The Uprising August 23, 2019

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“…when you engage in that kind of civil disobedience, what you expect is to be handled professionally,” said Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha.

It was hard to avoid the ongoing repercussions from the “incident” at the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls a week ago Wednesday. That’s when a group of Wyatt Correctional Officers assaulted peaceful protesters opposed to the for-profit prison’ contract with the United States Marshall Service to hold United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees, first with a pickup truck, then with pepper spray.

So despite other things happening this week, we’re starting out with Wyatt.

1a. Peter Neronha

“It is my expectation that this investigation will wrap up in the next several weeks,” said Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha during a press conference about the incident at the Wyatt. “We will have more information to share at that time.”

Neronha said that the investigation is complicated due to the enormous number of witnesses and the amount of video taken on the scene. Neronha will be concentrating on “the operation of the vehicle” and “the deployment of what is commonly known as pepper spray.”

Neronha ended the press conference with a defense of the first amendment, saying:

“We have in this country a fundamental right to peacefully protest,” said Neronha. “When you engage in peaceful protest – and people who engage in protest know this – and you’re blocking a roadway – You, know, there was a case a number of years ago where some protesters blocked 95, I believe it was in the wake of Ferguson – Look, I understand the emotion behind it, I understand the principles that are trying to be upheld, [but] there comes a point where you are obstructing public safety, putting others in danger, where you can be arrested.

“I think most protesters know that. But when you engage in that kind of civil disobedience, what you expect is to be handled professionally,” concluded Neronha. “That is a right that I take seriously and I know all Americans do.”

Peter Neronha

1b. Central Falls Police Department

In the immediate aftermath of the incident at the Wyatt, officers with the Central Falls Police Department refused to take statements from witnesses and victims. I certainly noticed that the police seemed eager to dissuade people from giving statements, and former State Representative Aaron Regunberg said the same in a statement to the press.

Central Falls Police Department Chief, Colonel Daniel Barzykowski, denied that (though as far as I can tell, Barzykowski was not on the scene of the protest.) “We asked anyone that saw anything to come to the station and file a report,” Barzykowski told the Providence Journal.

I spoke with over a dozen people who told me that they had to fight to make a statement, even the next day at the Central falls Police headquarters.

Lauren Katherine Pothier was hit was pepper spray. She writes:

“After I got my sight back and the extreme pain went away, I was told I could go give my witness statement to the Central Falls Police on the scene. I was led over, on my crutch (due to an unrelated and previous ankle sprain injury) and waited with others to give my statement. The police officer closed his notebook and announced, ‘we have names and numbers, we will reach out to you if we need you to come in to give a statement.’

“‘But you didn’t get all of our names,’ one person said.

“‘Well, we can’t get all of your names. One hundred people saying the same thing isn’t helpful,’ said the Officer.

“We communicated to that officer that we wanted our statement to be heard. After a few back and forths, he said something along the lines of, ‘We are in Central Falls. There is so much crime in this city, I don’t have time to be here all night. I will be at my next crime scene in ten minutes.’

“‘You’re at a crime scene now!’ someone said.

“I had to camp out at the Central Falls Police Department for two hours [the day after the incident] before I could get interviewed, and they tried multiple times to get me to just leave a written statement and go home,” said another witness.

Chloe Chassaing writes in detail about her attempts to make a statement:

“Several of the people who came, who had intended to give testimony, decided to leave after giving their names and phone numbers to the attendant,” writes Chassaing. “They did not provide written testimony and were denied the option to do so.”

Later, when a crowd of people insisted on giving a statement, an officer said said that “they were overwhelmed and things like ‘there are only so many workers’ and ‘it’s a busy city.’ meant to discourage us from providing written testimony,” writes Chassaing.

At this Wednesday’s press conference, which may have been called in response to these kinds of stories, Central Falls Police Chief Daniel Barzykowski said that, “I believe my officers acted appropriately and responsibly to the unfortunate incident that occurred. We’re going to work together to ensure the public’s trust.”

Attorney General Peter Neronha was keen to say that those interested in making statements were free to call:

  • Rhode Island State Police, Detective Robert Hopkins – (401) 764-5539
  • Central Falls Police, Lieutenant Frank Rodriguez, 401-616-2508
  • Attorney General’s Office, Mark Blair – (401) 274-4400 x2236

1c. Never Again Providence

On Tuesday Never Again Providence, one of the groups that organized the protest at the Wyatt (along with AMOR (Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance), Fuerza Laboral, the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis, Reconstructing Judaism, T’ruah (The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights), the Rhode Island Committee for Muslim Advancement, the Rhode Island Council of Churches, Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM), and others), held a press conference outside the Rhode Island State House to issue the following demands:

  • State leaders must shut down the Wyatt, now, and call for the release of all ICE detainees held there.
  • The General Assembly must pass legislation banning the operation of private, for-profit prisons in Rhode Island, to ensure that the Wyatt never reopens in its current form again.
  • Through legislation or executive order, Rhode Island must ban collaboration and cooperation with ICE in any form, at the state and local level.

