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PrYSM rallies in support of Seng family at Providence City Hall



Sian Seng’s children and nephew were stopped and searched by Providence Police in an apparent violation of the Community Safety Act

“This is my first time organizing on this level, but I had to stand up and say something because of what happened to my family,” said Sian Seng, mother to Athan and Aylei, at a protest in Providence City Hall. “On April 4th my children and nephew were subjected to an illegal police stop and search based on their race. I wasn’t there to defend my family but I’m standing here today to speak about this. This was my children’s first time interacting with police and it was such a horrible and terrifying experience.”

The Seng Family, including the father, Sarith Seng, Athan Seng holding the “I’m Not a Threat” sign, mother Sian Seng and daughter Aylei Seng

Athan is a senior high school student graduating in June. Aylei was born with a heart condition. According to her mother, she “could have had a heart attack when that incident happened. They left my baby in the cold, shivering – shivering! – how dare you guys do that.

“It just bothered me,” continued Seng, getting emotional. “It disturbed me to my core – to my core. My kids are traumatized. I just never thought that this would happen. Today, moving forward, I just don’t want this to happen ever again, to me, to your family, to anybody else.

“As a mother I’m asking you to join me in demanding a full investigation into this incident because my children should not be targeted because of the color of their skin.”

The protest outside Mayor Jorge Elorza‘s office was organized by the Community Defense Project, a program at the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM), who is working with the Seng family to get their demands met. Their list of demands include a full investigation into the traffic stop, as well as an apology to the family.

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PrYSM’s press release notes that after being pulled over, the car Athan Seng was driving was immediately surrounded and searched by six police officers. The only explanation the officers gave for the stop and search, says PrYSM, was that Athan was wearing a blue shirt, “which somehow transformed them into suspected gang members.”

“The first thing they asked me for was a weapon,” said Athan, who was driving the vehicle. He had no weapon and informed the officers of this, yet police continued to search the car and his belongings. Ultimately, they found only his laptop and schoolwork.

Athan and Aylei Seng

PrYSM notes that this incident is the latest in a series of reports coming from community members continuing to be harassed by officers of the Providence Police Department despite the passage of the Community Safety Act (CSA) in June 2017. Also known as the Providence Community Police Relations Act, the CSA was created to limit police practices that tend to target vulnerable communities as well as create an accountability process for when police officers violate community members’ rights.

“Police violence has been happening for years, especially in the Southeast Asian Community. Not to mention that this same community is being impacted by deportation notices which places them in danger of being separated from their families,” said Daniel Chhum, Program Coordinator of the Community Defense Project. “Police violence needs to end now! We need alternatives to redefine community safety without the police.”

Exacerbating these tensions, continues PrYSM, community members have noted an increase in profiling throughout the month of April, significant as many Southeast Asian families and organizations host their New Year’s Celebrations around the city. Southeast Asian New Year’s is a time for people to celebrate pride for their culture and practice religious traditions. Instead of honoring this time, Providence Police have used it as an opportunity to further criminalize Southeast Asians as threats, suppressing the way they celebrate, pray, and thrive in their own communities.

“A lot of us started with nothing and grew up in a neighborhood to struggle, survive and fend for our lives while being racially profiled and criminalized by the police at the same time because of our skin color,” said Linda Heng from PrYSM, tying the Seng family incident into the larger issue of racism against Southeast Asians in Providence and the United States. Now Southeast Asians are again under attack, said Heng. “This time by ICE. And this time they’re being deported back to countries that don’t remember.”

“What was the point of fighting for all those years for the Community Safety Act if we now have police officers who are not following it?” asked PrYSM’s Vanessa Flores-Maldonado, who emceed the protest. She lead a march up the stairs to Mayor Jorge Elorza’s office, which was locked and apparently empty. PrYSM and the Seng family emailed the mayor their concerns.

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Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.