Marcia Ranglin-Vassell is a Democratic member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, representing the 5th District since being elected in November 2016.

Rep. Ranglin-Vassell was interviewed by Shereece Rankine on 8/8/2022.

Interview Transcript

Shereece Rankine 

Good afternoon, today is Monday, August 8th, 2022 and I am in conversation today with Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell. Representative Vassell thank you so much for joining us today. I’m going to start off with you telling us some more about yourself.

Representative Ranglin-Vassell  

Thank you so much for having me. It is a pleasure to be here. As you referenced earlier at the beginning, my name is Marcia Ranglin-Vassell and I am State Representative for House district five and that includes Wanskuck, Charles and Elmhurst. I was first elected in 2016, and this is my sixth term. I ran for elected office for the very first time  in my life, because a young man got shot and killed, and that was in 2016. One of my sons came home, and said, “Mom, they shot this young man”; I won’t say his name. And, I just decided at that moment that I’m going to run for office. At that time, I had taught adjudicated youth for about 14 years in Providence and during those 14 years, I lost so many of my own students to gun violence. So, it was easy for me to decide that I wanted to run, to pass good common sense gun safety laws. That was the only priority that I had when I started running.

Shereece Rankine 

Thank you. We’re going to just launch right into the questions. And our first question is about the protest. When George Floyd was murdered, we saw all across the country and here in Rhode Island that folks took to the street and people were protesting. My first question for you is, were you directly or indirectly involved in any of these protests, whether as a local Rhode Islander, a citizen or as a state representative?

Representative Ranglin-Vassell  

I have been protesting injustice for the last 47 years, starting in Jamaica.  I was protesting when I was 14 years old, protesting for clean water, and acknowledging the fact that poor people everywhere want the same things. We want clean air and safe communities, we want access to health care and all the rest of that. So to your question, though, I cannot recall if I had actually gone to the protest when George Floyd was shot to death, I remember saying to myself that I marched when Trayvon Martin got shot and killed, I marched from Central High School in Providence. I wasn’t elected at that time, by the way. And I marched with hundreds of people on the highway, all the way down to Providence Kennedy Plaza and down to the State House. I also marched for Breonna [Taylor], and I have done several marches. I don’t know at what point, but  I remember saying to myself that I am tired of marching. I’m tired of marching, but we need to pass legislation, because the marching alone is not going to happen; because we could march until the soles of our feet burn off but unless we pass good common sense gun safety laws, that’s not going to change a thing. So, if I should make a guess, I would probably say no. But I can also tell you that I have marched so many times for my own students, and people that have been impacted by gun violence, and brought on by the way, by systemic racism and structural poverty.

Shereece Rankine

Thank you Representative Ranglin-Vassell. You mentioned marching for your students, and before you mentioned that your son came home and informed you about that young man getting killed. So my question for you as a lawmaker, or as an educator, what about the murder, or was there anything about the murder of George Floyd that resonated with you? And if so, what was that thing that resonated the most?

Representative Ranglin-Vassell

I don’t think I said this, but I taught adjudicated kids in an alternative setting for 14 years, along with many of my own students, and I currently teach in the Providence Public School system, and we’re still losing children to gun violence at a high rate. So the murder, the senseless, untimely, unjustified murder of George Floyd, what it did, for me, it really told me how much more we have to do across this country. It told me just how much more we have to fight for what I call the racism that is inherent in America, right in the DNA of America, and the devaluing of Black and brown people, especially young Black men. I have three adult young men of my own, and two grandsons, five brothers, and they’re all Black people. And so I do recognize the devaluing of Black bodies, but also the systemic oppression of Black men. I sometimes see Black men as an endangered species. So yes, the murder of George Floyd hit me the wrong way. Because, it was another sucker punch, if you will, to the gutt saying this is the continuation of systemic racism, and the war on Black bodies, especially Black men. So of course, it hit me as a mom of three Black men; it hit me as a wife of a Black man; it hit me as a sister, as a teacher, for the students that I teach who predominantly look like me. So I did not just see George Floyd’s killing as horrific and as senseless as it was. In addition, I saw it because (for) I, Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, it has become a part of my fight, and a part of my life, the killing of Black children, the killing of Black men, the killing of Black women, and the devaluing of our bodies, or even the policing of our bodies.

