Providence Police enforce picketing ordinance against protesters outside Mayor’s home“You cannot protest illegally.“ About ten minutes into a Friday evening “noise demonstration” outside the home of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, the Providence Police arrived on the scene. They soon began pushing abolitionist protesters away from the home citing a City ordinance against neighborhood protests. Two years ago, the ACLU of Rhode Island raised concerns that the City of Providence
Published on July 19, 2020
By Steve Ahlquist
“You cannot protest illegally.“
About ten minutes into a Friday evening “noise demonstration” outside the home of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, the Providence Police arrived on the scene. They soon began pushing abolitionist protesters away from the home citing a City ordinance against neighborhood protests. Two years ago, the ACLU of Rhode Island raised concerns that the City of Providence could pick and choose when to enforce this ordinance based on what a protest is about, and urged Mayor Elorza to propose a cancellation of the ordinance in order to protect First Amendment rights and prevent abuses of police power.
“This is a neighborhood. This is a city street,” said an officer, approaching the group gathered outside of the Mayor’s home. “You cannot protest in a city neighborhood. It’s a City ordinance. You cannot protest in a neighborhood. You got to keep it moving.”
This protest was the third organized by Making Abolition Though Collective Humanity (MATCH), an informal multi-racial collective of prison and police abolitionists. This was their second protest outside the home of Mayor Elorza; the collective has also protested outside the home of Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo. According to MATCH, Providence Police referenced this same ordinance at the first protest at the Mayor’s home, but cited volume as a possible cause for arrest at the protest outside the Governor’s home.
MATCH’s demand on Friday was for the Mayor to commit to a 70% reduction in police funding. Elorza publicly expressed interest in defunding after a historic nine hour City Council meeting, but did not commit to a specific amount.
“If you’re not moving you’ll be arrested. Let’s go,” said the officer to the protesters, as other officers moved closer. “The neighborhood heard you. They all know you’re out here. It’s time to move.”
“You cannot protest illegally.”
Protesters countered that the police officers were in violation of an ordinance, since they were not wearing face coverings. An Executive Order issued by Mayor Elorza on May 8th states that “any person who is in a place open to the public, whether indoors or outdoors, shall cover their mouth and nose with a mask or cloth covering.”
The ordinance against neighborhood picketing and protesting reads, in part, that “it shall be unlawful for any person to engage in picketing before or about the residence or dwelling of any individual.”
The enforcement of this ordinance has not been consistent. In October of 2018 there were protests outside the home of convicted child rapist Richard Gardner. At that time, Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, wrote an open letter to Mayor Elorza noting that those protests took place without interference from the Providence Police officers that were on the scene, despite the City ordinance which bans residential protests and picketing.
“The ACLU has long opposed laws that ban residential picketing [on First Amendment grounds,]” said Brown. He also noted that the Mayor made public comments about Gardner’s rights at a community meeting which took place immediately before the first protest in front of Gardner’s home.
“With your knowledge and approval… the police have allowed these gatherings to take place in front of Mr Gardner’s home without interference,” he continued, “We agree that… they should have the right to peacefully congregate in front of his home to express their views.”
Brown explained that the City cannot tacitly approve of the protests outside the residence of Richard Gardner and then later enforce the ordinance against other protesters. The City does “not have the right to pick and choose when it will enforce the ordinance depending on what the picketing happens to be about. As a result, groups that may have been deterred by the ordinance from engaging in residential picketing in Providence in the past – such as political groups wishing to protest in front of the house of a public official, or consumer groups desiring to shame a slum landlord in front of his home – will, we assume, be afforded the same rights and privileges to engage in residential protests that those picketing in Washington Park have been afforded, notwithstanding Sec. 16-13.1.”
“This letter is simply to put the City’s actions on record should there ever be a time when City officials, in blatant violation of the First Amendment, decide to begin selectively enforcing the ordinance against other peaceful residential protesters.” he said, concluding, “Indeed, to avoid such an obvious abuse of the police power, we would urge you to propose the ordinance’s repeal at the earliest opportunity.”
MATCH issued the following statement about the protest:
Around 9:30 PM on Friday July 17, Making Abolition Through Collective Humanity (MATCH) and other autonomous affinity groups surprised the Mayor with a spectacle of noise, fireworks, small barricades, smoke grenades and chants–completely undisrupted–until the police arrived approximately ten minutes into the demonstration. Neighbors smiled and showed us signs of support.
Once the police arrived, we began reading off the (at least) 367 names of people killed by police since March 12, the day Breonna Taylor was murdered in her home. We read off approximately 30 names before police forced us out of the public sidewalk through intimidation tactics including their refusal to wear masks. We did not have the numbers to hold the space.
Some may question why we are targeting Mayor Elorza, the son of Guatemalan immigrants. Recently, the Mayor announced a “reparations process.” This framing seems promising, but as usual, the devil is in the details. When asked whether Elorza is considering criminal justice reform as part of the reparation process he replied: “In all truth, that’s not the spirit that we’ve been pursuing up until this point.” The “reparations process” as outlined is toothless at best and at worst intentionally devised to divert attention away from calls for defunding the police. The Mayor had expressed some interest in defunding the police previously, but he has not committed. In some ways this is unsurprising: politicians recognize that without police as their foot soldiers they are just people randomly telling other people what to do. Police violence is needed to enforce their rule over us.
Black brown and indigenous people immersed in bourgeois offices cannot and will not enrich the lives of their constituents, only their donors. Elorza’s allegiances do not align with colonized peoples, but rather with the class he represents: that of the bourgeoise. He has been anti-labor and Black and brown people are often low-wage laborers in settler States. Elorza has proven time and time again he is the enemy of the colonized working class. He betrayed the firefighters, attempted to privatize the water to transform Providence into another Flint, increased surveillance with $80,000 cameras in majority underfunded Black, Latinx, and Asian neighborhoods, and hesitated for years before turning Providece into a sancuary city (as a Guatemalan!). We cannot rely on him to make eanest decisions out of beneficience. Justice must be seized.
Politicians rarely feel the tragic effects of their policies. They lounge comfortably in their homes, while millions of disproportionately Black, brown, indigenous people–who often have disabilities–are locked in cages and are harassed by police on the streets.
No Justice No Sleep actions aim to disrupt their comfort.
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