Editorial & Opinion

Senator Mendes: Protesting on State House grounds allowed if you’re not homeless?

When Senator Mendes camped outside the State House in protest of Governor McKee’s policies on homelessness, Capitol and State Police Officers “admitted that we had the right to be there. From that night on, we were left alone to exercise our right to protest peacefully,” writes the Senator.

Published on December 15, 2022
By Cynthia Mendes

Statement from Senator Cynthia Mendes on the affidavit she submitted in the Superior Court complaint against Governor Daniel McKee’s eviction of unhoused people on State House property 

This week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Center for Justice filed a complaint against Governor Daniel McKee, alleging that the Governor’s attempt to evict dozens of our unhoused neighbors from State House Plaza is a violation of their Constitutional right to freedom of speech as well as the state’s Homeless Bill of Rights

The grounds of the State House are a public forum where the government’s ability to restrict freedom of speech and expression is supposed to be the most limited. I have submitted and affidavit in this case because last winter, from November 30, 2021, to December 16, 2021, I, along with many others, slept in a tent directly outside the North Entrance to the State House to stand in solidarity with all unhoused Rhode Islanders and protest Governor McKee’s refusal to ensure that every Rhode Islander has dignified shelter and that no one was left sleeping outside in the winter. 

On our first night of protest, as we set up tents, a Capitol Police officer informed us that we would be arrested if we chose to stay. However, once the State Police arrived, it became clear that that was not the case. When we challenged the State police on the grounds for arrest, an officer admitted we were not breaking any state law or city ordinance.”

When asked if the protestors would be arrested, a uniformed State Police officer responded: “No. I mean, everybody, everyone has the right to peaceful protest, right? From what I understand, this is the people’s house. Like you said, we just came down to see what the plan was and make sure everything does stay orderly.” 

This video, along with the other filmed interactions I had with State and Capitol Police that night, clearly shows that Officers and State Troopers admitted that we had the right to be there. From that night on, we were left alone to exercise our right to protest peacefully. 

In the video, Capitol Police inform Senator Mendes that the State police will arrive and evict her. Later, when the State Police arrive, they wish Senator Mendes well in her protest.

“The ongoing attempt by Governor McKee and his administration to evict and displace dozens of unhoused people from State House Plaza is purely an attempt to hide from public view his utter failure to keep his word for a safe and dignified housing and shelter plan for the winter.

“Last year, Governor Mckee hired Josh Saal as the state’s first ‘housing czar,’ a high salary position costing Rhode Island taxpayers over $170,000, which has yet to yield any plan that addresses the needs of the over 400 and (quickly climbing) Rhode Islanders sleeping outside right now. 

“I will continue to work with my friends on the ground caring for Rhode Islanders whom Governor Daniel McKee blatantly disregards. I will be donating and volunteering with Mathewson Street Church, Better Lives Rhode Island, and Direct Action for Rights and Equality… because they have been on the front lines fighting for the people suffering and struggling to survive at the hands of Governor Daniel McKee’s cruelty and incompetence.”

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