Shereece Rankine

Thank you, again, for another profound response.  My next question is thinking about what are some of the specific challenges with policing that you believe we here in Rhode Island need to overcome?

Representative Ranglin-Vassell

Well, I think we need to really look at the system that created racism; the system that, and I’ve said this publicly, that those folks in the police department who know– because you know who your peers are, you know that your peer is a racist then you should really tell others and tell your superior, and tell everybody. We can weed out racist cops, because as an educator, the school of thought that says that you won’t be able to retrain a racist person, I don’t subscribe to that. Because as an educator, I believe that everyone is educable, we can teach people, that’s what I’m trained to do. But if, after training and retraining, the policemen are still subscribing to the devaluing of Black people and the racial profiling, and the pulling over of Black and brown men, especially when they’re driving on the road– when my sons are driving, I tell them, listen, this is how you operate when you go on the road, but that’s one thing that I started doing since they were in preschool. I explicitly taught them, even how to have disarming looks on their faces; how to stand in proximity to maybe very, very short, White teachers– and one of my sons is over six feet tall– so that White folks don’t feel threatened by this Black body. So to your question, I think we also need to really get rid of LEOBOR, which is the police union system that upholds White supremacy, and racist police whereby cops cannot be fired. I’ve seen a recent video where a cop was holding this young man by the hair and knocking him around. How do you do that to another human being? And I think that is still in litigation, but we have to really look at the structures that these oppressive systems and racist systems are allowed to thrive in, and we’ve got to address that first.

Shereece Rankine

Thank you, and picking up on that with the next question, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, we saw protesters in Rhode Island fighting for change. They were fighting for change on the ground and I think one of the most important parts of the fight was also fighting to change some of the laws on the books. You mentioned LEOBOR, but were there any bills that you sponsored or co sponsored, that were in any way directly tied to the response of Floyd’s murder?

Representative Ranglin-Vassell

That’s a great question. So when I went to the General Assembly in 2016, I was told that I was one of the first persons in the history of Rhode Island — I was told this, I don’t know how true it is but I want to believe it could be true– who actually explicitly says we have got to address the issue of gun violence in the urban core. To your question when I went, I realized from my vantage point, that folks were not really connecting the dots. Right? They were not seeing the intersectionality between race and class and socio economics and colorism, and all of those things, those social economic determinants of where black people end up or not end. They did not see the connection. So,George Floyd’s sad passing was in many ways as a result of structural poverty. He was a poor man, from what I remember he was a man who had challenges around substance abuse, maybe. And all of those things are connected to the war on Black bodies and Black people. Did I support, sponsor or do any kind of legislation to address that? Yes. One of the first bills that I sponsored in the House of Representative was to pass a $15 living wage. And when I met with the then speaker, he literally laughed at me and thought I was crazy. In fact, many people in Rhode Island thought that I was crazy to ask for a $15 living wage, although in 2016, according to the wage calculator, we should have been at about $25.10. That’s why in this last session, I co-sponsored a bill for a $19 living wage, because I don’t think we’re there yet. We’re on the path, it’s signed into law, but we’re not there yet. I also sponsored legislation to dismantle the school to prison pipeline, which sends our children and people like George Floyd, straight from our classrooms into the criminal justice system. We sometimes send very good people into the criminal justice system, and they come out worse than when they went in. They also come out with mental health issues. That’s why I sponsor a bill which will be signed into law on the 18th, The Trauma Informed Schools Act. We’re still talking about these connections but every single thing is connected because when you devalue people, when we have systems that devalue people like George Floyd, and senselessly murdered him, we have to break those systems by passing really good common sense legislations. I have also sponsored legislation to make sure that we pass good common sense gun safety laws, right, so that the folks that need to have guns are trained, and if they need to have it, they should have it. But people that should not have guns–or even illegal guns–the legislation that I have co-sponsored, says they don’t need to have it. And in some cases, as with the red flag laws, we need to take those guns away from people who don’t need them. So yes, there’s so many legislation, actually. Because my vantage point is that I am someone who has grown up in poverty, grown up in gun violence, who has lost my own family and my own friends. It’s something that’s close to me and I know and acknowledge that just centering one thing, one issue is not going to solve it. We have to educate people. We have to. And so, when I stand up in the Rhode Island General Assembly and I use my voice and words that the General Assembly is not used to hearing, a body that they’re not used to seeing in that space, this is how we continue to chip away– although not fast enough– at these systems that devalue Black and brown people. And you’re welcome to visit my website as well, the Rhode Island General Assembly website, and you’ll see a bunch of the legislation that I worked on and actually signed into law.

