Staten Island Protesters Torment Asylum Seekers With Speakers and Flashlights

Approximately 200 protesters gathered on a tree-lined residential street on Staten Island on Thursday night, many with high-powered flashlights on hand. 

They wielded those flashlights like strobes, beaming bright, jerky light over police barriers, into the windows of a former school where around 60 asylum seekers are living temporarily.

Meanwhile, a man named Johnny Tabacco, a bitcoin-guy-turned-Newsmax-host, wearing an oversized blue pinstripe suit and slicked-back hair, stood on a truck bed and bellowed in a gravelly voice through a PA system that was turned up so loud that this reporter’s ears were still ringing hours later. Tabacco, who is one of the organizers, conceded in a short interview later on that the decibel level was by design. The organizers wanted to send a deafening message to their new neighbors: “You’re not welcome here.” 

The organizers wanted to send a deafening message to their new neighbors: “You’re not welcome here.” 

That sentiment was present in the crowd too. Before Tabacco’s speech, as cigar smoke wafted across the street and a radio station blared ‘80’s and ‘90’s country music over the speakers, protesters mingled, wearing Trump hats and holding signs saying things like “Protect Our Children” and “Get Out of My Country.” “Bottom line, is that they don’t belong here,” one woman told her friend. 

Johnny Tabacco, a Newsmax host, is one of the main organizers of the protests against asylum seekers (Tess Owen for VICE News)

Staten Island, known as the red-voting, wayward sibling of New York City’s five boroughs, has recently become ground zero for a noisy, bullish, anti-migrant movement after city officials, scrambling to accommodate the influx of asylum seekers, repurposed two buildings there, a former Catholic school and a former nursing home, as temporary shelters. 

The protesters were handed a victory this week when a judge ruled that the city’s decision to house asylum seekers in the school was in violation of decades-old zoning regulations for homeless shelters in residential areas. The judge ordered that the facility be vacated, but City Hall reportedly plans to appeal that ruling.

Curtis Sliwa, failed mayoral candidate and head of the Guardian Angels, a nonprofit group that advocates for unarmed crime prevention, was given a hero's welcome when he arrived at the protest on Thursday night. He’s been pushing a long-shot plan for Staten Island to secede and become its own state. “Your victory has resonated across the country and across the world. There are migrant problems all over the world, countries are overrun,” Sliwa boomed through a microphone. “But the battleground, the Alamo, is right here, at St. John’s Villa Academy.”

There’s broad consensus among economists that immigration, in the long term, revitalizes local economies. This has been especially true to New York City, which has a rich history of welcoming immigrants, and has recently struggled to get back on its feet economically after being ravaged by COVID-19. But local officials say that, in the short-term, the price tag for accommodating the some 130,000 asylum seekers and migrants, around half of whom are from Venezuela, will stretch an already stressed budget. They’ve described the situation as a “crisis.” 

Curtis Sliwa, failed mayoral candidate and head of anti-crime organization "Guardian Angels," thinks Staten Island should secede (Tess Owen for VICE News)

Rather than directing anger toward local officials or the broken immigration system, organizers of the Staten Island protesters are turning to an age-old playbook to rile up their followers: Drumming up nativist fears of the “other” and telling residents that they’re under invasion. And protests have been intensifying. Earlier this month, 10 people were arrested and a police officer injured, when protesters attempted to block a bus carrying asylum seekers to a former nursing facility in Staten Island. Protesters banged on the windows and hurled insults to the people inside, which Mayor Eric Adams later described as “an ugly display of how we deal with the crisis.” Last week, a group gathered outside the school and shone flashlights into the windows, screaming things like “You’re illegal,” “You’re not welcome,” and “fuck you.” 

Organizers of the Staten Island protesters are drumming up nativist fears of the “other” and telling residents that they’re under invasion.

