An Illustration of the development of a local social movement.

María Inclán, División de Estudios Políticos, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas
Patsy Lewis, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Brown University

Rhode Island responses to the Police Killing of George Floyd

On May 25, 2020,  in Minneapolis, George Floyd was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin who knelt on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. This led to several months of protests across the US, which spread to countries around the world in solidarity and protesting their own experiences of anti-Black racism (citation to some of these). These were not the first protests against police violence against black people, as by then, different individuals, groups and organizations around the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the country had been protesting police brutality for over seven years. These, though, were by far the largest and most sustained.

The BLM movement, developed by three Black women in the wake of the vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin, and which was at the center of these protests–seeks to eradicate white supremacy enacted at the hands of the state, police, or vigilantes. It utilizes autonomous organizing to rise against racialized acts of violence. Although the BLM movement has been active since 2013, it had received less media visibility since 2016 following backlash after five police officers in Dallas were killed by a sniper during a protest against police killings. George Floyd’s murder unleashed a series of protests at a time when society had been at a virtual stand-still as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

By May of 2020, the United States was in its second month of lock-down. The COVID-19 pandemic set the stage for an outpouring of emotion among Americans stuck at home, watching videos of the incident circulate. Black Lives Matter organizations were already posed to take the lead in organizing these protests due to their experience and resources in community organizing of peaceful protests. Many activists made it clear that George Floyd’s death was not accidental but rather a continuation of a long history of police brutality. The cell-phone videos showing his death clearly demonstrated a lack of care for human life by members of the police, and resulted in  widespread protests across racial and ethnic groups against a policing system that unduly targeted Black Americans. 

This public outrage and the cell-phone recordings pressured the authorities to press charges against Chauvin, which led to convictions for murder by a Minnesota court, and on federal charges for the abuse of Floyd’s civil rights.  Floyd’s family also received financial compensation from a lawsuit filed under the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 U.S.C. § 1983). Despite the unprecedented nature of these convictions, in light of the challenges of holding police accountable for such offenses, the movement’s influence had reached far beyond a mere legal battle or court case. It had also extended beyond the boundaries of the US–from the UK to New Zealand– underscoring the global nature of racism and its many manifestations.

Protesting anti-Black Racism and policing in Rhode Island

Rhode Island was not immune to expressions of outrage in the wake of Floyd’s death, and soon local groups joined in launching demonstrations not just for justice for George Floyd, but against police brutality more generally. Five days after Floyd’s killing, on May 30, 2020, approximately 2000 protestors gathered in downtown Providence at Burnside Park to march towards the State House demanding an end to police brutality and justice for its victims. The march and rally were peaceful events. Graffities left on the steps to the State House declaring “no justice, no peace”, echoed the cries of similar marches around the country. 

A week later, on June 5, one of the largest marches in Providence’s history, organized by a group of teenagers, brought together 10,000 in front of  the State House, where they demanded to speak with Governor Gina Raimondo, who addressed the crowd, expressing her support for change. Apart for one protest that ended in clashes with the police and the vandalism of some businesses in Providence , and which was denounced by other protests participants, peaceful protests continued in  Providence and beyond. Barrington, Bristol, North and South Kingston, Newport, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket also experienced one-day demonstrations.

As with elsewhere, protests across Rhode Island were multi-racial, with  protest organizers in Rhode Island making it clear that the movement in the State in support of Black Lives was diverse. In Newport, BLM RI activist “Brother” Gary Danzler, noted that it was important to mobilize in almost all white communities, such as Newport, to raise awareness about racial injustice in the country, stating “we need to educate the whole community about what’s going on across the nation.” In Woonsocket, Police Chief Thomas F Oates III expressed solidarity with the WATCH Coalition (Woonsocket Alliance to Champion Hope) when he addressed the group rallying outside the city’s Police Department. As mobilization activities diffused to other cities in the state, the focus of protest shifted from the specific circumstances of Floyd’s death to include other prominent instances of police killings such as Breonna Taylor and  Sandra Bland, and to broader concerns around the criminal justice system and demands for greater visibility of events of importance to African Americans. These included demands to defund the police, in support of criminal justice reform, and for the annual commemoration of Juneteenth. [1]

Other local groups, individuals, and organizations began to honor the movement’s cause. For example during the second annual Dyke and Trans People of Color March on June 20, 2020 not only highlighted the harassment and violence experienced by lesbian and trans people of color, but also the historical invisibilization of the destruction of Black homes in 1824 and 1831 and the contributions of the black community to the culture and education in Providence. On June 26, 2020, during a march in Providence in solidarity with the BLM mobilization in Portland, Oregon, protestors also denounced the arrests that had occurred during the previous demonstration in Providence and supported calls to defund the police.