Shereece Rankine

Thank you again. My next question was going to hit on two of those areas that you advocate for so fiercely, and these are: ending gun violence and the school to prison pipeline. And I was going to ask what are the parallels that you see, but you just laid it out for me, the parallels between gun violence, the school to prison pipeline and George Floyd’s murder? 

Representative Ranglin-Vassell

A lot of folks when I went up to the Hill, they didn’t see it. In fact I journal every day, because that’s one of the tools that I have in my toolbox to help me process trauma and to help me flush my system of toxins. And I go back to my journal entries every now and then, and in it I’m reading  a 2018 entry when I stood up on the House floor–there was a 22 year old young man who got shot and killed in Central Falls–and I stood up on the House floor –and you can Google these things and you will see them point of order in me for talking about gun violence on the House floor. These are public things that you can actually see. But it was in 2018 when that person in leadership came up to me after I stood up on the floor, and talked about the intersectionality of poverty and crime in the urban core. And by the way, the lack of investments in our core urban areas. When I speak about racism as evident in the urban core, I think about the lack of robust investments; the lack of robust investments into small businesses in the urban core. We know that small businesses are going to employ so many more people than rich corporations, but the government normally gives who I call the fat cats and cooperations the money instead of putting it into our core urban areas. Keep in mind Shereece, when money is injected into our core urban areas, we’re going to employ more people who are going to have more money to spend. And believe it or not, people are going to be happier, because who’s not happy when they have money? So we’re going to really reduce the incidences of crime. So it’s all these intersections that people who (are) not exposed to gun violence and poverty, as I’m exposed to and have a deep understanding of the intersectionality, they don’t understand those intersectionalities. So I say, pour money into the urban areas, fix up the schools, address homelessness, It’s all of that. When you look at the videos from George Floyd’s community, look at that neighborhood, poor, right? Poverty is where gun violence thrives or will thrive. I am not saying that everybody who is poor will resort to crime. I grew up poor, I didn’t resort to crime, I am saying, it could thrive in that space. So, in 2018 I got up on the House floor, this young man was shot and killed in Central Falls and I was just reading this in one of my journal entries for 2018. And somebody in leadership came to me the next day and said, I really love you but you can’t talk like that on the House floor. You can’t be talking about gun violence like that on the House floor. This was 2018.This was four years ago. So we have to see these barriers, we have to address these systems and we cannot be silent about it. This fight is hard but we are much harder than the fight that we’re up against. And that’s all. I am not stopping. I don’t know if I told you this, that I am not going to run for reelection. Did I tell you that?

Shereece Rankine

Yes.

