Politics & Elections

Governor McKee’s tree lighting disrupted by protesters against homelessness

“Hundreds of people are sleeping on the streets tonight. What would Jesus do?” asked protester Monica Huertas.
Photo for Governor McKee’s tree lighting disrupted by protesters against homelessness

Published on December 3, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

The continuing protest against homelessness organized by State Senator Cynthia Mendes (Democrat, District 18, East Providence) amplified on Thursday evening as a group of about 50 people disrupted Governor Daniel McKee‘s ceremonial Christmas Tree lighting.

For the last three nights Senator Mendes has been sleeping in a tent on the north side of the Rhode Island State House grounds. On the first night Mendes was joined by five people, including gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown. Senator Mendes is running for Lieutenant Governor in partnership with Brown.

On the second night 13 people joined Mendes in sleeping in tents, and on Thursday more tents were erected and more people had committed to sleeping outside.

As the Governor’s Tree Lightning ceremony got underway on the south side of the State House, Senator Mendes held a vigil and a short speaking program. At the end of the speaking program a group of people marched around the State House and approached the Governor’s celebration. After Governor McKee and his spouse lit the tree and began a live reading of “The Night Before Christmas” protesters began chanting, “What do we want? Housing for all! When do we want it? Now!”

State Police officers moved in and attempted to confiscate a bullhorn, but protesters use their bodies to block the police, and protesters continued to exercise their right to free speech.

“Hundreds of people are sleeping on the streets tonight. What would Jesus do?” asked protester Monica Huertas. The crowd responded by calling Governor McKee a hypocrite for celebrating Christmas while doing little to nothing to help homeless Rhode Islanders.

“You can end this today!” said a speaker, as the rest of the protesters shouted “Shame!”

Dr. Nithin Paul took the bullhorn to talk about a patient of his who wanted to be at the protest but couldn’t. “She’s being evicted tonight!”

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Governor McKee told Channel 10 that he “tuned out” the protesters, which may be seen as a metaphor for how he has been treating the issue of rising homelessness in our state. Uprise RI has been asking the Governor about this issue and the related issue of a housing shortage, for months.

Before the disruption Senator Mendes held a vigil:

Noting the State House was illuminated in red and green lights, the Reverend Doctor Donnie Anderson said, “If they’re doing this because of Christmas, I want to ask them right now to shut off those lights because those lights are a mockery to the birth of Jesus Christ… Please don’t mock the Jesus that I worship by pretending to honor Jesus’ birth and then have people left out in the cold.”

“Young people who are LGBTQ have no safe place in Rhode Island to house themselves,” said CJ, an activist working with homeless LGBTQ youth. “They go into these shelters and they’re getting assaulted, they’re getting harassed and they’re being kicked right back out into the street.

The state, said CJ, has “turned a blind eye and instead they’re celebrating and feasting on the taxpayer’s money.”

“What do you need from me? What’s the one thing I can give you?” asks Joanne, a homeless advocate, to the people she works with on the street. “Give me a room where I can close the door, lock it, not worry about where I’m going to sleep tonight. Not worry about somebody stealing my things. Not worry about somebody beating me up and robbing me or killing me.”

“It’s a real failure of the executive branch, of the legislative branch, top to bottom,” said Scott Budnick, a volunteer at Matthewson Street Church, which serves the homeless community in Providence.

“The Christians – I’m not talking about people who follow the Jesus way, I’m talking about that nationalistic religion that’s a phony – they say power is some kind of a miracle,” said Reverend Duane Clinker. “Power is the ability to act. Cynthia Mendes can’t be out here by herself. Power is the ability to act. We already have it.

“Cynthia asked me to say a prayer. My prayer is just this: By whatever name you refer to the mystery of life, may we be knit together, back and forth, through all our weirdness and differences and all our antagonisms and stand on that solid solid rock of love and justice and a humble walk and demand honesty from each other and demand honesty from [our elected leaders.]”

Governor McKee lights his tree.

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