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‘The only people who were aggressive were the people who were here to protect us’: In Providence, community members reflect on protests

Faculty, staff, students, locals advocate for increased University support for Black communities

By
Metro Editor
Sunday, June 7, 2020

Businesses on Westminster Street were boarded up with plywood early last week.

When the police arrived on Westminster Street between late on the evening of June 1 and early in the morning of June 2, Assistant Professor of Economics Teddy Mekonnen was standing alongside his neighbor.

Mekonnen, who is Black, lives above Gabriela-Milene Wilson’s shop. Wilson, who is of Cape Verdean and Norweigian descent, had arrived home close to midnight to find her shop being looted. Over the last two weeks, protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality have spread across the United States — including two major peaceful demonstrations by thousands of protestors in Providence. Wilson and Mekonnen both attended the protest held June 5.

When the police first arrived, Mekonnen saw three or four officers try ineffectually to disperse the crowd breaking into stores. 

According to Wilson and Mekonnen, the group of officers was predominantly white. The first to arrive were in regular uniforms, but the following group was wearing riot gear, they said.

The police “came with a level of anger and aggression that was much, much higher than they needed to have. That was incredibly off-putting,” Mekonnen said. “They didn’t believe we lived here. We said, ‘We’re trying to defend our store, and this is where we live.’” 

Mekonnen said the officers accused himself and Wilson of being from outside of Providence and threatened that if they didn’t go inside, they would be arrested. 

Providence police arrested more than 65 people for alleged theft and property destruction that occurred late Monday night into early Tuesday morning.

Wilson thought they would get arrested based on the officers’ behavior. Only when Mekonnen unlocked the building did the officers believe them, she said.

Although Wilson has lived in six different countries, the United States is the first in which she’s been stopped by the police and then worried if she would see her parents again.

“I never felt like (the people breaking into the store) threatened my well-being or the well-being of the residents in the building. They were not aggressive towards us,” Mekonnen said. “The only people who were aggressive were the people who were here to protect us.” 

Mekonnen said he was unable to decide definitively whether he thought the officers’ behavior toward himself and Wilson were motivated by race. While he thinks it could have been, he added that it also could have been motivated by the fact that “(Wilson) and I happened to be standing next to stores with shattered windows,” Mekonnen wrote in an email to The Herald. “It is a common experience for POC (people of color): Is this a shitty situation or is this possibly racist?”

When asked about which law enforcement entities had responded to the incident involving Mekonnen and Wilson, Providence Police Public Information Officer Lindsay Lague wrote in an email to The Herald that within Providence, “There were a number of departments that responded that evening including Rhode Island State Police, Cranston, North Kingstown and others. Mutual aid was called for throughout the state and we are grateful for all those who were available to respond.” 

As to why the officers may have shown hostility toward Mekonnen and Wilson, Lague wrote that she would need to look into it further. 

After the incident with the police, Wilson stayed at her shop to continue to defend it. Later that night, Wilson said one of the officers that had yelled at her and Mekonnen approached her and gave “a really heartfelt apology.” 

“It shocked me. That he actually came up and let go of his ego,” she said.

“At first I felt really threatened. I felt like I was going to be arrested. I felt like I wasn’t being heard,” Wilson recalled of her interaction with the group of police. “And after the apology, I felt better.”

Project Coordinator for the Department of Facilities Management Abiola Davis, who is Black, was also woken up Monday night by sounds of disruption. From her Westminster Street apartment, she could look out onto the street and see a crowd below. 

When the riot police arrived, Davis saw them proceed down the street in a line as people fled in the opposite direction. She left her window, worried about aggression from the armed law enforcement.

Later that night, when the crowd had dispersed, Davis found herself restless. “But then you can’t really go back to sleep because all you can think about are the consequences.”

 “Just processing it. And I’m still processing it,” she said.

Only a few hours later on June 2, Mayor Jorge Elorza implemented a curfew in the city from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., which originally was scheduled to end June 9. Gov. Gina Raimondo also activated the National Guard

Steven Brown, executive director of the R.I. American Civil Liberties Union, called the curfew “draconian” in a letter to Elorza. After the peaceful protest Friday, Elorza lifted the curfew order yesterday, three days early. 

