The halls of Hope High School were silent Saturday night, save for the occasional echo of applause emanating from a packed school cafeteria. There, nearly 1,000 community members from around the Providence area gathered in mutual confusion and anger over the electoral victory of President-Elect Donald Trump. In what was labeled on Facebook as an “emergency meeting against hate,” those gathered discussed potential ways to counter a Trump presidency on the different levels of government, as well as how to respond to anticipated acts of hate in the next four years.
“I’m terrified about what this could mean for my friends, my neighbors and my community,” said Rep. Aaron Regunberg ’12, D-Providence, one of the organizers of the event. He added that hearing responses of fear and stories of harassment had initially been disheartening in planning action. “Wednesday I was mostly numb. And then Thursday it hit me, and I broke down and sobbed for most of the day,” Regunberg said. “Friday, I got really mad and furious,” he added. “And today I’m ready to work.”
The scale of that work has yet to be known, Regunberg said, adding that if the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign can be seen as an indication, it will be arduous. Organizers of the event spoke at length about how community members could get involved on the city, state and federal levels, urging continued resistance to any policy proposed by Trump that will result in the discrimination, marginalization or disenfranchisement of any community.
Mayor Jorge Elorza was present at the gathering, outlining extensive and robust action at the city level to counteract policy crafted under Trump’s administration. “I’m doubling down on my vision of one Providence, and I’m advocating for a society that reflects the values that have already made our society great,” he added, “inclusion, equity and respect for the dignity of every individual.”
Elorza made a number of promises to members of the community, including the introduction of municipal IDs as an identification alternative, welcome centers in schools for new immigrants and the implementation of a paid paternal leave policy for all city workers — a feat that has not yet been accomplished in any other of Rhode Island’s cities.
In perhaps his most forceful assurance of the night, Elorza promised in no uncertain terms that Trump’s immigration policy will not impact the citizens of Providence. “As long as I am mayor, the Providence Police Department will never enforce immigration policies,” he added. Regunberg, for his part, went further than the mayor in this regard, pledging support for the transformation of Rhode Island into a “sanctuary state,” a larger iteration of sanctuary cities in which action is rarely taken to prosecute undocumented immigrants solely based off of their residency status.
Part of Elorza’s efforts will include progress updates and announcements of new policies, initiatives and events every week in the hopes of “assuring our most vulnerable and marginalized residents that our city values them and stands with them,” Elorza said.
“Unless they can’t afford it,” one community member shouted in response.
Calls for unity and action were tempered by similar shouts and interruptions hurled at the mayor throughout his speech. At mentions of public safety, for example, some yelled “fuck the police,” while others shouted “pass the CSA,” in reference to the Providence Community Safety Act, after Elorza called for order.
The CSA is a proposed bill aimed at minimizing acts of police brutality across the city. The text of the act, which Elorza endorsed by the end of the night, stipulates a prohibition on racial profiling, regular usage of dashboard and body cameras by the police and an end to interference with individuals recording police encounters for purposes of accountability.
“We need the CSA,” said Sophia Wright, one of the event’s organizers and a community organizer with Direct Action for Rights and Equality, a community service and advocacy organization. “And we need all the things Mayor Elorza just said,” she added. “We also have to make sure that his words aren’t shit.”
Wright’s words underscored a palpable sense of disillusionment many felt with regard to establishment politics in the United States. While some supported action through existing political structures, others were not as sympathetic.
“Does the election of Trump show us that there’s still hope for the system?” Wright asked, provoking a loud “No” from the crowd. “Does the (Democratic National Committee) show us that there’s still hope for the Democratic party?” she asked to a similarly negative response.
Even in the face of interruptions, confusions and occasionally tense standoffs, there is reason to believe that the meeting succeeded at least marginally in its goal of bringing hope to many who are feeling pain in the wake of Trump’s victory.
“I feel connected now,” Bella Noka, a resident of Charlestown, Rhode Island and a member of the Narragansett Tribe, told The Herald. “I feel as though I have connected with a family of people that has the best interests of the country at heart.” She added that she would work to involve her community in efforts to stop a Trump presidency. “Think globally, act locally: family, community, tribe,” she said.
“I was overwhelmed by all the emotions over the last couple days, and I wanted to do something productive,” Charis Kotfila, a member of Americorps who is moving back to Cambridge, New York next week, told The Herald. Cambridge is “Trump’s territory there, but I want to see what stories I can take back home to change minds,” she said. “Even if we disagree on policy, we can agree on respect.”
“Tonight we’ve seen that there is passion in Rhode Island,” said Zack Mezera, executive director of the Providence Student Union and one of the event’s organizers, urging community members to “build on it in whatever direction you think is appropriate.” But he added that the intensity of that action must absolutely be altered in the face of four years of a Trump administration.
“Since Tuesday, we need to ratchet that up two, three, four times harder,” Mezera said. “Whatever you think is right, do it better, do it more and do it together.”
— With additional reporting by Rachel Gold