., a conversation about white supremacy has entered the national narrative.
The El Paso shooting, which is the seventh-deadliest in modern U.S. history, has been deemed a hate crime. Authorities discovered the shooter’s racist manifesto online and connected much of his language to the rhetoric of President Trump. Many elected officials around the country denounced Trump’s anti-immigration language, alluding to his frequent use of the term “invasion” to refer to groups of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. The El Paso shooter used the same term.
Williams, 46, said he was taking a stand against white supremacy and anti-immigration rhetoric. “In addition to everything else that has been going on politically that gives me personal angst,” he said, “that kind of just led to an over-the-top moment where I was like, ‘I got to do something.’”
On Aug. 4, he made signs and stood by the Baldwin train station by himself for two hours. He returned the next day and stayed for another two hours. He came back every day that week. Soon, local residents, including some of his friends, joined Williams with their own signs.
“Justin and I have been friends since third grade, and he posted something on Facebook about how he’s tired of sitting around not doing anything, and that resonated with me,” Karen Milazzo said. “I feel like a lot of people have been seeing what’s going on in the world, and you’re waiting until the next vote, you’re waiting for the next opportunity to do something active, but in the meantime, we’re all just kind of sitting around having the same discussions on social media over and over again. This was an opportunity for us to come out and connect with people and pass on the idea that we all should be respectful towards one another, and we all should be kinder to one another.”
Milazzo brought her children, Gwendolyn Barry, 11, and Sebastian Milazzo, 8, who spread their own messages of love and inclusivity.
“I think it’s really good to get kids like me involved,” Gwendolyn said, “because the kids can bring it up to their parents and also because they grow up knowing the right things and what they want, and what really should be coming out of life.”
She said people need to be kinder to one another, and should hug others more often.
“A lot of kids in my grade have a lot of social media apps, more than adults would think,” she said, “so if they tell their friends, then their friends tell their friends, and it really gets the word out.”
“I think we’re getting an excellent response,” said Harriet Arnold, 71, of the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Freeport. “We got a lot more honks than fingers. A few people gave us the finger; a few people yelled at us. A man pulled up and rolled down his window to tell me that a pencil could be an assault weapon, and I said I don’t think it could kill nine people in under 30 seconds.”
Williams said he would have been happy standing on the sidewalk alone for a week, eliciting some honks. He promoted the concept of getting off the couch, getting off the computer and “doing something in the real world, even if it’s holding a sign,” he said. “You can’t sit around waiting for the world to make you feel positive thoughts.”