There were statements from several community leaders, including Rabbi Sarah Mack, President of the the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, who said, “We denounce and call for an investigation into the actions of the employees of this for-profit facility. We are here today to stand by our allies and endorse their demands. We will remain steady in our commitment to nonviolent action even in the face of such callous disregard for the lives and safety of our friends, our neighbors, our congregants and our students, as those who were present last week sang many times Olam Chesed Yibaneh, we will build this world from love.”

Ruby and Sam Goldstein

But the most riveting statements came from brother and sister Sam Goldstein (age 17) and Ruby Goldstein (age 15) who described the harrowing events at the Wyatt a week previous.

“I didn’t notice the black pickup truck until the headlights were suddenly feet away from us,” said Ruby.

“I honestly feel like if I hadn’t jumped out of the way, I would have been hit,” said Sam.

“I jumped up and backwards as it swerved into our line of peaceful protesters,” said Ruby.

“At first my reaction was to think that the driver hadn’t seen us,” said Sam. “Then, as he plunged forward again, I knew this wasn’t an accident. He deliberately drove a truck into a crowd of people.”

“I turned round and covered my ears, fearing there was a person beneath the vehicle, not wanting to hear their screams,” said Ruby. “We rushed to stop the truck from advancing any further by standing in front of it.”

“We had no time to process what had just happened before other officers came towards us, aggressively pushing us out of the way,” said Sam. “These officers seemed to be angry at us before they got there. I was worried that this confrontation was going to end with someone seriously hurt.”

“They weren’t there to save us or punish this man for driving into us,” noted Ruby. “They were there to help him get his truck into the employee parking lot.”

“They kept pushing pushing us back forcefully, then, without warning, the pepper spray,” said Sam.

“I dropped to the ground, covering my face, before I ran from the uniformed men,” said Ruby. “I was terrified.”

1d. Central Falls Mayor James Diossa

Mayor James Diossa, who may be worried about running afoul of the judge deciding a civil case against him and other city leaders brought by the Wyatt’s bondholders, who are fighting to keep the for-profit prison open and to keep the profitable ICE contract in place, issued a tepid press release thanking Attorney General Neronha and the Rhode Island State Police or taking the lead on investigating the incident at the Wyatt.

1e. Thomas Woodworth

The Correctional Officer who drove his pickup truck into protesters, Thomas Woodworth, was initially put on leave, but quickly resigned from his job. This prompted a statement from Never Again Providence saying that, “Woodworth’s resignation is just the beginning. First, he should face criminal charges for his actions which endangered the lives of protesters on Wednesday night. The other officers who indiscriminately pepper-sprayed a distraught and traumatized crowd must face accountability for the violence they enacted, which sent three more people to the hospital,” adding, “If these officers felt empowered to attack a group of protesters in front of the public and the media, imagine what kind of violence must be taking place inside the prison, out of site, against vulnerable immigrants and people of color.”

1f. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

State and local policymakers can take key steps to better integrate immigrants, including immigrants who are undocumented, into the mainstream economy and foster community well-being, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Giving all residents access to economic opportunity would enable them to earn higher wages, spend more at businesses, and contribute more in taxes that are used to fund schools and other investments that are critical to a strong economy, the report finds. Harsh anti-immigrant policies, in contrast, harm workers and their children and likely weaken the economy.

“At a time when federal immigration policies are causing widespread harm, it is both sound policy and beneficial to states to pursue supportive policies that assuage fears and provide opportunity for all of their residents – regardless of their national origin, their religion, the color of their skin, or the language they speak,” Senior Policy Analyst Eric Figueroa of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained.

The report reviews states’ policies in four key areas that support undocumented residents’ economic well-being: driver’s licenses, in-state tuition and state financial aid for college students, stronger labor law enforcement, and health coverage for all children.

Whether the Rhode Island General Assembly will be convinced by science and effectuate smart change or merely fallback on years of ingrained prejudice remains to be seen.

2. Sunrise RI and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

“We are tired of Senator Whitehouse,” said Yesenia Puebla of Sunrise. “We have asked him 10 times to support the Green New Deal and sign the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge. He said ‘no’ every single time. It’s clear he is prioritizing corporations over his constituents. We need him to take immediate action because it’s clear that this is a climate emergency.”

Sunrise Providence and South County Sunrise combined forces outside United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse‘s 10th annual family Clambake fundraiser to “make it clear to every attendee and the Senator himself that we do not tolerate his inaction on [the climate crisis] and his continued cooperation with the very same corporations who are leading the charge towards climate catastrophe.”

