His opponent is claiming Rose marched with those demanding a cut to NYPD funding. But the people who organized the event say that was definitely not the message most marchers were sending.

Office of Rep. Rose

Rose with members of the NYPD Auxiliary in May.

Isaiah Buffong had no idea Congressman Max Rose would show up to the protest he helped organize on Staten Island. Formed in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement, Buffong and other local young people felt they needed an outlet for their voices to be heard. The Young Leaders of Staten Island group was born a few months ago to address the experiences and needs of the island’s under-30 population. 

Leading participants down the island’s main street, Hylan Boulevard, Buffong was surprised when he saw Rose join their march. He politely asked Rose to step back and let him and the other youth lead the group. Rose complied, and kept a relatively low profile throughout. He tweeted a photo at the march, alongside his wife and infant child. In the caption, Rose highlights that the march is to honor George Floyd and other Black lives lost due to “senseless acts of violence.” 

Weeks later, video and photos from the protest appeared in campaign ads for Nicole Malliotakis, Rose’s opponent. The ads claim Rose supports the recent “defund the police” movement, a dividing topic on Staten Island, New York City’s lone republican district.

In a sea of blue, Staten Island stands out in red, the only borough Donald Trump won in his home city during the 2016 election. Two years later, the district elected Rose, only the second Democrat to win the seat in the last 38 years. Now the centrist Congressman faces “the fight of his life” according to the state Democratic chairman, in part because of Malliotakis’ efforts to tie him to the left.

A video that came out of the protest shows Rose outside of Staten Island’s 122nd precinct surrounded by fellow participants. In the 17-second video, the “defund” chant runs for about five seconds, and seems to be taken up by only a minority of the crowd. Rose has a face mask on, but does not seem to be joining in with the chanting. The Staten Island Advance‘s 957-word article about the event makes no mention of defunding.

Malliotakis posted the video on her Facebook page at the end of June with the caption “Max Rose stood with those demanding NYC Defund the NYPD. At 6 p.m. the City Council will vote to do it. He’s no different than de Blasio & must be defeated.”

Kevin Walton, another member of the Young Leaders of Staten Island, thinks the Malliotakis’ videos are misleading. Walton also assisted with organizing the march and says that though the NYPD’s budget is a concern, the group’s call is for the NYPD to use some of its money in a different way, on work like partnerships with community groups, not slashing the agency’s spending. “The mission of the protest was for police accountability,” Walton says.

When news of the plan for the march broke, the group received violent threats from fellow Staten Islanders on social media saying they’d be “ready with shotguns” if the group came through the mostly white southern neighborhoods on the island. “The police released a statement before we did the march saying that they are working with us,” Walton explains. “The statement says we are not promoting violence, because that’s what some members of the South Shore who disagree with our ideals and ideologies were saying.”

Malliotakis’ campaign used footage of the march in a number of ads to denounce Rose. Buffong was surprised, and outraged, to see his face in one of them on T.V. “It was just terrible. It just really pops up everywhere,” Buffong says. “I don’t want my community to get a bad taste in their mouth based on false information.”

Buffong is seen with a bullhorn juxtaposed against other images depicting NYPD cars on fire or a protestor with a sign that says “Burn the City Down.” Those images are not from the protest Rose attended. “This march didn’t go violent. This march didn’t have any incidents,” Buffong says. “If [Malliotakis] was really listening to it, she would’ve understood it was about change.”

Walton points out that the “defund the police” phrase wasn’t in their line-up of chants. “She took something that was so small and made it the focus,” Walton says. Buffong says that the chants were started by some of the other hundreds of participants and was not the message of his group. 

Isaiah Buffong, a member of Young Leaders of Staten Island. (Credit: Instagram/@youngleaders_si)

After the release of the Malliotakis campaign ad, Rose reached out to Buffong to apologize for dragging the youth group into a political game. Buffong says Malliotakis took the protest scene out of context. He was also disappointed that Malliotakis would cast the district she represents in such a negative light. Buffong maintains he and the rest of the organization want to work with police, not against them. 

In September, Buffong called a press conference demanding the removal of the ads and asking Malliotakis to denounce them. Though Malliotakis says she did not pay for those particular ads where Buffong is shown with violent images, others that she has paid for feature the footage of Rose at the march. 

While Rose may not have believed he was joining a march to defund the police, some argue that he should have walked away from it when fellow participants began to call for defunding if he was really against it, including vice president of the NYPD Sergeant’s Benevolent Association Vincent Vallelong, who criticized Rose at a recent press conference

Rose has tried several times to assure his constituents that he does not support defunding the police, even underscoring it in his own campaign ad. 

Compared with the flak Rose has received, Malliotakis has faced less heat for her own participation in a controversial march: the July event in Dyker Heights where some in the crowd spewed racist and sexist epithets.