Harrison Tuttle is the Executive Director Black Lives Matter Rhode Island Political Action Committee (BLM PAC). He was interview by Patsy Lewis.

Interview Transcript

Patsy Lewis 

My name is Patsy Lewis. I’m the director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Brown University and the principal investigator for the project In The Wake of George Floyd. It’s my pleasure to be in conversation with Harrison Tuttle, the executive director of the Black Lives Matter Rhode Island Political Action Committee. Harrison, can we begin with you telling us a bit about yourself?

Harrison Tuttle 

Sure, well, I’m 23 years old, I grew up the majority of my life, in Cranston Rhode Island, I spent some time in West Warwick for a couple of years in high school, where I attended Bishop Hendricken High School, and played a part in some great sports teams, in which we won not only in football, but also in wrestling. That is also where my activism career started, I developed an interest when I first hand experienced my principal use not only a Jewish slur, but a racial slur on video, in 2018, my senior year of high school; and so that really piqued my interest in being able to change the world around me. It was someone that was a very highly respected person in the school and for me, I just couldn’t believe that was something that someone of his status could say.

Patsy Lewis 

That’s an interesting pathway to … five years later, as executive director of this group. Can you tell me some basic background information, so we can learn more about Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC?

Harrison Tuttle 

Sure, well, our organization was founded in July of 2020. It really was towards the tail end of –well, I wouldn’t say the peak– towards the end of the summer, really, of the protests of the BLM Movement, that we saw so many people, the largest civil rights protest in American history. And, I was looking to join an organization that helps my community, that continued to give me a purpose that I’m doing something that is bigger than myself. Coincidentally, at that time, I drew a large interest towards early childhood education, and I switched my majors from Communications to Early Childhood Education, because I wanted to play a pivotal role in children’s life–early children’s lives– and being able to have them see a teacher that looks like them in the classroom. Over 80% of the Providence Public Schools is made up of teachers who are White and, for the most part, predominantly older. And so I really wanted to be able to not only make an impact in the classroom, but make an impact on the world around me. Growing up, I’ve always been the type of person that really had a hard time accepting the way things are when I felt like they weren’t right. Being able to be a part of those protests, I got in contact with a lot of amazing people in our community. I was a part of being able to found BLM RI PAC with a group of other community members, Corey Jones, who’s now running for City Council and spent time on the Governor’s staff, Choice Wise, and Joshua Franco; And really the idea of starting this organization was to take the protest to the State House. And when I say that, I mean that, for too long, we’ve called for action and we’ve looked at our State House, specifically here in Rhode Island, and the people inside it don’t represent us ideologically, but also they physically, based on the color of their skin, don’t look like us. And so, our organization dedicated ourselves in an election year, to being able to support candidates like Tiara Mack, who’s the first openly Black queer, state senator in Rhode Island and the General Assembly, and support candidates like David Morales. That’s what our mission is, it’s to be able to not only help elect candidates that are going to create that change that we want to see, but also, once again, continue to push the narrative, continue to push policy that ultimately helps our community.

Patsy Lewis

How are you related, if at all, to the National Black Lives Movement? Are you a separate organization? or are you a chapter of that?

Harrison Tuttle   

Sure. Well, what was really interesting at the time was that there was a BLM already established in Rhode Island, BLM RI, which is registered as a nonprofit. And we really felt like there was a role for both organizations in our state. One that focuses on things that maybe nonprofits may be limited to legally, and then another that focuses on education and other things that could receive funding from our government. We wanted to be able to do something in which we were very much following trends at a national level with different progressive groups. And in fact, we are the first BLM PAC ever to be established in the country. We legally established BLM RI PAC, before the national BLM PAC was formed. And up until this date, according to my knowledge, we are the only state BLM PAC in the country.

Patsy Lewis  

So what is your relationship, if any, with the national BLM PAC?

Harrison Lewis 

The national organization obviously deals with a lot more than we deal with when it comes to different things across the country. We’ve established contact with them but nothing further than just having conversations.

Patsy Lewis  

Can you tell me more about your agenda for change? And why do you think it’s important to enter the political arena?