As Whitehouse entertained supporters at his clambake, the protesters outside the event talked about his inaction on and support for additional fossil fuel infrastructure here in Rhode Island.

“Here are some additional slimy facts about Senator Whitehouse” said Yesenia Puebla of Sunrise. “Whitehouse has taken $38,500 from National Grid, the company who will build a liquefied natural gas plant in South Providence that will have negative health impacts on communities of color. Whitehouse, who is supposedly the climate champion, originally supported the creation of power plant in Burrillville that would burn diesel fuel and fracked gas, spewing harmful toxins across the region and destroying a critical wetland forest. He only remained neutral after he got pushback from communities.”

3. Moms Demand Action

About 150 people, most wearing the now iconic red tee shirts emblazoned with the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America logo, gathered in Biltmore Park (near Kennedy Plaza) in downtown Providence on Saturday for a “recess rally.” The rally, attended by United States Senator Jack Reed (Democrat, Rhode Island) and other elected officials, was held to “to call upon [the] United States Senate to bring universal background checks and red flag laws up for a vote…”

Universal background checks would require almost all firearms transactions in the United States to be recorded and go through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), closing what is sometimes called the private sale exemption. Red flag laws permit police or family members to petition a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person who may present a danger to others or themselves.

Some of the speakers gave emotional testimony on the effects of gun violence.

“My son Stephen lost his life to a senseless, random act of gun violence in October of 2011 just two days before 24th birthday,” said Myra Latimer. “At the time of Stephen’s death he left behind a five-year-old daughter. Our entire life has been impacted by this senseless act. My granddaughter lost her father. My son lost his brother and best friend. I lost my firstborn child. I’m raising my son’s daughter, because he’s not here to do that…”

Myra Latimer

“I live in fear that if I put on a pair of heels, if I wear my sash, if I express love to my partner, if I express my gender the way that I want – that that will give somebody permission to harm me,” said Bret Jacob, Mr Gay Rhode Island. “So what does our community do when faced with this possibility? We create spaces that are for us. We have our own bars, our own nightclubs, sports leagues, coffee shops, medical facilities – We have spaces where, for a moment, we can be liberated of fear and pressure to be someone that we are not and the fear of the consequences of expressing ourselves the way we want outside in the world.

“Those spaces are important. And what happened in 2016, at Pulse, was a violation of our space. It was a violation of space that we made for ourselves when nowhere else felt safe. The LGBT community is the second highest classification of hate crimes that are reported and classified as hate crimes. Gay men are more likely to experience gun violence as a result of those hate crimes and our space was violated by a horrific mass shooting. There is nowhere that is safe for us anymore.

“This issue of gun violence is an LGBTQ+ issue and as much as this is, I hope, informative, it is also a call to action. To everyone in our community who is unsure of how to mobilize in a post marriage equality world, of what issue to focus on, this is one of those issues.”

Bret Jacob

4. Protecting Democracy

United States Representative David Cicilline (Democrat, Rhode Island), United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (Democrat, Rhode Island), and Representative John Sarbanes (Democrat, Maryland), who serves as the Chair of the House Democracy Reform Task Force, hosted a press conference in North Providence Thursday to outline steps that House Democrats have taken to fight back against corruption and self-dealing that has prevented Washington from taking action to address national emergencies, including climate change, gun violence, and the opioid epidemic.

The purpose of the press conference “is to keep pressure on the Senate Majority Leader” to take up and bring to a vote H.R. 1, said Cicilline.

Cicilline also wanted to present “some real life examples of the corrosive effect” money has on the political system on a national and local level.

Th corrupting influence of money on politics is the real reason that Congress seems unable to pass meaningful legislation on guns and climate change, said Cicilline and Whitehouse.

5. Opeds

UpriseRI is always eager to publish excellent opeds, and this week we have two, on education and homelessness:

6. Convergence RI

  • Blinded by the lead: Missing from the discussion about improving education in the Providence schools is 30 years of data, research and analysis that shows high blood lead levels in children may be the root cause of problems in education attainment and behavioral disruption

7. The Bartholomewtown Podcast

8. The Womxn Project

Reproductive justice is “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities,” according to SisterSong, the national, women of color, Reproductive Justice collective. We advance and secure these rights when we make sure young people get sex ed in their classrooms and we can all afford contraception and healthcare to manage our bodies and have healthy pregnancies. It is integral that if we need to end a pregnancy we can get an abortion. But it is also essential that we stand up for these same rights for immigrant women and families in our state. We must ensure safety, autonomy and liberation regardless of immigration status.”

9. Picture of the Week:

Senator Bridget Valverde and Represenattives Rebecca Kislak and Liana Cassar

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About Steve Ahlquist 1052 Articles
Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade.Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading.atomicsteve@gmail.com