“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.”
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“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: