Civil Rights

The movement for Black Lives in Rhode Island: An overview

“The movement is drawing in Rhode Islanders of all stripes, and it cannot stop now. No matter what voice in this struggle has appealed to you, if you have understood the violence of racist policing, prisons, housing, medicine, and so many other institutions in this state and this country, it is time to fight…“ As in much of the United

Rhode Island News: The movement for Black Lives in Rhode Island: An overview

June 18, 2020, 8:01 am

By Max Binder

The movement is drawing in Rhode Islanders of all stripes, and it cannot stop now. No matter what voice in this struggle has appealed to you, if you have understood the violence of racist policing, prisons, housing, medicine, and so many other institutions in this state and this country, it is time to fight…

As in much of the United States and the world, outrage and uprising made its way to Rhode Island shortly after video of the brutal assassination of George Floyd began to circulate. Within hours, Facebook events for protests were launched. Some 2,000 people marched to the steps of the State House on May 30th. Another youth-led protest followed the same route on June 5th, turning out an estimated 7,000-10,000—Providence’s largest action in recent history. And last Sunday, June 14th, a youth-led action saw some 1,500 protesters speaking out on the State House steps, occupying the plaza until late in the evening.

In the urgency of this moment of struggle for Black lives, many voices and perspectives of discontent have called protests and rallied collective actions. Many have rushed to answer every call to action; many might feel disconnected, struggling to understand the larger movement. We need to summarize the various voices and directions of this uprising to understand where its momentum is leading.

Background: the Rhode Island Left

If you’re not from Rhode Island, or have only recently become active in left organizing, an overview of the state’s ongoing activism will be helpful to understand the current moment. Militant organizing over the last decade has been led by a mix of nonprofits, political organizations, and affinity groups.

Rhode Island has an uncommonly engaged range of nonprofit organizations. Providence ranks among the top metro areas in the country in nonprofits per capita, many of which are deeply rooted in communities. 

These organizations tend to step in where state services fail the most vulnerable. Rhode Island has high Latinx, Southeast Asian, and Black populations including many migrants. Among all these groups, racial inequality and de facto segregation have long been widespread. Rhode Island and city governments have systematically dispossessed natives of their land, prompting reactions such as a 2016 lawsuit by the Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe alleging environmental racism. And while police murders are less common in Rhode Island than elsewhere, profiling, harassment, and brutality are everyday concerns for the Black Rhode Islanders. As a result, many nonprofits working in Black and Brown communities come into contact and contradiction with the police. 

The nonprofit model is favorable for longevity. Organizers are usually paid, allowing them to work full time for their cause, as well as successfully conduct outreach and enact change in their communities. However, nonprofits’ dependence on outside funding can sometimes limit the scope and expression of their political organizing, and the degrees to which they are governed & staffed by the community can vary widely.

Activist organizations also play an important role. The Providence area and greater Rhode Island boast numerous groups focused on prison abolition, racial justice, environmental justice, civil rights, housing, mutual and community aid, and youth voice, among other issues. Political groups organize for the Democratic party, or under the banner of socialism or anarchism. 

Many non-profits and people’s organizations are experienced in fighting for police reform. During the last Black Lives Matter movement of 2014 onward, Providence community members and organizations came together to develop the Community Safety Act (CSA). The act featured limitations on police practices like racial profiling, traffic stops, and searches, and developed additional police oversight including an external review board

The act’s passage in June 2017 was monumental, but the reforms have only gone so far. Demands from June 4th issued by Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) make clear that the CSA has not yet been fully funded or implemented.

These organizations have stepped up and organized widely in the last week. But the early voices of the current movement in Rhode Island emerged from elsewhere.

Early Outrage: New Groups and Mass Actions

The urgency of the early moments of uprising led organizers to channel their energies into new organizations to fight for change. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th, two protests were organized. The first took place the following Saturday, May 30th, led by the recently-formed Black Lives Matter RI (BLMRI, not currently affiliated with the national organization). The second was led by the new youth group Step Up RI a week later on June 5th. The first full week of protest also saw actions across RI in Woonsocket, Narragansett, and Bristol, and BLMRI led a smaller action in majority-white Newport on June 6th.