University, Providence community calls for action

Although not directly involved with Brown, Wilson lives a 10-minute walk away from Faunce Arch, and believes that the University should heighten its vocal support for Black communities and donate supplies and educational materials (including information about how to protest safely) to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Support, even verbal support, is more than we can ask for. Just knowing that people see us and agree that Black lives matter and that people shouldn’t have to worry about if they’re going to see their mom again if they get arrested.”

President Christina Paxson P’19 wrote to the student body in a May 30 email to describe how the University will leverage its capabilities as an educational institution to address systemic racial injustices. In the next weeks and months, Brown will develop programming, courses and research opportunities to advance that cause, she wrote.

“While there are some exceptions recent support to fund internet access for 900 Providence Public School District student households, scholarships in many years for college-bound graduates from Providence high schools the University’s primary impact on the greater community does not come through direct financial contributions,” University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald. “Rather, our impact comes from confronting challenges through scholarship and community initiatives, as Brown students, faculty, staff and administrative leaders integrate education, research and practice to advance knowledge and address social challenges facing communities and society.”

Clark additionally pointed to how the University’s role as an anchor institution in the state contributes to the local economy.

Both Mekonnen and Davis, University employees, told The Herald that Brown should increase its involvement with Black communities in Providence.

Davis urged the University to leverage its resources as an academic institution and provide more scholarships to Black students from Providence. “You educate 10 kids, and they have kids and pass it down. You can start small, and that’s what I’m pushing for.”

Davis also suggested incentivizing University students to remain in Providence after graduation to serve the community, pointing to the PPSD as an area that needs further engagement. The University has worked with the state government in their takeover of the PPSD to improve the school system. 

Mekonnen suggested that the University make resources for faculty to volunteer in underprivileged neighborhoods more apparent and accessible, similar to how community engagement for students is readily apparent. 

Advocacy for the University to increase involvement in Black communities has found traction within the student body as well.

Ermias Genet ’22, an African American student, created an interest form to prepare for a petition to ask the University “to match all student donations to organizations in support of Black Lives as well as Black-owned businesses disproportionately affected by the pandemic in addition to the recent protests,” Genet wrote in an email to The Herald.

Genet started the form as a member of Students Support Black Lives, an intercollegiate organization started May 31 that advocates for racial justice. The interest form has gained over 500 signatures from students and alums since June 3, he said. Genet expects the petition to go live next week, along with guidance for those who signed the interest form on how to best advocate for it.

“Upon receiving sufficient interest, we would like students at Brown as well as the administration to offer us written support and circulate our cause among other students and staff,” Genet wrote. The advocacy Genet plans entails emailing deans and administrators to call for action, and asking students to donate to organizations that support the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“Brown is an institution that prides itself on its reputation for valuing justice and has cultivated a student body that works to enact social justice and impactful change worldwide. For this reason, resigning itself to performative advocacy is unacceptable to students, staff and (alums) that care deeply or are personally affected by these issues,” Genet wrote, calling human rights advocacy and the fight against anti-Black racism imperatives for the University.

“Brown has a commitment to its students first, and we as students are rallying our community to show our institution how we would like our communities to be supported nationwide. Many students are currently contributing whatever resources they can to this movement, so we are asking that Brown participate in earnest along with the student body,” Genet wrote.

Moving Forward

Wilson said she will likely have to sell her store instead of paying for refurbishment. 

On Monday evening, “I kept yelling that it’s Black-owned, and most people responded well but a few didn’t. And that was heartbreaking. How can you be so selfish to not care?” Wilson said. Some looters put down or returned merchandise from the shop when Wilson confronted them. Others did not stop.

But Wilson looks to move forward.

“That’s all you can be, is positive, because what are you going to do, sit there and growl about something that happened in the past? It’s over. You being upset is not going to fix it.” 

The next protest saw thousands gather in Kennedy Plaza June 5, holding signs painted with “Black Lives Matter” and “We Can’t Breathe,” among hundreds of other messages. The crowd — with Mekonnen, Wilson and Davis among them — marched up past the boarded windows of the mall to gather around the R.I. State House and demand justice.

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