Harrison Tuttle  

Sure, well, in order for us to change systems that don’t work for Black and Brown folks, but really for everyone, working class folks in general, it’s gonna take changing those same systems that are entrenched, and corrupt politicians that don’t want to change those systems that benefit them, and not their constituents as a whole. And we need to elect people in the government that have lived those experiences. And so really, one of the leading changes that we’ve called for, our wide ranging changes, specifically when it comes to police accountability and the fact that here, in Rhode Island, (we have) the law enforcement officers Bill of Rights, which 35 other states do not have, and in fact, only 14 states do, and was recently repealed, in Maryland in 2021. Essentially, what it does is it creates an extra set of constitutional rights for police officers when they do something wrong. What it also does is it creates a jury of their own, and it creates a jury of three, and it creates a jury selected internally, without a public process, without a transparent process for, not only elected officials, but also the people within the police department. What it has done historically is limited the police chief’s ability to hold those officers accountable when they do something wrong. I point to just recently, Charles Lombardi, the North Providence Mayor who just put out a letter to all the local elected officials from the General Assembly to the City Council, to the Mayors, about a specific incident where one of his officers in North Providence was in violation of over 97 departmental violations. And because of LEOBor, because of this bill that does not exist in a majority of the country, it prohibited that officer from being terminated, even when the police chief filed for his termination.

Patys Lewis  

So what kind of action do you think is necessary to bring about this change, a change that happened in Maryland?

Harrison Tuttle  

Well, certainly it’s going to come from all of us, it’s going to come from the public, it’s going to come from the constituents. And it really ties into the fact that here in Rhode Island we have a very conservative Democratic Party, that, in fact, historically, and still does, trails off the platform that the National Democratic Party sets, and which, in my opinion, isn’t high enough. When we look at the specific General Assembly leadership, both on the Senate and the House side with on the House side, the Speaker of the House, Joseph Skekarchi, and then the previous speaker, Nicholas Mattiello, who didn’t even know that slavery existed here in Rhode Island; and then we look at the Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who has been in office longer than my parents. It really does create a sense of corruption. And I think Rhode Islanders know it’s corrupt. What it does is it creates a good old boy system, where people of color who want to challenge the status quo are faced with primaries. They are faced with an uphill battle to even get in office and share their views. I think of  incumbents this session that have been protected due to gerrymandering. And I think of even myself, where I was purposely gerrymandered out of my district, in order for me to not run for office; and this is consistent with not only trends across the state with other folks like Kinverly Dicupe, who is challenging an incumbent, but it’s also consistent with 10 years ago, where the process of gerrymandering was far worse. And so really kind of looping back in, one of the major hurdles is that we’re going against a party that has historically been anti reproductive rights (and) anti Black, and as a result, we’re fighting a battle when we’re supposed to be working together within a democratically controlled state.

Patsy Lewis  

So your main competitors are not the GOP, but the Democratic Party, can you explain a bit about how gerrymandering works within that kind of democratic political space? When I say Democratic I’m not talking about the system, but the party.

Harrison Tuttle 

Sure, well, in this specific year in which it was a redistricting year, and I’m not saying this, all of this has been reported. What we saw was an attempt on the surface to make this process transparent with public meetings all across the state in which people did participate and voice their frustrations, voiced the fact that there were incumbents being protected, and specifically being surgically gerrymandered in areas in which either the challenger to that incumbent would have had to move or have their voting base significantly altered. I think of Lenny Cioe, who is challenging the senate president and had a huge chunk of his most popular area in which people voted for him carved out. So, this whole process of gerrymandering is a process to control power and an attempt to make sure that people of color and other people from different backgrounds are not challenging the status quo. So the Democratic Party at a national level is really fighting the GOP, when it comes to voting rights and other things. But in fact, it is the Democratic Party here in Rhode Island that is doing stuff, I think, to the voter ID laws that were passed in 2009 [2011], I believe, and I’ll have to check that but I believe it was 2009 here in Rhode Island. And so, really, like I said, we’re dealing with a conservative Democratic Party, in which people who are at the table have been at the table for, in some cases, 30,40 years.

Patsy Lewis 

What routes are there for challenging this redistricting? Especially if you think that it keeps progressives outside of the state government?

