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Would-Be Politician Dropped the N-Word and Sparked a Community Resistance

Southampton is confronting its racial identity with newly minted activism.

by Emily Weitz
Jun 15 2017, 7:22pm

Photo via Facebook.com/valerie.smith.98892

As Valerie Smith -- a white woman -- runs for Village Trustee on a campaign promising to protect the beauty of Southampton Village, she calls herself a "pioneer" on "The Hill" in a historically black community. Yet when she was caught on police tape recordings using the n-word to characterize a group of young black neighbors, it took weeks for her to issue an official apology. During a public debate she finally did apologize, but she went on to say that she wanted her neighbors to "understand what happened and why it happened because people don't just say things like that for no reason."

The packed Southampton Arts Center rumbled with discontent at that explanation, which implied that the group she referred to somehow prompted the use of the racial slur. The crowd of well over one hundred dwarfed the usual attendance of debates for Village Trustee in such a small town, and most of them had spent the previous hour on the front steps of the building holding up signs that said things like "Bury the N-Word" and "Not in My Neighborhood".

Lydia Bonner, the 45-year-old mother of three of the young men referred to in the police tape, was at the protest on June 5."This was the first time something like this was done to me," she said. "When I heard the recordings I was shocked."

Bonner, who grew up in Southampton, thinks of the village as a safe place where communities live in relative harmony. Smith moved in next door about five years ago, and Bonner said they always had always a good neighborly relationship. She had no idea Smith could go on to utter these kinds of sentiments.

"It just showed who she was," said Bonner. "Racism is real. But how do you explain that to your children? I've always tried to protect my boys from that."

Some in the community are less surprised.

"It's not just Valerie Smith but the whole political scene right now," said Cheryl Buck, who's lived in Southampton for most of her life. "It seems like America is trying to roll back to the 1800s."
Randy Conquest, who ran the barber shop in town from the 60s until it closed in 2006, doesn't expect the n-word to ever go away. "She used a word she shouldn't have used," he told VICE Impact. "She has some good ideas as far as the community, but she wasn't thinking."

When pressed further, Conquest just gave a slow sigh: "That word will always be used."

"We are here and we belong," said Brenda Simmons, who also lives on The Hill and founded the Southampton African American Museum a decade ago. "A lot of black history has been eliminated or misrepresented, but the museum is going to help our children understand and learn about our local history that has not been told."

Simmons grew up in Southampton, and remembers there were areas in town where her parents wouldn't let her go because they were afraid. Others remember being warned not to get off the train in Hampton Bays, where the KKK continues to have a platform. But organizations like the NAACP and the Anti-Bias Task Force of Southampton are getting renewed energy as a result of the inflammatory language and blatant racism displayed in this election. And new organizations are forming.

The Concerned Citizens of the Greater Southampton Community includes members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, African-Americans and Latinos who feel their voices need to be amplified. The group screened candidates for Trustee and Mayor of Southampton, and 20 representatives of all ages gathered to ask questions. The answers were surprising.

"We posed a question to the candidates about gentrification," said Lisa Votino Tarrant, a leading member of the group who lives on the Shinnecock Reservation. "None of them knew what it meant. So much of our community is dealing with gentrification and the people running for elected office don't even know what it means."

One of the candidates said he Googled the word to find out its definition.

Votino Tarrant has seen a wellspring of activism in the wake of the November election, and even more of a response since Valerie Smith's vitriolic language was unveiled.

"Before November, as an organizer, you were preaching to the choir," she said. "You could get people together, but it was always the same people. Now every time we do something I meet so many new people. It's awesome, but we have to make sure they stay engaged keep a watchful eye and don't get burnt out."

She has attended and organized classes on civics education and how to run for office. She's seen workshops on how to be appointed to a board, what boards do, and other educational opportunities that she hopes her group will be able to bring out to the East End of Long Island.
"Democrats and especially progressives don't do a good job of grooming people to become good elected officials," she said. "I'd like to see more women, more people of color, and younger people running for office."

Events like the debate and protest last week give her hope.

"That was probably the most attended debate in the history of the village," she said. "If nothing else, we got their attention, and that speaks volumes."

If you live in the area, be sure to vote in the Southampton Village elections on Friday, June 16, 2017. Also be sure to check out your secretary of state's website to get involved in local elections to take direct action on a community level.