For centuries, the harbor south of downtown Providence was a lure, an invitation to the commerce that made the city one of the nation’s wealthiest. These days that harbor is less an active presence than a backdrop, like much of the industrial infrastructure one comes across in New England. But every once in a while, a particular moment can remind you of where you are. Last Friday, standing on the new pedestrian bridge over the Providence River, I was reminded that the busy, bustling Port of Providence had been one of the centers of the American slave trade. Surrounded by ten thousand fellow protesters against police brutality, I felt I could see the thousands of black lives emerging from the underbellies of ships that had detained them for weeks and months. Their first encounter with their new world took place here, in Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, still our state’s official name.
The last time Providence saw major Black Lives Matter actions was a lifetime ago—which is to say, all the way back in 2016. Those protests, meetings, and phone calls culminated—though that word now seems like wishful thinking—in the 2017 Community Safety Act. For months, thousands of Providence citizens marched again and again to secure what would become one of the country’s most progressive police reform efforts. Many of my friends wrote in support of the CSA and worked for its passage, while Providence’s Fraternal Order of Police railed against any checks on its power. At the time the CSA was a revelation, if not a revolution: it included civilian oversight of the police force; mandated the use of body and dashboard cameras; aimed to make the Providence Police Department fair and transparent; and guaranteed that officer-civilian interactions would become more equitable, with requirements that the police offer interpretation services and clarify a citizen’s rights to privacy. It promised, in its comprehensive specifics and its overall vision, to definitively transform Providence into a model of responsible, accountable policing. We were elated. The CSA was a beacon in a dark time.
Long before the uprising of 2020, it had become clear that the Community Safety Act wouldn’t be enough. The passage of the oversight board came with several compromises and provided significantly fewer powers than advocates had hoped when the CSA was first drafted in 2014. The board would not, for example, be able to fire officers found guilty of misconduct, nor could it reallocate the police budget. Board members would likewise be chosen by the City Council, rather than fielded from the community. Meanwhile, the police department has been uncooperative, with FOP leadership blaming individual crimes on policies codified by the CSA. What the Act calls to mind is not reinvention, which we hoped for, but the toothless reforms Minneapolis made to its police department before George Floyd’s murder. In the wake of that murder, something else is now clear: the officials who had reluctantly endorsed reform in Providence would only cede the state’s unique power to kill, to ruin, under incredible pressure. It’s true that the recent past has been less cruel by degrees, certainly less cruel than the distant past, but the parameters of the argument have remained the same. This is no longer enough.
To state the obvious, Providence is not immune from the inherent violence of policing. At the turn of the millennium, a black Providence policeman named Cornel Young Jr. was shot dead by two of his peers. He was off duty, in plain clothes, and had stepped in to break up a fight. The police officers who killed him weren’t tried, weren’t arrested, weren’t even charged. I hadn’t heard that story until last week, and all at once Young’s name became both a name and a stand-in, like George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s—a metaphor, a shorthand for a way of life and a way of death. There have been so many lost in our forgetting, all the time.
The Tuesday before the big march, sixty-five people were arrested downtown after protesting the murder of George Floyd. Dozens broke into Providence Place Mall, and someone in the small crowd outside threw a firework into a police cruiser, destroying it completely. For most of the week that followed, the burn mark sat at the confluence of Francis and Gaspee Streets, right in front of the State House across the street from the mall. The Providence Journal reported on the story in its usual clipped mode, calling to mind the old consensus: that property destruction amounted to anarchy and “senseless violence,” though the protesters hadn’t threatened anyone (except the cop car). “‘It’s not what this city is about’: Sadness, and a sense of resolve, on the streets of Providence” read one of the paper’s headlines. Mark Patinkin, the ProJo’s principal columnist, immediately addressed his commentary to “those demoralized at the looting.” He omitted George Floyd’s name from his column and made no mention of what the broad success of looting has meant to American history. The paper’s message was unambiguous: progress might not be needed at all. But if it was, we would all have to follow the rules to achieve it.
On Friday, during the protest, it became apparent that the State House and the mall were looking out for each other, government and business close collaborators in urban fortification. The mall is one of a handful of grotesqueries visited upon the city’s historic downtown as part of mayor Buddy Cianci’s urban renaissance. It is most notable today for being America’s largest carpeted indoor shopping center, and—suddenly relevant—for the abundance of windows along its facade. After the current mayor, Jorge Elorza, imposed a 9 PM curfew, the nights were accompanied by a soundtrack of helicopters flying low overhead. But the leagues of National Guardsmen summoned by Governor Gina Raimondo, along with the Providence police, the state troopers, the sheriffs’ deputies, and the capitol police were more extraordinary. The state police superintendent called it the largest force assembled in the state’s history. And for what? The Guardsmen stood sentry, assault rifles readied, in front of the mall’s Cheesecake Factory and DSW Shoe Warehouse, looking bored. A line of armored Humvees flanked them behind the barricades. Three or four mounted policemen paced centaur-like in front of the CVS. The group to our left shouted “free the horses, cage the pigs!” The cops smiled at that. One of the soldiers was vaping absentmindedly.
As we wended our way through the city, I had a sublime sensation of being one cell in a giant, unwieldy organism. Despite our reason for assembling, the mood was not entirely mournful. Drivers honked in support while a helicopter or two hovered watchfully. One car blasted Nas’s “If I Ruled the World.” We #SaidTheirNames, wished Breonna a happy 27th birthday. I ran into people I hadn’t seen in three months.
