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A ‘duty to give back’: Looking at the current state of racial, social justice activism in Providence

Community leaders, organizers discuss voter turnout challenges, LEOBoR repeal

<p>Activists are looking to get Rhode Island’s Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights repealed as a key step toward social progress.</p><p>Courtesy of The Avenue Concept, Kendel Joseph, The Lady J, AGONZA, ABOVE</p>

Activists are looking to get Rhode Island’s Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights repealed as a key step toward social progress.

Courtesy of The Avenue Concept, Kendel Joseph, The Lady J, AGONZA, ABOVE

From protests and campaigns to voter registration drives and fundraisers, activism efforts in Providence have taken many different forms to address the issues faced by local communities. Today, Providence organizations are focused on legislative reform, increasing voter turnout and empowering communities of color.

“We have a really good progressive wave in Rhode Island,” said Zachary Pinto, vice president for Black Lives Matter Rhode Island Political Action Committee, which works to support BIPOC politicians and “progressive” policies. “There's a lot of good organizations doing a lot of work.”

Community aid and the ‘intersectionality’ of today’s pressing issues

Ray Rickman, co-founder and executive director of Stages of Freedom, a heritage museum and youth empowerment organization, said that Providence’s Black community doesn’t receive the support it needs from the government and local corporations and universities.

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“A lot of this is a lack of government support to (community organizations and advocacy groups), and a lot of it is the failure of major corporations and universities to be of any help,” Rickman said. “The support for the community is weaker and weaker and weaker.”

To fill that gap, Stages of Freedom offers swimming, cultural education and empowerment and civil rights programs to community members. Rickman is currently working to create a $1 million endowment for Stages of Freedom’s swim program.

BLM RI PAC focuses its community efforts on “endorsing progressive candidates of color,” voter registration and mutual aid work, Pinto said. Through food drives and other initiatives that help meet communities’ needs, PAC reminds local community members of “the importance of their vote,” Pinto added. 

One challenge PAC faced during the 2022 midterm elections was low voter turnout, Pinto said. Another issue is a “disconnect” between local communities and elected officials throughout the state, he added.

Pinto also highlighted the work done by smaller organizations that are not explicitly politically active but provide other forms of support to local populations, including harm reduction and mutual aid. He emphasized the importance of recognizing “the intersectionality of all these issues” faced by communities.

Legislation of immediate interest: The repeal of LEOBoR

One of the PAC’s biggest legislative priorities is the repeal of the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights, which was “something no one knew about” a few years ago, Pinto said. But because of advocacy work, the bill’s “repeal feels … not far away,” he added.

The repeal movement gained momentum in Providence after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, but “has not really moved the way activists would have liked,” said Jim Vincent, PAC’s senior advisor and housing committee chair for the NAACP New England Area Conference. 

The initial momentum has dissipated but, “with the untimely and horrific death of Tyre Nichols, I think there’s going to be a lot of interest in the legislature to at least discuss the repeal,” Vincent said. Rhode Island is the only state in New England with a LEOBoR. 

While a Rhode Island State Senate task force studied LEOBoR and made recommendations to reform the bill, Vincent does not think that reform is going to bring significant changes in police-community relations.

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In the last state legislative session, the repeal had a Senate sponsor — State Sen. Tiara Mack ’16 — but no sponsor in the Rhode Island State House. 

The repeal is “about proper policing, protecting and serving, having the best police-community relations we can have,” Vincent said.

Commander Oscar Perez, who was recently named chief of the Providence Police Department, expressed support for some modifications to the law in a Feb. 8 community forum, The Herald previously reported.

Pinto added that PAC supports the passage of several other pieces of legislation, including a Clean Slate Act, which would help people with previous “conviction and non-conviction” records clean their records for employment checks and housing applications after remaining crime-free for a period of time. “Our judicial system (should be) built on rehabilitation,” he said.

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In recent years, Pinto said he has seen greater solidarity and education regarding community issues. He said he is optimistic that the work done by social justice organizations including the PAC “is going to amount to some real change in a very near future.”

What shapes an activist

BLM RI PAC was started in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and protests throughout Providence. The instability brought about by the pandemic “sparked a fire under a lot of people,” Pinto said, adding that local activism started “picking up momentum.”  

“I love the work that I do,” Pinto said. “And I will never stop doing it.”  

Rickman has been involved in activism and advocacy efforts for decades. 

Stages of Freedom’s Bookstore and African American Museum is located at 10 Westminster St. According to Rickman, the goal in locating Stages of Freedom so close to the University was to garner student support and help cover rent through the sale of books and other items in their shop.

Rickman’s team hopes for more Brown students to visit and support the organization. “We would just love to get a dozen Brown students to help, volunteer an hour a week,” Rickman said. “Just an hour of their time twice a month, and I’d be dancing in the streets.” 

“No one should let a week go by in which they haven't tried to help those further down than they are,” he added.

After 14 years at the RI Housing Agency and experiences with affordable housing, first-time homebuyer programs, homelessness coalitions and more, Vincent is “looking forward to rekindling relationships in the housing world to see what we can do” in his new NAACP housing committee role.

Vincent, the son of immigrants who said his life was shaped by the civil rights movement and urban renewal, added that working in activism has always felt like a “duty to give back… so that I can help bring people along as I was brought along.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Zachary Pinto was the communications director of BLM RI PAC when he is the vice president of the organization. The Herald regrets this error.


Rhea Rasquinha

Rhea Rasquinha is a Metro Section Editor covering Development and Infrastructure and also serves as Co-Chief of Illustrations. She previously covered the College Hill, Fox Point & the Jewelry District and Brown & Beyond beats. Rhea is a junior from New York studying Biomedical Engineering and loves dark chocolate and penguins.



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