“How was it, I wondered, that these students did not understand their positionality as white, college-educated students in a majority black and brown, working class neighborhood?“
As a City Councilor in Providence, my role is expansive. These last few months, it has involved delivering food and supplies to elderly and sick neighbors, connecting those who have found themselves laid off or unable to work with aid from social service organizations, and generally serving as a cheerleader for my neighbors. But on Saturday, May 16 as my constituents walked by Providence College (PC), my phone was flooded by calls from audibly upset community members, all wanting to know how these students were getting away with a massive block party, without wearing face masks, at a time when our Governor’s state of emergency remained in effect, limiting gatherings to five people or less.
To understand why my neighbors were so infuriated, one must understand the community I represent. Providence College sits on the boundary of the Smith Hill neighborhood, located in the center of Providence. The median income in my community is lower than most other Providence neighborhoods and the vast majority of residents (80%) are renters. The community is majority-minority and low-income. Like so many other disadvantaged neighborhoods across the nation, Smith Hill has been hit hard by COVID-19. As of May 4th, “the 02908′ – the zip code that comprises Smith Hill and the namesake of a popular off-campus housing company for Providence College students-had the second highest number of cases in the entire state.
In the week leading up to Saturday, I had been notified that students were congregating on their front lawns, in groups far larger than the five-person gathering limit. One local publication even reported that when a community member questioned students who were gathering, she was told to “fall down the stairs.” When, in my role as a City Councilor, I asked the police to enforce the Governor’s executive order that limited such gatherings, I was told there was nothing the police could do.
Like my neighbors, I became more infuriated by the police response and the students’ reckless partying as the day unfolded on Saturday. How was it, I wondered, that these students did not understand their positionality as white, college-educated students in a majority black and brown, working class neighborhood? The reality of the situation was that they didn’t care about the health and safety of my neighbors, essential workers at the local gas station they would stop at for a Gatorade mid-party, or the cashier at the liquor store down the street where they would restock on Bud Light. They did not stop to consider these essential workers because these students are far removed from the pandemic and realities of working class people; they have the immense privilege of deciding that COVID-19 is a hoax, or not worth taking seriously, even as thousands continue to suffer.
As I worked through how to respond to my own anger and the anger of those I proudly represent, I felt that that my neighbors deserved an honest defense. As a 23-year-old City Councilor, I am well-versed in social media, and am comfortable being vulnerable and direct online. At the same time, I am also a recent college graduate, who earned an undergraduate degree just last year. Still, I felt it was hard to relate to the actions of my peers at PC. I took to Twitter and Facebook to express my disgust with the situation and pointed out the obvious connection between the reckless partying of Providence College students and a larger problem in this nation – the treatment of white, upper-class Americans compared to the treatment of black and brown Americans. It seemed obvious to me that had these students not been white, their behavior would have resulted in their arrest.
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What occurred following my statement only served to prove my point. Dozens of PC students immediately took to the comments and to my direct message inbox to call me ugly words and accuse me of inciting a race war. They immediately began to play victim, arguing that their lives had been robbed from them because, what, they had to party in their front lawns instead of in bars? Their messages, claiming that their parties had nothing to do with race and were only a response to what the virus had stolen from them struck me as a poignant juxtaposition to what my neighbors are going through. My neighbors are honest, hard working people whose jobs were taken from them and, in some cases, their documentation status made it impossible to qualify for unemployment benefits. Some had seen their loved ones taken from them without even the chance for a proper funeral.
While inspecting the profiles of those who had messaged me to spew hate and defend themselves, there were many common themes -white boys, from New Jersey and New York, with no real connection to Rhode Island, and certainly no connection to my neighborhood. Out-of-towners who had come to Providence to party and planned to leave the city for good just days after graduation. On the other hand, alumni of color began taking to my inbox as well; they thanked me, shared anecdotes about how white students had treated them during their time at PC and were candid in their disgust – but not surprised by the students’ reckless behavior on Saturday.
This conversation about racism and culture on the Providence College campus was not one I had started, but rather a problem in my city that has gone unaddressed for many years. In 2017, Providence College was named the most segregated school in America by the Princeton Review and today remains in third place on that list. So while I am disgusted by the behavior of the students on Saturday and feel it was undeniably my role to defend my community, whose health is endangered by our student-neighbors, it is the role of the Providence College administration to take responsibility for their students and offer not only an apology, but a plan for systemic change.
If there is one thing we are learning as this pandemic continues to ravage our communities it is that the virus has a way of bringing out the best and worst of all of us. I plan to stand by my neighbors and call out harm done by those who are too privileged to see that when they choose to ignore public health guidelines, they are making a decision that rejects the surrounding community and unnecessarily puts people in danger.