Harrison Tuttle 

Well, I do know that the last redistricting process–not this one that occurred–there were lawsuits that happened. It was very messy, and it was very before my time, only being 23, and so I don’t feel confident in commenting on it in detail. I think that the lawsuits and the people who experienced it at the time can better speak to it. But, I will say that the action that needs to be taken is consistent with the BLM Movement and the progressive movement as a whole. I don’t really see much of a difference between them. I think, in many ways, for the first time in Rhode Island, we are seeing young people, often candidates of color rise up in a manner that the party has not seen before; that are coming from backgrounds of lived experience of either poverty or experiences in terms of healthcare and education, of all ages. And the solution to making sure that in 10 years redistricting is not the way it was, is to elect these folks out. That’s very controversial and it’s never been done before and it takes a lot of courage to say that. But I think of LEOBOR, of the police accountability bill –  the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, and the fact that we could not repeal that. And it was put by Tiara Mack the first openly Black queer woman in the state. It was not an anti-police bill, it was a police accountability bill and our General Assembly did not pass it, and was not interested in passing it. These are the types of things when it comes to not only at a state level, but at a local level, where we’re calling for crisis intervention teams that respond to majority mental health and behavioral health calls that are overwhelmingly nonviolent. And we’re getting pushback on that. And it seems like a lot of the push is coming from the people in power, and not Republicans (like I said who are not in power). They are pushing back on the idea that this is, as they frame it, defund the police when in fact, for too long, we’ve looked to criminalize people who are going through poverty, which as a result leads to crime, and not actually addressing the root causes. And we try to police our way out of poverty and we just, we can’t, and that’s why people are running. It’s because we’re sick and tired of the status quo continuing to put forward solutions without the knowledge and the care, quite frankly, of the community. And I think we’re an organization that is evidence of that, when it comes to the way that they don’t even bother to reach out to us and ask us our opinion.

Patsy Lewis 

It seems like a big part of your political agenda is to see diversity within government in Rhode Island, diversity, not just in terms of ethnicity, but in terms of class, and age, because I feel like there’s somewhat of a generational divide that you are focusing on?

Harrison Tuttle 

Well, I think it’s not much of a generational divide. I think it’s primarily the people who hold the power. And, yes, a majority of the people that do hold the power are older White men. And so you’re seeing a lot of the way I talk probably, in that manner– I think of someone like Bernie Sanders, who inspired so many people, young, old, and, is a significantly older man, and who’s White. And so I don’t think that it has to do with the color of your skin. I think it has to do with the people who hold the power, and in our state, really neglecting the needs of everyday Rhode Islanders. And when Rhode Islanders call for that change, they’re met with roadblocks, and oftentimes once they call for that, they’re shut out of spaces. It takes an incredible amount of courage in the first place to reach out to your legislator and say hey, I need this. And so that’s why it’s so important that we have legislators that not only care about their constituents, but reflect that in their legislation. And I think for too long Rhode Island has gone through the reputation of a corrupt state, because it is.

Patsy Lewis 

I want to come back to the protests in the wake of George Floyd just to get your sense of how it inspired you and your colleagues to form this group and to direct it more at political action? And also, what do you think are the specific challenges with policing that Rhode Island has to overcome? We spoke about accountability and you mentioned the differences in perceptions around what it means to defund the police, and so I’d like you to elaborate on that as well.

Harrison Tuttle 

Well, obviously, in 2020, there was a huge outpouring of support for the BLM Movement. And I think, in terms of maybe not in protest, but in door to door, there are still a lot of people that support BLM. I think what’s dangerous is the way that our elected officials have taken the clear wanting of change – I mean, we had over 10,000 people at the Statehouse calling for action. And what’s difficult for leaders and political leaders in the state is, how do progressives maintain and capture that energy in a bottle and put it towards change? And I think, in many ways, in 2020, as I was still growing not only as a person, but also growing to know the political system of Rhode Island, and the nature of it, I thought that it was possible for me to meet with legislators and talk to them about it and say, this is how I feel and this is where  I think our state should be moving not only in representation, but in policy. And very quickly, I just realized that they weren’t interested. And I think of the call to defund the police and I think that in many ways, it was hurtful to the movement and not hurtful because the calls that the people who were angry at the police were calling for – I don’t think that was an issue. I think the innate reaction from people who weren’t coming from communities of color, that don’t experience police brutality, is that they were confused about what it means to defund the police. And that’s why over this past year and a half, we’ve really moved our messaging towards reallocating funds because it serves a greater purpose to have messaging that everyone understands, opposed to a select few. And that’s what we’re trying to do; we’re not trying to have a state that is lawless. In fact, what we’re trying to do is create a state in which people who need help have their needs met. And actually rethinking, reimagining public safety, in a manner that not only is safer, but also lessens the burden on police and their responsibilities. In no other profession do we ask what we ask of police to do, which is to do a litany of different things that quite frankly leads to mistakes, but also, unfortunately leads to people taking advantage of their power, and the use of their actual position and what they can do, and unfortunately, their gun or their knee or their own  body. And so really what we’re asking for is being able to lessen the burden on police and have them focus on investigating violent crime, responding to violent crime, and leaving the mental health and behavioral health professionals to respond to nonviolent calls in which a majority of them are dealing with mental health and behavioral health and better dispatching first responders, to situations that meet people where they’re at and are not met with guns and police officers that are not trained in mental and behavioral health.