Across Rhode Island, religious leaders, families and youth groups, and Amnesty International also showed their solidarity in various ways. In Barrington, families, residents, members of the local Congregational Church, state representatives, and council members turned out to a silent protest that soon became very noisy as drivers blared their horns in support of protesters.

In Providence, the Alliance of Rhode Island South East Asians for Education (ARISE), Providence Student Union (PSU), Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM), Leadership Journey, and Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) marched together to the Providence Public Safety Complex, the Rhode Island Department of Education, and the Rhode Island State House demanding racial justice and denouncing white supremacy, anti-blackness, and general racism in the provision of education, criminal justice, daycare services, public safety, policing, physical and mental health care, community services, representation, housing, and labor rights.

During 2020, two events, in particular, fueled the movement, reenergizing protest activity across the country. These were the decision, in September 2020, by a grand jury not to charge the two officers responsible for the death of Breonna Taylor, a black woman shot to death by police in her bed, choosing instead to indict them for reckless endangerment of her neighbors; and the decision not to charge the policemen involved in the shooting of an unarmed black man, Jacob Blake, seven times in the back, in  Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 23, 2020.

In Rhode Island, it was the case of Jhamal Gonsalves, a 24 year old who was left in a coma after a police cruiser crashed into his moped,  that increased public outrage, and highlighted the tensions between the police and the community. BLM in Rhode Island immediately issued a statement denouncing the behavior of an “overzealous and under-trained police office,” calling for the retraining and mental re-evaluation of the entire police force, and stating that the movement would “keep holding law enforcement accountable, even if they don’t have the same standards among themselves.” Protests calling for justice for Jhamal and for racial justice in general erupted again  in the state and the local media covered them widely.

Alianza Para Movilizar la Resistencia in Rhode Island (AMOR in RI) and Sunrise Providence expressed their outrage  on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. No charges were filed against officers although several were disciplined.

State responses to the movement in Rhode Island

Initial protest activity faced repressive force while local and state authorities and representatives actively responded with statements to the events surrounding the movement on social media. While state authorities’ public statements never discredited the movement’s demands, they were not  always well received by the online public. More importantly, these responses have not only been inconsistent, but they have also fallen short of addressing the movement’s claims. In the case of Jhamal Gonsalves, no officer was charged. In other instances, authorities blocked public access to police cameras.

In general, state responses have been mainly public statements on Twitter. Local and state authorities, as well as representatives, all of them Democrats, and even some of the Police Chiefs, have legitimated the movement’s causes. For example, State Attorney General, Peter Nerohna, has been open to supporting civil rights legislation to reform police investigations, while at the same time, police records have not been released for public scrutiny. Governor Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza initially clashed over the use of the National Guard after the initial unrest in the city. Nevertheless, they later aligned their responses regarding repressive presence during protests and withholding police records from public review. Other Democrats in Rhode Island have also expressed their support for reform to address some of the movement’s demands. However, so far, they have stopped at signaling sympathy by backing a campaign to change the name of the state and increasing diversity in the state Supreme Court. In November 2020, voters decided to finally drop “Providence Plantations” from the official name of the state.

Contradictions and divisions within the city council on police behavior and accountability were even more evident. While some council members wanted to see greater accountability and the reallocation of public funds, others were calling for an increase in police personnel and an increase in its  diversity. Mayor Elorza has shown a disposition towards a reconciliation and reparation process. Nevertheless, he scaled up the repressive presence during protest events and protected the police department from further public inquiries. Central Falls has since appointed the first and black police Chief, who was also the the only Black municipal police chief in Rhode Island in Rhode Island;  while the Providence police department was sued for racial discrimination during recruitment processes.

BLM mobilization and theoretical perspectives

The emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag in 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, signaled the latent racial conflict that seems to characterize the United States and helped frame the movement against systemic racism (Benford and Snow 2000; Tarrow 2011). Since then, the different instances of brutality against black and brown citizens, mostly at the hands of the police, have sparked protest activity and innovated mobilizing efforts and frames not only in the cities where these violent incidents have taken place, but also in communities seemingly unaffected by police brutality (Givan, Roberts, and Soule 2010). New actors, groups and organizations join the movement as they fall victim to racial discrimination, remember their own past experiences, but also to show their solidarity with the movement. The movement’s discourse also grows in terms of broader denunciations against systemic racism and demands to correct for its long-lasting effects on marginalized sectors of the population, especially once the unequal effects of the pandemic became evident. Protest activity across the country appears to be organized in reaction to incidents of police brutality.

