Last Friday, President Donald Trump delivered a speech — ostensibly about curbing gang violence — to a small crowd of supporters and police in Brentwood, Long Island. Inside the Suffolk County Community College auditorium, a small audience cheered on Trump as he encouraged police to be less “gentle” while making arrests and promised to “destroy the vile criminal cartel MS-13,” a youth gang authorities say is responsible for most of the violence in Brentwood. But less than a mile away, hundreds protesters rallied against Trump’s speech, claiming the president’s rhetoric would make people less safe in a community that is known for its sizable immigrant population and strained relationships with police.
“He’s here to promote his hate,” Osman Canales told The Outline. “He’s not here to promote solutions to the problems we, as residents, are living every day here in this community.” Canales and other protesters stood on one side of the entrance to Brentwood State Park. On the other side, a group of about 20 counter-protesters gathered to support the president — and rile up his detractors.
“This guy’s going to get re-elected and shut you the fuck down. You anti-American pieces of shit,” one man on the pro-Trump side shouted into a megaphone. “You’re standing behind MS-13!” yelled another. Next to him, a woman asked why no one had alerted Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the protest.
Trump’s visit revealed just how polarized Brentwood is. Nearly 70 percent of the town’s residents are Latino, and 42 percent are immigrants, according to the most recent Census. Brentwood is also one of a handful of communities across the country where MS-13 has a significant presence. (MS-13 originated in L.A. in the 1980s and spread to El Salvador once its members began getting deported in the ‘90s. The gang now has a presence in the U.S. and El Salvador, as well as in Guatemala and Honduras.)
Though average MS-13 membership has decreased nationally in recent years, the gang’s presence appears to be flourishing on Long Island. The FBI says MS-13 members have killed at least 20 people on Long Island since 2015. Trump has repeatedly blamed Obama for the gang’s proliferation in certain parts of the country — in April, he claimed the Obama administration’s “weak illegal immigration policies” led to MS-13 members from El Salvador pouring into the United States, putting Americans at risk. Suffolk County sheriff Vincent DeMarco echoed Trump’s claim a month later, saying that he “totally support[s] the president’s objective of border security.”
But because of Brentwood’s demographics, victims of MS-13’s violence are often Latino — and they’re often immigrants themselves.
There is no siege here in Brentwood. I don’t know where he’s getting that information.
“I don’t think all Latinos or all immigrants are the problem. There is an MS-13 problem, but the thing is, he can’t be targeting every single Latino,” a teenage protester named Kat told The Outline. She graduated from Brentwood High School in 2015, and said that “educating young kids” was a better solution to the area’s persistent gang problem.
The Trump administration is taking a more punitive approach.
“One by one, we are freeing up these great American towns and cities that are under siege from gang violence,” Trump said on Friday, claiming the Long Island he knew as a child was now full of “bloodstained killing fields.”
“I have a simple message for every gang member and criminal alien that are threatening so violently our people: We will find you, we will arrest you, and we will deport you,” Trump told the cheering crowd.
Outside, protesters worried the president was making Brentwood out to be more dangerous than it really was and co-opting the community’s ongoing struggle against gangs. One woman, who said her name was Margarita, said she was glad the president was drawing attention to the problem but worried he was misrepresenting her community. “We do have MS-13, but they aren’t all over,” she said. “There is no siege here in Brentwood. I don’t know where he’s getting that information.”
Some organizers said they feared Brentwood’s immigrant population, which has had a strained relationship with law enforcement for years, would bear the brunt of Trump’s anti-gang enforcement. Suffolk County police were accused of discriminating against Latinos and immigrants in 2009, leading to a federal investigation that lasted two years. The department has been under federal oversight by the Department of Justice since 2013 as a result of the investigation, and officers have been required to attend anti-bias training and increase their outreach to the Latino community.
Though Sheriff DeMarco claimed Suffolk PD has been more effective in making gang-related arrests since Trump took office, The Daily Beast reported on Sunday that officers are being accused of falsely labeling at least nine students as gang members because what they wore. “These practices are forcing children to fear both the gang and the government,” Irma Solis, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Suffolk County chapter said in a statement. “We’ve heard from children who are afraid to go to school or go outside their homes because they’re scared they will be picked up by ICE and separated from their loved ones — and all because someone may have misunderstood a T-shirt.”
Local and federal authorities emphasize the gang’s transnational nature, often claiming members in the U.S. take orders from gang leaders in El Salvador, but experts say this rhetoric makes the gang seem more powerful than it really is.
“They are not a cartel. They do not even closely resemble a cartel,” UCLA professor and gang researcher Jorja Leap told The Outline. Leap is involved with L.A.’s city-sponsored gang-related program and has been working to eradicate MS-13 for years. “They are decentralized; there is not an MS-13 nerve center. There’s not a central command for most gangs.”
If anything, Leap said, Trump’s rhetoric is making Brentwood’s residents more afraid — and MS-13’s members more powerful.
“[Trump] talks about invading and cleaning out cities. He uses war parlance and gun violence parlance,” Leap said.“I really want to emphasize how this kind of discussion on the part of a misinformed individual actually emboldens MS-13. What all gangs look for is respect and reputation, and this is playing directly into their hands.”