The massive May 30th and June 5th protests in particular were invaluable statements of solidarity from the Rhode Island community. Black speakers of various backgrounds – including many high school students on June 5th – voiced feelings of anger, fear, and betrayal by the state, and called for unity, self-defense, education, understanding, and a future without racism. Community members distributed water, snacks, and posters. A collective feeling lingered: things have been the same for too long. It is time for change.

At first, the question of how to create change was controversial. Some condemned the police entirely; others cited a few bad apples; others called on the police to stand with the community. Some issued general calls for education or support of Black business. Still others condemned the June 2nd looting that had provoked mayors to issue curfews across the Providence area. One organizer on June 5th, Justice Gaines, called to defund the police in favor of public services.

Earlier that day, Brother Gary Dantzler of BLMRI spoke and took questions from the press at a racial justice event hosted by Governor Raimondo. Dantzler expressed patriotism, upset at seeing African-Americans get a bad reputation, not understanding why people turn to violence. He called open-endedly for opportunities for Black Americans and solutions for a “culture of division,” while praising the governor for her work and affirming that “all cops are not bad, and we have to trust in the law to reform the system.” 

The government’s stance thus far has been questionable. Despite Governor Raimondo’s apparent solidarity and chants of “where is Gina,” it was only after the 9pm curfew began that evening, when many protesters had dispersed and others had taken to the streets, that she finally arrived to speak at the State House. And only after protesters remained in the streets until after midnight, alternately avoiding and dialoguing with police, while riot cops periodically used intimidation tactics to surround protesters and made a handful of arrests, would Providence Mayor Elorza lift the city’s curfew the next morning.

Formulating Demands: the Emerging Defunding Coalition

The June 5th rally seemed to mark a shift. Amid nationwide calls to defund the police, anti-carceral community organizers began mobilizing public support for defunding in Rhode Island. A rapid series of actions emerged, all targeted at state and city budget reviews. 

On Sunday the 7th, an organizer with the RI COVID Response coalition, which includes many prominent nonprofits and activist groups, issued an email template to defund the police targeted at Governor Raimondo. The following day, community organizer Charlotte Abotsi collated similar templates targeted at individual city councils across Rhode Island in a google doc which circulated via social media. 

“Both currently and historically,” these templates read, “police forces have been ineffective at keeping local communities safe by perpetuating the oppression of residents who are people of color, undocumented, mentally ill, disabled, and LGBTQ.” They cite the expansion of multi-million dollar police budgets, including five figure line items for ammunition in many cities and over a million dollars for new recruits in Providence. Each template asks lawmakers to “Imagine what [these millions of dollars] could do for this community if it was invested in education, community mental health services, resources for formerly incarcerated, housing, and other services that have been proven to reduce crime and contribute to the safety and well-being of communities.”

The following day, Abotsi announced that over 2,000 emails had been sent to the Providence city council, who wanted to hear from the people. A facebook event was created inviting the community to an online public hearing that Tuesday evening, while RI COVID Response scheduled a coalition-led protest to defund the police, to be held Wednesday evening near City Hall. IWOC, DARE, Black and Pink, the FIU, AMOR, and Never Again Action all helped to coordinate the latter.

Hundreds joined the meeting on Tuesday, but the open zoom link found its way to out-of-state racists who, unhalted by the council chairman, dominated a large portion of the public speak-out with racial slurs, swearing, and general hate speech. The “raise hand” feature was disabled early on, and another email template called on the council for a fair hearing. 

On Wednesday, select community organizers were invited to testify before the city council. Nearly 400 tuned in online, while hundreds gathered and spoke at the in-person rally in Burnside Park. Testimonies detailed the racist history and present of policing. Vatic Kuumba recounted incidents from 19th century white mobs attacking people and destroying homes in the 18th century Black neighborhoods of Hardscrabble and Snow Town. Speakers at the rally and the hearing gave personal accounts of beatings, destruction of property, and unlawful search by Providence police. The message was clear: money for the police is better spent elsewhere.

Organizers also argued that to dismantle the racists system, they could not stop there. Speaking to the finance committee while being heard through the PA in the park, Abotsi said, “Our collective goal should be the elimination for the need for police, in totality, and the abolition of the prison system. While we work to do this, we create lasting alternatives to punishment and incarceration, which we know, by our own 13th amendment is modern-day slavery. That should be a collective goal. It should not be controversial in the slightest means.”