Nevertheless, civil society actors are also mobilizing for racial justice through institutional channels. In Rhode Island, organizations and activists have been working together with the City Council and the State’s Legislature to denounce the different forms of systemic racism in their communities and demand specific governmental actions against police brutality, prison conditions, the pandemic’s effects, and for diversity in the state’s Supreme Court, to name a few. While newer, more militant groups, such as the BLM Political Action Pact (BLM PAC)-not to be confused with BLMRI, openly advocate for political action and support “progressive” candidates running for political office in RI.

Further, continued transgressions by the police and associated media coverage ensure the movement’s relevance and continued mobilization. Hence, it seems that we are in a perennial phase of heightened contention. Providence Juneteenth’s commemoration illustrated the broader claims for racial justice and racial socioeconomic and political inequalities made evident by the COVID-19 pandemic. The disproportionate effects of the pandemic across racial groups is correlated to the stark differences in housing conditions, food security, health and education services between white and other sectors of the population. The differences are even more dramatic when comparing them to those of Latinx or African Americans. The pandemic aggravated these inequalities and increased the BLM protesters’ outrage, grievances, and motivation across the country to continue taking the streets against police violence, risking both their personal health and safety (Cobbina Chaudhuri, Rios, and Conteh 2019).

As a decentralized social movement, local BLM related groups are defining their own agendas and mobilizing for their own local causes. Local demands and forms of mobilization are responding to events highlighting the different ways in which racial discrimination is embedded in the community, not just police brutality against black and brown sectors of the population, but also most vicious expressions of structural racism in housing, urban development, education, and health care. As the movement’s demands have grown, it is building alliances with local groups and actors and a solidarity network of organizations is emerging as a progressive coalition around the country. As these demands have been articulated by movement actors and allies in power, as well as political candidates during electoral campaigns, some of the movement claims are beginning to be represented in state and national legislatures or addressed by different levels of executive authorities. Necessarily, negotiations among movement actors and organizations as well as with authorities and representatives imply compromises and these negotiations may create friction among the actors and within and between organizations , as some demands are given priority over others or are easier for authorities to address or ignore.

Scholars analyzing the BLM movement have already pointed to the challenges ahead DiMaggio with Shinjo 2020; Ransby 2018). First, in terms of maintaining its legitimate discourse, movement actors need to watch out for the unforeseen effects of citizen journalism. Although witness videos and online social media have been crucial to prove the brutal practices of the police against black people (Vis, Faulkner, Noble, and Guy 2020), citizen journalism is a strategy easily susceptible to media manipulation and distortion.

Second, while differentiating claims from other discriminated groups might help each community advance its specific agenda,  nevertheless, this differentiation may open unnecessary rifts between otherwise solidarity groups within the movement. Finally, although the decentralized, leaderless character of the movement provides some advantages in the flexibility it affords for a more rapid response to local events, the lack of organizational professionalization may also make achieving local objectives difficult, and may well hinder the advancement of a national agenda.

Given the decentralized nature of the US federal system, the autonomy of police departments, and the different demands of the movement, BLM groups must  necessarily denounce racial inequalities at different fronts. Additionally, BLM actors have stated no interest in formalizing a centralized social movement organization. Hence, the movement is destined to continue as local campaigns against institutional racism with their own particularities. Additionally, depending on the state responses to the movement’s actions and agenda, these internal divisions may also deepen.

However, decisions in cases like Breonna’s, Jacob’s, and Jhamal’s have not only failed to hold the respective police departments accountable for the actions of their members and left the victims and the local BLM movements calling for justice, but they have helped to refocus the movement’s demand for further police and criminal justice reform These decisions have also contributed to the radicalization of the movement’s  demands and increasing civil disobedience, which in turn were faced with stronger repression. During protest events people began calling for the abolition of the police force and its replacement with a public safety agency. Conventional protests at times turned into standoffs with the police and people were arrested, as happened in the Jhmael Gonsalves protests.

