On Sunday, beginning at Grace Cemetery, where Elmwood Avenue and Broad Street split, a hearse-led motorcade made its way through Providence and to the Rhode Island State House where community members – including overdose survivors, those who have lost family members, and frontline harm reduction workers and peer recovery specialists – spoke out about the human cost of the overdose epidemic and to hold a vigil for those lost.
After three years of decreased overdose mortality, 2020 was the deadliest year for overdoses in Rhode Island’s history. At least 345 people have died, although the official numbers are still being verified and are likely over 400. The social isolation produced by COVlD-19, employment and housing instability, the disruption of state services, and the increased penetration of Fentanyl analogs into the drug supply contributed to this unacceptable loss of life. All of these factors have affected Black, Indigenous, and communities of color most heavily. These communities increasingly represent the epicenter of this now decades old crisis. Also, decades of criminalization of communities of color have exacerbated these inequities.
The vigil was organized by the Coalition to Save Lives, a “collective of people working on many different aspects of the overdose epidemic.” The coalition writes:
“Most of us have lived experience with substance use and/or identify as being in recovery ourselves. Many of us are leaders and frontline workers in our state’s overdose response. We are a collective that believes that harm reduction saves lives and advocate for improved harm reduction measures.”
At the vigil, Brown University medical students stood by wooden caskets, representing those lost. Speakers addressed the crowd in the sub-zero, windy weather, where candles had no chance of maintaining their flame.
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“We have been hearing the numbers of overdose fatalities on the news, currently we are at 345 deaths in the state of Rhode Island, this tally may be even higher once Medical Examiner data is ﬁnaﬁzed,” said Sarah Edwards, a person in long-term recovery and a certified Peer Recovery Specialist. “It is easy to just view this as a statistic, acknowledging ‘wow, that’s a big number.’ But for us, people who have been directly affected by this, realize it’s not just but a deeply personal and devastating reality. For number is a person, a friend, family member, neighbor, our community members. It is important to commemorate the loved ones we have lost, and not let them be forgotten or lumped into statistical sum or buried under the news of COVID.”
“Through my work I’ve heard too many stories from sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, cousins, grandparents and friends,” said Ashley Perry, Director of Project Weber/RENEW and advocate for people who use drugs and people in recovery. “So many of them echoing each other, families not knowing where to turn to help their loved ones. Families feeling alone, feeling like they’re the only ones experiencing this tragedy. So today We are asklng our elected officials here in Rhode Island to declare a state of emergency around our current overdose epidemic. We will never solve a problem we refuse to recognize.
“The opposite of addiction is not recovery and it is not sober/ clean,” continued Perry. “The opposite of addiction is connection. We need to find ways to help everyone involved get connected because addiction and overdose affect us all. Today as I stand here and see all of you who came out to mourn and grieve with each other I am reminded of a quote from Mother Jones – “Mourn the dead, but fight like hell for the living.”
Lily Rivera, Assistant Director of Project Weber/RENEW, delivered her message in Spanish and English:
“It’s a cold day today. Some of us are shivering, we’re uncomfortable,” said Machiste Rankin. ‘This is an uncomfortable conversation. It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have to sit down and be told that your family member has died. And they died because of something that was preventable.”
Laurie McDougall from REST (Resources and Education in Support Together) addressed the crowd:
Taryn Wyron, a clinician and Jewish ritualist, and Reverend Perkins, provided some religious words and prayers.