Patsy Lewis  

Is there an issue of representation as well within the police force in terms of the communities that they police, that you think needs to be addressed?

Harrison Tuttle 

I think representation helps. But I think the problem with not only the police but also other systems that are in government, are the systems themselves. A lot of the time the police will go to okay, well, we will change up protocol and do other things. But the problem is that they’re not addressing the fundamental issues that the police are dealing with. The police shouldn’t have the responsibility of dealing with something that they don’t need to. And it’s not a question of being anti police or being pro police. It’s a question of, well, how do we better handle situations in which people are in crisis? Which obviously puts us in the bucket of being anti-police. But the reality is that the reason why we’re calling for a reallocation of funds from the police departments to other areas of public safety, is because the police budget goes up every year and crime is continuing to go up, and so there’s really no correlation between a police budget, which continues to go up not only throughout the country, but in our state, and crime. It’s evident throughout the country, and it’s evident throughout history. We cannot police our way out of problems that pertain to housing and health care and education. We cannot arrest our way out of that. And so, until we get back to actually thinking about those issues and the multifaceted issues that each one of them are, and then connect them, and understand that they are all connected to policing, and how we help people who are in need of help, we’re not going to make much progress. And I think in many ways, either as a result of generational growing up or racism, people are not. And when I say people, I think our elected officials, a majority of them, are not privy to that conversation nor do they want to have it.

Patsy Lewis 

Who do you see as your allies?

Harrison Tuttle 

I see a lot of people as my allies, I have met so many amazing people in the community. I wanted to stress as executive director how important it was to break down the stigma behind homophobia and Black culture. I thought it was very important as a cisgendered black man to work with different LGBTQI+ groups to be able to spread awareness and work together in a way that really deals with a lot of intersectional issues when it comes to trans abuse and other issues. And so, we held the first ever Black BLM Pride Parade last summer in Providence, where we supported two candidates, Lenny Cioe – who is challenging the Senate President, who is an older white gay man, and Tiara Mac, who’s the first openly Black queer State Senator in the General Assembly, and we look to continue that. And so I think allies is really a word that has been used a lot, and what it means to be an ally. And I think that when it comes to the issues that we’re fighting that can also be challenging, I think people need to be aware of –when I say people, I think white people– need to be aware of microaggressions and the actions that they take and how that affects people of color, not only in the workplace, but how they treat their friends and family. I think when it comes to standing by BLM, I think it means to stand by what’s right, and what’s right is, like I said in the past, that we need to address the root causes of poverty, and that we need to elect people who understand that and also understand how our systems affect us and how we cannot continue to revert to our old methods that has not worked for any of us.

Patsy Lewis 

Do you find solidarity with the work of other organizations around these issues?

Harrison Tuttle  

Yeah, absolutely, We’ve built great relationships with the NAACP and myself along with everyone on the PAC have a great relationship with Jim Vincent, the president of the NAACP. He has provided wisdom and has prior knowledge of not only how Rhode Island politics works internally within the statehouse, but also, he has knowledge of how to put pressure on the outside. And, we’ve built relationships with newer groups as well. Thinking back to Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president and then also the 2020 protests, they coincided in many ways. In that we saw a big bank of people coming out of nowhere that probably historically would not, that wanted to get involved because they saw our world around them, and whether it was an environment that was crumbling, or whether it was a criminal justice system that was not treating people equally, or just that they just wanted change because they’ve seen for too long that Rhode Island politics has not been responsive to their wants, and their neighbors’ wants. And so, we’ve worked with organizations like reclaim Rhode Island; we’ve worked with organizations such as Sunrise Providence that also has a separate branch called Sunrise R.I. Youth that really cultivates high school students to create change and organize internally. We have also worked with organizations like Providence Democratic Socialists of America. And, specifically, when it comes to looking for candidates to run for office, and for us to get behind, we work with the Rhode Island Political Cooperative. They have been instrumental, and the bedrock of the change that we want to see in terms of recruiting candidates, training candidates, and inspiring candidates to run for office. And in many ways, the co-op has never been done before. In fact, all of the candidates that we mentioned, some of the candidates, not all, but some of the candidates that I mentioned, such as Tiara Mack was a co-op candidate. Candidate for lieutenant governor that is running this year, Cynthia Mendez, who is a State Senator, was a co-op candidate. And so, we’re really seeing a wave of movement, a progressive movement here. And I definitely would say that we’re challenging the status quo, but we’re also doing it in a way hopefully, where we’re building relationships with all different groups through different backgrounds. And really speaking to what Fred Hampton did, in which he wanted to create a rainbow coalition of different people from different backgrounds. And that was really important to me, when I became executive director in March.