Hearings will continue in the Providence Finance Committee. A new public hearing for the 2021 budget will be held in-person on Monday, June 22nd at 5pm.

Recent Events: the Youth Voice

Mid last week, two new youth groups, Gen Z: We Want to Live and Progressive Reform Overrides Violence led by gen-Z (PROVZ), called another action for Sunday the 14th. Turnout was high—some 1,500 protesters took the State House steps at one point—and youth voice was loud.

After beginning at Burnside and hosting a 10-minute die-in in front of the Mall, young person after young person stepped up to the mic to loudly read speeches, essays, and calls for change. Speakers were mostly middle and high school students, as well as a girl as young as 9.

Midway through, protesters were joined by a contingent from Code Black RI, a medical organization for Black lives that had marched form Rhode Island Hospital. Many speakers in white coats were medical students in their 20s. 

15-year-old Isabella James Indellicati of Gen Z spoke from the steps, “We need to break this system down to build it back up to suit everybody here… No matter what age, no matter who you are, you have to stand up.” Her co-founder, Jaychele Nicole Schenk, chimed in: “Generations before us weren’t able to accomplish it… and it’s nobody’s fault but the police, and the government and the systems that oppress us.” Brooklyn of PROVZ announced that state officials “are not in charge right now. We are in charge!” “Generations before us weren’t able to accomplish it… and it’s nobody’s fault but the police, and the government and the systems that oppress us.” The protest’s leaders made their message loud and clear: the movement will keep going until real change is won. 

Governor Raimondo, Mayor Elorza, and many other public officials had been invited to join the demonstration. But despite chants of “Gina, where are you?” no state officials made their presence known. Only Tiara Mack, candidate for state Senate, came to the mic. She echoed the call to defund the police: “When we say defund the police, we mean invest in communities!”

Protesters took shifts and occupied the steps until late in the evening.

Keeping Momentum: Many Voices, Many Opportunities

These are just the largest protests in the movement. Last week also saw car caravans from Amnesty International and Showing Up for Racial Justice RI (SURJ), another march of two to three hundred in Newport, protests and vigils in Burriville, North Kingstown, and Northern Rhode Island, and a police abolitionist shabbat service in downtown Providence. 

New actions are being scheduled frequently. Friday evening, Juneteenth, the second annual Dyke and Trans People of Color (DTPOC) March will take place. On Saturday, BLMRI is calling a Black Women Matter action in Burnside park. And later that day, the Providence Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) will host a party to defund the police, marking the fourth consecutive weekend of action at the State House. 

Although the movement in Rhode Island has been peaceful thus far, the police have shown that they are capable of repression. The government flew helicopters over Providence and made arrests during the curfew between June 2nd and 5th, to be counted alongside 61 arrests in the events of June 2nd (more than half of whom were 21 years old or under), as well as several on June 5th. That evening, police and National Guard lined the State House and Providence Place Mall, where they physically assaulted at least one protester. The Fighting Against Natural Gas collective (FANG), which also runs the state’s community bail fund, reportedly bailed out the June 5th protesters the next day

These injustices should be condemned. Yet compared to atrocious violence elsewhere in the country, police actions in Providence have been sufficiently restrained as to make it look like business as usual. But too many Rhode Islanders have recounted their experience with police violence for us to believe our cops to be different. Their restraint likely speaks to the powerful message of the international movement, made clear by three weeks of protest: the more you attack, the harder we’ll fight back.

This fight has been going on far too long. Time and time again, people have raised their voices to call for a final end to this 400-year-old struggle for Black lives. Centuries of struggle, including the last decade, have taught us that sitting back and trusting politicians to make change on our behalf will not be enough. For Rhode Island to overcome the legacy of Providence Plantations, for Black Americans to truly be free, every one of us will have to stand up and fight.

The movement is drawing in Rhode Islanders of all stripes, and it cannot stop now. No matter what voice in this struggle has appealed to you, if you have understood the violence of racist policing, prisons, housing, medicine, and so many other institutions in this state and this country, it is time to fight. Join an organization, join a march, call a politician, act, so that when we finally get rid of our racist institutions, they are gone for good. And it will take every one of us to build something new in their place.