Two groups of people stung by racist remarks and the overwhelming backlash the comments created came together Wednesday night in Huntington to tell their stories, ask questions of each other and try to take a step toward understanding and justice.
Four young Black men sat at a table facing the family of Joe Petrone, whose brother, Luigi, triggered pain, anger and shock when he recorded a Facebook video spewing racist remarks at young Black Lives Matter protesters. The social justice group marched peacefully through Huntington Village on June 1 to protest the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer leaned on his neck for nearly nine minutes as he lay on the ground.
Floyd’s death led to murder charges against four police officers and set off a wave of demonstrations around the country and the world – including Long Island’s mostly wealthy and largely white North Shore.
In the video, Luigi Petrone issued a warning to Huntington businesses that the marchers were on their way, called them “savages” and “animals” and said he was prepared to throw watermelons at them, using a racist stereotype aimed at Black Americans since Civil War times.
Luigi Petrone was co-owner, along with his brother, of the Tutto Pazzo restaurant in Halesite, which by the next morning after the video was posted, was completely boarded up, and turned into the site of a gathering of protesters. Those protesters collected watermelons dropped off by passersby, and later donated to a food pantry. And his brother Joe immediately took steps to separate himself and his business from his brother.
That distancing effort continued Wednesday night as Joe Petrone, his wife, Madeline, and two of their daughters spoke with the young men to insist they disagreed with his comments, that they wanted to get involved in helping the community and that the estranged brother would have nothing to do with the new restaurant that Joe Petrone will open in its place, called Il Posto di Joey.
In response, the four young men spoke politely but firmly, sometimes with controlled emotion, of the shock of hearing the racist remarks expressed so clearly in Huntington. One, who has both African-American and Italian-American heritage, described how the comments left him feeling that “There’s no spot for me personally. How am I supposed to be a part of something that doesn’t accept me for who I am?”
Another wanted more from Joe Petrone, noting that the brothers had been in business together for 29 years, and asked for an acknowledgement that Luigi Petrone’s racist behavior in the past had been ignored by his relatives. Former employees have said Luigi referred to a Black employee as Kunta Kinte, that some waitresses had felt sexually harassed and that people of color were made to feel unwelcome as guests at the restaurant.
“Obviously he (Luigi) is a human and has feelings but then to step on others is very very hurtful. No one should have to hear this,” he said, referring to Luigi’s words.
“This was not the first occurrence or racism” at the restaurant, he said. “All of this happened under your nose. If you know this, you tolerated it. It needs to be nipped in the bud. People don’t just wake up one day racist.”
Joe Petrone and his wife, Madeline, apologized several times to the young men as the conversation went on. At one point, she said, “We feel absolutely terrible about what he said. This is just not who we are and we welcome you to be a part of us. This was a mistake he made, on his own. There is sincere regret for what he did. My heart is broken for you.”
Another of the young men said, “The words your brother used are what some people use they can’t say ‘N-word’,” though he said the entire word. “This is a business with terrible ethics. Why didn’t you break up with him five years ago, 10 years ago?
“We can’t think about tomorrow because it’s still yesterday,” he added. “He destroyed a brand” referring to the restaurant. “Why didn’t you hold your brother accountable?”
The couple acknowledged some failures and said, “We were wrong. We knew he would say things. We have to say we were wrong.
“Please try and give us a chance,” Madeline Petrone said. “I am not my brother-in-law. He (Joe) is not his brother.”
The Petrones, who live in Port Washington, asked the young men for ideas about ways to participate in the Huntington community and they responded with ideas about mentoring to start a restaurant or other businesses, diversity training for the restaurant staff, volunteering at food pantries and a business incubator for Huntington Station.
One added, “We have to have these uncomfortable conversations every day.”
The two sides pledged to continue working together and plan more meetings in the future.
“It was truly a blessing for Joey, his wife, and daughters to have the opportunity to hear directly from the young adults who spoke out and shared their life experiences, their pain, their anger, and their personal goals,” said family spokesperson Kerry Gillick-Goldberg. “And, it gave the family a chance to express how embarrassed and sorry they were -by the uncle’s actions and their inaction- as well as to embrace accountability in forging relationships and proactively assisting within the greater Huntington community moving forward.”
Luigi Petrone’s video
Huntington Black Lives Matter march photos