Patsy Lewis  

your organization is still very young, just under two years old, what would you say have been your successes so far? And the areas that you have found most challenging?

Harrison Tuttle  

Well, I think certainly one of our main successes has been that we’ve been able to really shoot up in terms of notoriety and support from the community. I credit all that success to the people of Rhode Island. We’ve worked really hard, really hard for it. In fact, I stopped going to school. Not to go into my personal background, but I think it’s relevant. I went to CCRI, where I received my associates degree. I was a part of the JA program, in which you get your two free years of school, out of high school at CCRI, and I was going to transfer to URI. Right at that spring semester, I made a choice after I sat down with my mom, and I took a risk. And I made that choice for two reasons: I wanted to be able to build up this organization that fought for people of color that fought for what’s right. And at the time I was fundraising every week to eat, and to pay the bills. The second reason was that I needed to not go into student debt because I’ve been homeless multiple times and with the pandemic and us losing a family member due to the pandemic, our income was cut in half. And so, I’m fighting for what I’m fighting for because I need to, and I have no other choice. This isn’t something that I want just because I think it’s a nice idea. It’s something that I’ve lived through and I know people need. 

Patsy Lewis 

Well, my condolences on the passing of your family member.

Harrison Tuttle 

It’s really hard to be able to have our organization be a prominent factor in Rhode Island politics, and an organization that people really looked up to, to be able to fight for them. And being one of the voices of an entire community is something that is a huge undertaking, and is a credit to not only myself, but the people who work on the PAC, and the hard work that goes into it. Specifically, when you consider the fact that we are a political action committee, we cannot apply for grants from the state. And it’s very much our own undertaking to raise the money that compensates the work that we do on behalf of the community, but also keep in mind that we want to be able to financially help the candidates that we want to get into office.

Patsy Lewis

That addresses a question I was going to ask about how do you fund yourselves? So you’re saying largely to your own fundraising efforts?

Harrison Tuttle 

Yeah. So thankfully, I’ve just gotten a full time job at the Genesis Center, a nonprofit that does a lot of work when it comes to early education and adult education as a Communication Specialist. And so thankfully, I’m not making what I made last year but the reality is that our support comes from grassroots supporters. And I think historically, when people think of political action committees, they think of the corporate PACs, super PACs, corporate funded dark money that goes into candidates that essentially try to buy their way in the election. There’s a candidate that’s running for governor that has a super PAC, which really bypasses the campaign finance rules that state that people are limited to $1,000 each contribution, Whereas super PACs legally, do not abide by that. So, you can pump in as much money as you want for a candidate. So, really, we’re trying to really do something new in the country.  We’re the first BLM PAC in the country and we’ve inspired just recently an organization that is called Rhode Island Queer PAC, who are doing the same things, whose founder is Ken Barber, whoM we’ve worked with to organize the first ever Pride Parade in Woonsocket and also our BLM Pride Parade in Providence over the summer. And so, we’re really setting a trend for other organizations to advocate for our government to work for us and not the other way around, by creating political action committees that are not restricted by nonprofit rules, whether a 501c3 or 501c4 to help get candidates into office. And so I’m really happy to see that not only us, but also that  we’re inspiring other groups that have been historically marginalized to do that as well.

Patsy Lewis 

So Harrison How much would you credit the protests of 2020 to our organization’s…?

Harrison Tuttle  

Huge! I think it was really the launching pad. For too long, Black and brown folks have been calling for the things that we’re calling for. It’s not new. It’s not something that you know, [that] the BLM Movement created. What it did was, for people that were not aware of systemic racism, and the effects that police brutality has on our communities, it really shined a light on it. And it brought out people and changed people’s minds about what was going on in our country, to an entire race of people. And in many ways, that is an ongoing fight because people still have their views on not only what we’re calling for, but also what happened last time. And I think really, the important part is continuing the momentum that we saw in 2020 to the best of our ability to advocate for that change. And I’m honored to continue that and to know that every day I’m learning from people that have come before me, while also paving our own way as a younger organization that is really progressive. And so, I think the 2020 protests had a huge effect and I don’t think that we would have formed without it.

Patsy Lewis 

Thank you very much, Harrison. For speaking with us,

Harrison Tuttle   

Of course.