Representative Ranglin-Vassell

I’m not running because first of all, I did everything that I said I was going to do. I passed the $15 living wage. We have made progress in passing good common sense gun safety laws. We have the trauma informed Schools Act which is going to be signed into law on the 18th. We have the Doula bill. I didn’t even say I was going to do those but I did. More than anything, I’ve inspired so many people that look like me to run for office. I put up a post on my Facebook the other day, there’s a Haitian woman running for Mayor [Nirva LaFortune], and Aniece Germain who you probably know, she’s a city councilperson in Cranston. So, in my run and my win and my fight, my loud fight, my unapologetic fight, I’ve inspired so many people to say this space does not just belong to White people.The State House does not just belong to White men; and this space is not just to be handed down as heirlooms to family members. So I’ve opened up that space. So here we are.  I’m just really really, really saddened by them. I’m writing a book on trauma right now and on the first page of my 60 plus whatever page I have so far, it’s dedicated to all the boys that I have lost to gun violence; the ones that I taught. So the first page of my book, the first names of all the boys who were in my class that were asking me for Jolly Ranchers, who were fighting with Mrs. Ranglin- Vassell over assigned seats, who were full of joy. And so we started the conversation about George Floyd, but as a teacher, and as a mom, and I write in the dedication of my book, to the boys that I’ve lost, and I carry them in my heart every single day they’re no longer here with us. And George Floyd is no longer here; he’s miles and miles apart, caused by the same system of oppression; the same system of devaluing children and Black people and brown people; the same system that is so afraid of the Black man, and they talk about Black women in similar derogatory ways. They say, angry black woman and I say, Well, I carry that angry Black woman in my pocket every day, because sometimes I just need to take her out and fight. So I don’t run away from angry Black woman. I embrace the angry Black woman because really, truly, if you’re not angry about racism, if you’re not angry, angry about the fact that that people are being devalued, if you’re not angry that George Floyd, and so many other people are racially profiled, if you’re not angry about Eric Garner, if you’re not angry about George, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, and Sandra Bland, I worry. So we can look at one single incident, which was really the catalyst, if you will, for these changes but we’ve been crying in the wilderness about our young men that were shot and killed for years and years and years, and it’s so sad that it had to take George Floyd, for that to happen. So my book is dedicated to my students, the ones that are no longer with us; but my book is also dedicated to some of my students who are locked up and are not coming out. We’ve lost them, too. We lost them because the system failed them. So yes, I have lost my own students; yes, I’ve lost my own family members; I’ve lost friends, but we need to talk so much about the kids whose lives have been cut short, in terms of their productivity and also the trauma resulting from their family, who are never going to see the light of day because they grew up in poverty. I haven’t even talked about the war on drugs, right? And believe it or not, it’s connected to all of this. The devaluing of black people, the enslavement of black people, the fact that black people are not able to build generational wealth. It’s all of that.

Shereece Rankine

Thank you again. And I will be looking forward to reading your book. It sounds like a really special project that you’re working on and I’m sure the public will benefit from hearing what you have to say. I have two more questions for you. There’s something that you said, when you spoke about your experience in the General Assembly in 2018, and being told about what issues to bring up on the House floor. And then you talked about other people that are getting into the race in Rhode Island, and so my question looks at accountability. I think that accountability from within the system, whether it is the state or within police systems, requires structural changes, and I am wondering what do you think needs to happen within the Rhode Island State Legislature to begin this type of structural change?

Representative Ranglin-Vassell

So I can tell you that in six years, we’ve been making structural changes. I keep saying for the last so many years that we just need regular people in there. People who understand systemic racism; people who understand low wages; people who understand having to make a decision to send their children to schools that are run down and lack resources. We need more people that are representative of the greater Rhode Island. We need people with disabilities or abilities– if you want to look at it the other way– special education services. I remember, in 2017, I put it in my bill, to examine the difficulties experienced by children who have one or more family [members] incarcerated. I remember putting in a bill to create standards in Rhode Island schools for air quality, because there’s no standard. I remember putting in a bill that centers children and that centers their family. If you don’t have regular people who understand these issues, you won’t have those policies. And giving us a seat at the table, by the way, is not enough. Putting me on a committee and me not having a voice to speak and to implement change, is not enough. So how do we break those structures? And I’ve seen it right before my eyes, where we’re actually talking about poor people. I remember in 2016 one of my very, very amazing friends, when I said we should be talking more about poor people, they said “poor people? Nobody wants to be called poor “. And I said well, I know a lot of people that are poor. And six years later, we’re talking about poor people in the General Assembly. So how do we break these systems, these structural systems? We break them by really and truly electing more people who understand the issues. That’s really the way you break it; and you break it by having people like myself. I am not beholden to anybody, except the people that elected me. Nobody tells me how to vote, or what to vote for except my neighbors who elected me. And when there’s a tie, I break it; so that’s how you break the system and it’s not going as fast as I would have loved it to go, but in 2016 for the first time in Rhode Island, we’ve actually made some bold changes in regards to gun violence. We’ve passed the $15  living wage. In the next two weeks we’re going to be signing several bold pieces of legislation regarding mental health services. For the first time in the history of Rhode Island, in the state budget, there’s a line item that’s dedicated to Black businesses and this is the first time in the history of the Rhode Island budget, so we’re making changes. We’ve gotta make more changes. People are hurting. And they’re hurting badly and it breaks my heart. But we’re making changes, although not enough, and not fast enough. I’m not an incrementalist but I also understand that these systems have been in place for 400 plus years, and so it’s gonna take a while, but we have to find people who are  not beholden to anyone except the people that elected them, and people that are not afraid to use their voices. I knew every time I got up on the House floor, people were like she’s talking again? and I’d say yes! I am talking again because I have things to say. And I’ve said this overtime if you’ve ever followed me, that  if I close my mouth, and refuse to speak, I would have dishonored my ancestors whose blood cries  from the Atlantic Ocean. I would have dishonored my ancestors whose blood is spread across the parched ground in the Americas, I would have dishonored my parents, so I’m always going to be speaking the truth. I tweeted last night that I was tweeting some stuff about Black bodies and policing, because they called the police so many times last Saturday when we had the Jamaican festival. And I’m like, you’re so woke yet you’re calling the cops on us just to celebrate? I don’t understand it. And I took a picture of the number of my followers, and I knew that I was going to lose followers, the minute I started speaking like that. And sure enough, I started losing followers. But I tweeted again, my job is not to make anybody comfortable in my pursuit for justice. We should be so collectively uncomfortable, that we want to fight for change. And that’s why I’m here.