“They’re unvetted, how do you know they’re not pedophiles?” Debbie Lobaito, 69, told VICE News at the protest on Thursday. “We’ve been noticing some of the women have been getting picked up here and dropped off later in the evening, so we’re saying it could be prostitution. You know, they have to pay the cartels back for getting them in.”

Retired NYPD commander Tony D, who wouldn’t give his last name, claimed without evidence that the asylum seekers being housed in the school were not women, but are all “military-aged men.” “What are you going to do with military-aged males across the street from females?” said Tony D. “That’s just biology.” He added, also without evidence, that burglaries and car thefts on Staten Island were “up,” but couldn’t point to any evidence indicating a correlation between his new neighbors, who have arrived in the past month, and rising crime rates. 

“These people, they’re gonna turn on us,” said Steve, 39, wearing a red shell suit and yellow-tinted glasses. “Because that’s their MO. That’s what they do. They’re gonna turn on us and they’re gonna take over.” (Steve’s paranoia on Thursday night wasn’t only directed towards the asylum seekers in the former school: he also accused several reporters present of being “antifa.”) 

“It’s disturbing to see the level of vitriol that’s being espoused,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of The New York Immigration Coalition, an advocacy group representing immigration and asylum seeker support groups. “And we are concerned about the safety and wellbeing of not just our newest New Yorkers but our historical immigrant community.”

Awawdeh says that from the perspective of the asylum seekers, the protests are “incredibly scary.” “You think they’re protesting you, and it feels personally horrible,” said Awawdeh.” You feel as if you’ve done something wrong when in the grand scheme of things you’ve done nothing but try to get a bit of support to get yourself acclimated to the new place you’re living in the moment.”

He also expressed frustration about media coverage of the protests in Staten Island. There are just two facilities housing asylum seekers there, out of 200 spread across the city, and the protests don’t reflect the views of the majority of New Yorkers. One recent poll found that the majority of New Yorkers believe the new arrivals are simply seeking a better life and think that the economy will benefit in the long-run. 

One recent poll found that the majority of New Yorkers believe the new arrivals are simply seeking a better life and think that the economy will benefit in the long-run. 

But what’s clear is that the hard-right nationwide are keeping close tabs on Staten Island. From Florida, political operative Roger Stone has been providing breathless commentary on the situation there on his podcast. 

And fringe far-right groups, who were not evidently present at Thursday’s protest, have been using the surge in anti-immigrant sentiment to recruit, as videos of previous Staten Island demonstrations spread widely across extremist social media networks. 

Many in the crowd of protesters voiced baseless concerns that the asylum seekers were secretly pedophiles, and that their children were now less safe. (Tess Owen for VICE News)

The Proud Boys have been touting their newly formed Staten Island chapter, and this week, another new group, “Nationalist Club,” active in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and Maryland, posted a photo of an earlier Staten Island protest, with the caption, writing, “these migrants will assault our women and girls, attack our men and boys, and replace us in our own country. The only solution is to organize against this invasion.” 

And overall, on far-right channels, there seems to be a small shift away from the anti-LGBTQ “grooming” conspiracies, which have had a chokehold on the entire spectrum of the right for over a year, and back to anti-immigrant rhetoric. Many recent actions by the neo-Nazi group NSC-131, which is predominantly active in New England, have focused on shows of intimidation at facilities housing asylum seekers. On one recent occasion, they gathered outside a hotel in Woburn, Massachusetts, that’s housing Haitian refugees. They performed Hitler salutes, lit flares, and held a banner reading, “Invaders Go Home.” 

Much like in 2016, immigration is poised to be a major issue heading into 2024. On the GOP presidential debate stage this week, candidates competed to be the most aggressive on the issue of immigration, and the scenes that played out on Thursday night could well be a harbinger of the grassroots’ approach. 

“This, right here, is the biggest issue,” said Scott LoBaito, a MAGA artist and activist in Staten Island. “People say economy, taxes. No. This is the number one issue. And it started right here.”


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