At the State House, a long line of state troopers formed two fronts along with the National Guard. A McKim, Mead, and White grandiosity, the State House was completed in 1904, when Providence was at the peak of its influence. Its self-supporting dome, the world’s fourth largest, draws a clear lineage between political authority and the imagined supremacy of the European Renaissance. The State House’s cruelty expresses itself by insinuation, unlike the harbor, the Old State House, or Brown University (named for a local dynasty of slave traders). Still, standing on the marble-white steps and staring into the Guardsmen’s cold gaze, it was again impossible not to relive an era and see in front of me the tortured bodies of the people who built the city’s erstwhile fortunes. Imagining myself and my own ancestors among them, I grew tense and searching.
Some of the younger protesters, many of them high school-aged organizers, spoke on megaphones about the need for police to be held accountable by their peers and by the public. Providence’s youth are particularly serious about activism. I teach English to a number of these young people at a local secondary school, and watching their brilliance and determination, wanting to nurture it, has expanded my capacity for hope in these cynical years. As the students negotiated, the police brandished batons and took the muzzles off their German Shepherds. The Guardsmen to the left glowered in wartime camo. I saw more than one soldier crack his neck and square up as people refused to leave the steps.
Shortly after 8, it seemed like the police had begun communicating with some of the youth organizers. One of them, a young black woman, pleaded for people to evacuate the steps. The alternative, she said, was that the police would push people down and begin breaking bones. Several protesters lingered on the marble, including a white boy who had taken a knee. One of the Guardsmen, also black, then announced over the speakers that we had better start dispersing at 8:30, since we had never experienced the pain of tear gas or rubber bullets, which our presence would compel them to use. Another kid with a megaphone asked us to go home so we could live to fight another day. But hardly anyone budged.
Of the protests I’ve attended against racism and police brutality since Eric Garner’s murder in 2014, I had never been to one where the potential for conflict ran so high. I was reminded of the mess and the necessity of revolutions, with some people urging us to take a knee and others reminding us that to kneel to the police was to bend to our masters’ whims. Some people begged for us to leave the premises and others insisted that this was public land, paid for with our taxes, just like the police department’s salaries. It was close to 9 now, and I got out my safety goggles: it was my duty to stay, and change would require a willingness to sacrifice. An organizer announced that we would break the curfew with intention: we would stand silently for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, to commemorate the time that elapsed while the country watched cell phone footage of George Floyd strangled to death by Derek Chauvin.
By this point the organizers had convinced the crowd that we’d made our demands known and that it was time to rest. Most of the demonstrators, still hundreds strong at that stage, marched back to City Hall a few blocks away. My friends and I were on our way there when we heard that Governor Gina Raimondo had emerged onto the State House steps. We retraced the brick walkway. Raimondo wasn’t wearing a face mask, despite recommending them to her constituents. A Democrat who briefly gained national notoriety in March for her aborted effort to pull over cars with New York license plates, she was surrounded by curious and angry people, by her multiple forces. She asked us to “hold hands and pray,” but was shouted down by calls to defund the police, by accusations that what we were seeing was little more than a photo op.
A dissonance came to mind. Raimondo’s administration had just notified close to five hundred teachers of their possible termination, in spite of a state budget that comfortably accommodated the military gear arrayed behind her. I also thought about the hundreds of thousands of dollars Providence allocated to the Community Safety Act, only to end up back here. This time, progress would not, could not be channeled via half-measures and reforms at the margins, no matter how substantive they may have seemed just a few years earlier.
Raimondo left the steps gracelessly, though the impression was smoothed over on Twitter, where she praised the protesters and appended a photo taken of her clutching the microphone as two black men and several armed officers looked on. I wasn’t sure how many people online would be persuaded by this camouflage, but those of us standing nearby had the impression of a government official comically out of step with the moment, and with her people.
We prepared to walk up Broadway toward our apartments. It had been the hottest day of the year and our backs were tired. It happened that a decent-sized group, mostly black and brown teenagers, were walking up that street, too, the last ones standing. Running to catch them, we looked behind and saw a rectangular formation of dozens of police advance. We bolted, pausing now and then to record video of the force marching toward us. Some of the kids pulled what they could find into the street—trash cans, traffic cones—hoping to block the cops’ path. Crossing the highway into Federal Hill, I saw someone throw a canister. I wasn’t sure who threw it, whether it was tear gas or a smoke bomb, but we kept walking westward, accompanied again by the sound of drivers honking in support, by the youthful voices behind us spelling out their grievances against the entire social order.
All night, under my fourth spell of insomnia in five days, I kept trying to give mental shape to the day’s contradictions: the contrast between the huge, peaceful crowd and the latent brutality of the National Guard; the conflicting requests of the organizers; the joy of solidarity and the tragedies that had to occur to bring it about. I realized that our confrontation with power did not occur out of pessimism, as I’d perhaps unconsciously assumed. Instead I sensed a persistent hope concealed within this movement’s refusals, its adversarial posture. I thought of something I’d told a white friend who said we needed to “lead with love.” Real love, I said, can be angry. It develops into a crescendo. It demands to be heard at any cost. Love has even been known to flout humanity’s laws. I would scream crazily, grieve in unbecoming tones, criticize at each opportunity, precisely because I loved my black life, had fought so hard to love it. We had said hundreds of times that black lives mattered; what would it mean to say you loved those black lives? This city, and this roiling country, seemed, just then, so full of love.