Community & Arts

Advocates for the homeless protest Governor McKee during Christmas tree lighting

For the second year in a row Governor Daniel McKee failed to act on the expanding crisis of homelessness, leaving hundreds of Rhode Islanders, including children, to live without shelter. With better and more compassionate planning, Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee may have avoided having his State House Holiday Celebration and Tree Lighting interrupted by angry activists and unhoused people.

Published on December 1, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist

With better and more compassionate planning, Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee could have avoided having his State House Holiday Celebration and Tree Lighting interrupted by angry activists and unhoused people for the second year in a row. But the Governor has refused to act on the state’s exploding homelessness crisis, leaving over 600 people, including children, suffering on the streets unsheltered.

When members of Mathewson Street Methodist Church, the Rhode Island Poor People’s Campaign, Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE), and unhoused people currently sleeping in tents on State House property entered the State House, they found their band of nearly three dozen met by a nearly equal number of Rhode Island State Police Officers, some undercover, but easily identifiable.

Aside from those who were allowed to enter through the entrance at the lower parking lot, everyone who attended the event had to walk by the 20+ tents set up outside the State House being buffeted by wind and heavy rain.

The Rhode Island State House

“You’re going to do what you’re going to do and you have a right to do it,” said a higher rank officer to Reverence Duane Clinker of Mathewson Street Church upon his arrival, “but there are kids here, and parents came to see their kids.” The officer asked that the protesters not disrupt the kid’s singing.

Of course, that was never the plan, even if the officer’s concern about the kids invited into the State House to sing for the Governor’s celebration seemed hollow given that many children are facing hunger, homelessness, and economic devastation under policies pursued by the administration of Governor McKee.

“The holiday season is the most festive time of year, and the State House Holiday Celebration and Tree Lighting is one of the best ways for Rhode Islanders to come together and spread holiday cheer,” said Governor McKee in a press release for his celebration. Santa and Mrs. Claus, along with performer Billy Gilman, were on hand, as well as performances from various high school groups. Heavy rain, it seems, kept attendance at the event low.

The Governor also planned, along with the First Lady, to read The Night Before Christmas but after lighting the two Christmas Trees, he retreated to his office. Later, the Governor released staged pictures on Facebook, claiming the night a success without mentioning the protests.

When the Governor made his rare appearance at his own party, protesters chanted “Keep your promise!” because the Governor had told advocates that every unhoused person who wanted shelter would have it by Thanksgiving. That was a lie, compounded by the lie the Governor’s office continues to perpetuate that everyone who is outside has been offered shelter and turned it down.

Shortly before the tree lighting ceremony, Governor McKee’s office issued a press release (that does not appear on the Governor’s website nor was it sent to Uprise RI) which stated that the Cranston Street Armory would be opened soon as a 24/7 warming center that could accommodate up to 50 people at a time. This move would help a mere 8% of those currently experiencing homelessness in the state stay warm during the winter. At one point, protesters tried to remind the Governor of this fact, chanting, “600 Outside!” a reference to the current and growing number of people in Rhode Island experiencing homelessness.

The theme of the protest was “2000 Years, Still No Room” a reference to the Christian story of the birth of Jesus, whose parents, Mary and Joseph, found no shelter while traveling. Mary was forced to give birth to Jesus in a manger. Two people who are currently living in tents outside the State House dressed as Mary and Joseph at the protest, a stark reminder that Christianity is welcomed at the State House when it comes to identifying the holiday tree as a Christmas Tree, but not when it comes to sheltering vulnerable, low-income people. At another point protesters chanted the question, “What would Jesus do?”

Two trees were lighted. The State House Christmas Tree, which occupies the State House rotunda under the Capitol dome, and, the “Heroes Tree – which includes handmade decorations in tribute to Rhode Island’s fallen service members.”


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Protesters chanted during the lighting of the Christmas tree, but were silent during the lighting of the heroes tree.

The Governor gamely lit the trees and then quickly retreated to his offices.

“We made our point,” said Reverend Duane Clinker to the protesters after the event was over. “I suspect the struggle is just beginning. Get prepared. Be kind to each other. We’re planting seeds here. They’re going to grow. But they’ll take their time.”

“We don’t know what’s going on with this man upstairs,” continued Reverend Clinker, then, smiling and pointing his thumb towards the Governor’s offices, continued, “That man – not the other man I was referring to – So, be patient, be strong. We’re going to keep going, yes?”

The crowd filtered out of the State House with no incidents. It was an entirely peaceful demonstration. The State Police quickly locked the doors of the State House after the protesters departed.

The Rhode Island State House prior to the event
The Rhode Island State House front entrance area
The Governor makes a rare appearance before retreating back stage.

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