While this vicious cycle of protest and repression is not a new phenomenon, research across a range of events and geographical locations in the United States has proven that protest activity organized by people of color, in particular black people, historically has been policed more than protest mobilization organized by whites, and when present during protest events, police have also been more likely to repress black than white protesters (Chernega 2016; Davenport, Soule, and Armstrong 2011). This comparison became evident when we witnessed the reaction of law enforcement to BLM demonstrations and the Capitol riots after Trump’s rally on January 6, 2021. Nevertheless, the development of the BLM movement seems to be taking a more virtuous cycle of interaction with state authorities, both nationally and locally–hopefully emulating a light version of Goldstone and Tilly’s (2001) “spiral of protest, repression, expanding to more protest, [but] ending in massive concessions (p. 191),” as it was the case of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s in the US, the revolutionary spirals in British India in the 1940s, and in South Africa in the 1980s.

Thus, the development of the movement for racial justice seems to following the expectations in the literature: events such as egregious acts of violence by state authorities against members of a minority and/or racialized group trigger mobilization, which then  grows, expands diffuses, incorporates news demands, gets repressed,leading to  more protest. The authorities’ response is oftentimes incoherent, at times conciliatory and at others repressive,  triggering more mobilization and increased solidarity across groups. Eventually some movement leaders join the government, become political representatives  and are thus able to gain concessions, which are hardly uniform, leading to a continuation of the struggle.

What does it say about state responses?

In Rhode Island, responses from authorities have also corresponded to what the literature predicts. The literature tells us that erratic responses from authorities, together with repressive measures necessarily exacerbate the frustration of movement actors and mobilization activity tends to intensify (Almeida 2003; Inclán 2009; Lichbach 1987; Goldstone and Tilly 2001; McAdam 2003)—as mobilization for racial justice in Rhode Island and other cities in the country have already proven. Still, supportive statements coming from authorities may signal opportunities for the movement to advance its agenda through potential political allies within the state (Banaszak 2010).

The general tendency of state and local authorities was to sympathize with the movement’s claims publicly, while at the same time, expressing support for the officials and departments responsible for the denounced abuses. Contradicting and inconsistent state responses open opportunities for social movement actors to frame and reframe their demands, as well as to advance their agenda by pressing both political allies and opposing elites in power (Inclán; Tarrow 2011). Nevertheless, the most important factor driving forward the BLM’s collective action defensive campaigns might be the continuation of brutal police practices on top of underlying structural racism (Almeida 2019; Taylor 2016), while the driving cause for its success will be the willingness of state authorities and representative to address the movement’s demands (Bruhn 2008; Della Porta and Diani 2020).

“Daddy changed the world!” shouted George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter, Gianna, in one of the protest events to demand justice for the murder of her dad. While there is still a long way for racial justice to be achieved, it is true that George Floyd’s murder reinvigorated the global Black Lives Matter movement. Since then, not only has solidarian mobilization taken place in other parts of the world (Ampofo 2016; Zarkov 2020), but we are beginning to witness governments signaling reparatory actions and statements acknowledging their role in colonial slavery and genocide, as well as the need for drastic policy changes to address systemic racism in housing, education, workplaces, health services, and criminal law (Vesely-Flad 2017) [2]. While we write this narrative we are far from reaching the official governmental acknowledgement of the nefarious effects of colonialism, slavery, and the racist foundations of capitalism (Patterson 2020). Nevertheless, the BLM movement is picking up momentum, opening opportunities to push for more substantial reparatory policy changes that would even out opportunities for oppressed black and brown populations around the world (Binning 2019; De Gennoa 2018; Yeboah 2018; Taylor 2016).


Notes

  1. Juneteenth commemorates the proclamation of freedom for slaves in Texas on June 19th, 1865, the last state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery at the time. The date has been celebrated in different parts of the country, but it was in 2021, that the day was recognized as a federal holiday after President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law.
  2. The Biden infrastructure plan is a first step in the right direction to address some social and racial inequalities.

References

Almeida, Paul D. 2003. “Opportunity Organizations and Threat-Induced Contention: Protest Waves in Authoritarian Settings.” American Journal of Sociology 109 (2): 345-400.

Almeida, Paul D. 2019. Social Movements. The Structure of Collective Action. Oakland: University of California Press.

Ampofo, Akosua Adomako. 2016. “Re-viewing Studies on Africa, #BlackLivesMatter, and Envisioning the Future of African Studies.” African Studies Review 59 (2): 7-29.

Banaszak, Lee Ann. 2010. The Women’s Movement Inside and Outside the State. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Benford, Robert and David Snow. 2000. “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.” Annual Review of Sociology 26: 611-639.