Shereece Rankine

Again, Rep. Ranglin-Vassell,  thank you for all the good work that you’re doing. This is my last question. What I’ve heard from a lot of community organizers and some of the people who were protesting and who were outraged when George Floyd was murdered, is this really hot button topic of defunding the police? For many people, that means many different things. My question for you is, what is your position on defunding the police? Is that something we need to pursue in Rhode Island? Or do we pursue something else that looks differently?

Representative Ranglin-Vassell

When that conversation first started, I might have been the first person to say that I don’t believe in defunding the police. I just don’t because I know that every civilized society needs some systems of accountability. And if you defund the police, what if somebody had an issue –and I’m so glad to now have a 988 mental health number that you can call instead of calling 911, you call 988 and you’re getting a mental health crisis counselor. But if we had defunded the police right away, like a lot of the folks on my side were saying, if somebody is facing a crisis, where do they call? What I am saying is that we should invest, not in more police, by the way, I don’t want that. I want more funding, or equal funding to be going to mental health services, to be going to counselors, to be going towards providing safety nets. So, am I saying reduce the police budget? Of course, Absolutely, we could. I just don’t think we should defund it. We should think creatively about how we support the police force. Every civilized society in my mind needs one. It’s one of the characteristics of civilization, because we’re now domesticated, and we’re living in communities and we’re gonna have conflicts so we need the police force. But we also need equal funding for mental health services, received practices, training and investments in schools and in our Hatha schools, and in the arts and crafts in music. And I am sure if we invest robustly in those social services and the family support services, we wouldn’t need to be spending all that money on the police. No, we wouldn’t. So it’s to think creatively. But I do not believe that we should totally defund the police. I think we need to creatively think about where we’re investing, and where we’re investing the most money and who are the people that we are valuing in such a way that we’re going to invest more. So I think it speaks to how we feel about people by the lack or the investment that we placed into them. So you want to put all the money in cops? Is that where your value system lies? Then I think that’s a little screwed up. Invest in people’s human capital; invest in us; the kids; invest in teachers. I’m getting ready to go out and spend my money to get some supplies and to fix up the classroom so that when my students come in, they find somewhere that’s conducive to teaching and learning. So, no I don’t believe so but we have to creatively think of ways where we’re not giving so much to the budget for policing, and retraining, by the way. And to the question that you started off with, the police that don’t want to be trained because they think that Black people are lesser than them, they need to[not] be in the Force.

Shereece Rankine

Representative Ranglin- Vassell, thank you again, so much for your time. And for answering  all of our questions. We look forward to speaking with you again.

Representative Ranglin-Vassell

Well, I thank you so much for your kind invitation. And anything that I can do to elevate the issue of justice, anything that I can do as a mom, as a wife, as a person who cares deeply about justice, I’m ready to help and I appreciate your time as well. Keep doing the awesome work that you guys are doing, and I can’t wait for the website.

Shereece Rankine

Absolutely. Thank you so much. Have a great rest of your day.

Representative Ranglin-Vassell

All right. Take care.