On Wednesday evening at 6pm the Smithfield Town Council is holding a “Virtual Town Forum on Race and Equality” which will include leaders from the Rhode Island Commission on Prejudice and Bias, YMCA of Greater Providence, YWCA Rhode Island and the Anti-Defamation League of New England.
The event is in response to racist graffiti reported by Smithfield resident Kim Ziegelmayer. UpriseRI interviewed Ziegelmayer about her experience, and about her hopes for a positive outcome as her town grapples with its history of racism.
Here’s the full video:
“I walk with my friend on the scenic Stillwater Trail, it’s a one-mile trail that runs by the Woonasquatucket River, several times a week,” said Kim Ziegelmayer. “Near the water Ziegelmayer observed graffiti on the columns supporting the bridge above them.
“I had seen graffiti before but nothing particularly negative or ultra hate in any way. Just graffiti and weird things that you can’t understand.” But on this day, Ziegelmayer saw ten columns with “heinous, racist graffiti.”
“It was primarily racist, there were a couple of anti LGBTQ things, but the vast majority of it was focused on race,” said Ziegelmayer, noting things such as “#BLDM” or “Black Lives Don’t Matter” and “F- George Floyd.”
When Ziegelmayer returned home she emailed the Town Manager, members of the Town Council and all her state representatives. The Town Manager quickly moved to have the graffiti painted over and got the police involved.
“The town did a great job dealing with the physical graffiti,” said Ziegelmayer. The police apprehended three teenagers who were put before the juvenile hearing board.
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Even before ay arrests were made, Ziegelmayer was advocating for restorative justice, not criminal penalties. “It’s not about making enemies and bashing and smashing people, but using this terrible incident to try and foster some positive change.”
“Town leadership is on board with dealing with the incident,” said Ziegelmayer, “but I think that there’s a lot of fear of acknowledging it publicly, as the town. All of the town leaders, save for Representative Gregory Costantino (Democrat, District 44, Lincoln), have posted on Facebook or issued a press release, as individuals, condemning the incident, and that’s great.
“But when the town put the announcement out for the forum, I thought they were going to do a press release that was in response to the incident, but it was just an announcement of the form, without acknowledging the incident.”
Smithfield, like the rest of Rhode Island, has yet to fully reckon with its past in regards to race and racism. Until 2013 there was a street in town, Domin Avenue, named for a leader of the Rhode Island KKK. Klan rallies were common in Grant’s Field in Georgiaville in Smithfield.
Obviously, Smithfield is a very different place today, and like Rhode Island as a whole is in the process of reckoning with its history of slave trade profiteering and other forms of racism and discrimination.
“It will interesting to see how this conversation unfolds,” said Ziegelmayer. “Social justice issues may not be at the top of the things that they pay attention to in their lives. Folks are really not aware of what Black people and people of color in town have gone through, or even the issues. If you’re white and you don’t really know any Black or brown people folks and you’re not hearing from another human being, ‘Hey, this is the stuff that I go through’ or ‘Here’s a story of what happened to me’ it’s just – invisible.”
“Smithfield is not a bad place,” said Ziegelmayer. “But it is definitely conservative and it’s quite white.
“The forum is for residents of Smithfield to share experiences, talk about how the graffiti incident affected them, and hopefully talk about positive things in Smithfield,” said Ziegelmayer. “but it’s more an opportunity for the community to discuss and process the incident and other things it has brought up.”