As many as 10,000 flooded downtown in a noisy but peaceful demonstration
By Hope McKinney
Thousands of protesters dressed in black, faces clad in masks, and carrying signs flooded into downtown Providence Friday afternoon for the Protect Black Lives protest. It was one of many seen around the country and across the globe following the recent killings at the hands of police of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.
The energy felt palpable as protesters of all ages gathered at Kennedy Plaza and walked up to the State House. People driving by were sticking their fists out of their car windows and honking, many shouting their support.
Protesters quickly picked up different chants, “No justice, no peace,” and, “Black lives matter,” to “Hey hey, ho ho, these racist cops have got to go.”
The names of unarmed black people recently murdered by police, including Floyd, 46 at the time of his death, and Taylor, 26, could be heard chanted repeatedly throughout the day. Friday would have been Taylor’s 27th birthday – the tune of “Happy Birthday” erupted as the crowd stood outside the State House.
A few speakers were heard urging the city of Providence and the state of Rhode Island to act with love, fighting darkness with light. One of the speakers, 16-year-old Ayee Yeakula, was one of the youth organizers for the protest, alongside Kiara Cruel, 16, and Faith Quinnea, 16.
Elizabeth A’Vant, a mother from Lincoln who works in the Providence school system, was one of the protesters.
“I have three black boys,” she said. “My oldest is 26 and I have twins that are 23, and every time they leave my house, I worry about if they’re going to be the next victim. So, I have to be here.”
She said she felt overwhelmed with the outpouring of love and support from the community.
“It’s really meaningful,” she said. “It’s bringing tears to my eyes to see so many people – black, white, of all different denominations.”
Macey Hardin from Bristol talked about what it was like being a black person growing up in a predominantly white town.
“All throughout elementary school, I was literally the only African American there and I feel like I was targeted a lot just because of my race,” she said. “They tried to paint me out to be the problem black kid. I’m fighting for the 8-year-old girl that I used to be and I’m also fighting for my future kids who will be African American, as well. This is just not a world they belong in, so we need to change it right away.”
A’Vant and Hardin urged people to educate themselves and be vocal.
“Silence does nothing,” Hardin said. “Do as much as you can. Donating. Even just Instagram posts. There’s nothing too small, everything is good enough to show your support.”
“There’s some really, really good books out there on the market that you can read about anti-racism, about privilege,” said A’Vant. “People don’t like to hear that term – white privilege. It’s real. So, do some reading. Open your mind.”
As the sun began to set and the air cooled, some protesters headed out, while others broke off from the crowd and created different groups. The Sam Cooke song “A Change is Gonna Come,” widely known for representing the struggles of black people in America, floated throughout the area, providing a sense of calm after the vivacious noise at the State House.
One group got on their knees surrounding Ibiolatiwa Akomolafe, a young woman who recited,
“Capitalize the A in America and remember to capitalize the T in Trayvon Martin,” recalling the death of 17-year-old Travyon Martin killed by vigilante George Zimmerman, 28, in Florida in 2012. Zimmerman was later acquitted.
At around 7:30 p.m., Superintendent of the State Police Department, Colonel James Manni, spoke about the protest.
“We found the protesters to be respectful overall, and well-organized, and they exercised their constitutional rights – First Amendment, freedom of speech and we respect that,” he said. “We stood with them and continue to let them exercise their right.”
As for any concerns about the aftermath of protesters continuing past the 9 p.m. curfew, set after the looting and vandalism earlier in the week, he said he felt hopeful.
“I’m not nervous about it,” he said. “It’s always a concern, you know, public safety’s a priority here in the city of Providence and I just hope it remains calm throughout the night and that it remains respectful to everyone and we get through it.”
Members of the R.I. National Guard and police officers were seen on the outskirts of the protest, quietly watching from afar, even engaging with many protesters.
Intermittently, some protesters chanted, “Where’s Gina?” Soon after curfew, Governor Gina Raimondo went out to the steps of the State House, thanking the protesters for remaining peaceful.
“I want you to know that I hear you, I’m praying with you and I’m fully committed to taking action and working with you to eliminate racism in RI,” she wrote on Twitter.
Soon after, a moment of silence was held for the victims of police brutality. A protester yelled, “Make some noise for George Floyd!” Protesters erupted in applause.
Multiple live streams showed protesters continuing to march throughout the city until almost 11 p.m. Many people on the streets were outstretched from their homes, yelling in support of the movement.
Police let protesters continue to march past 9 p.m. despite the curfew. And things got tense in other parts of downtown, but peace held. At one point, protesters seemed to be cornered by state police on Broadway but were eventually allowed to keep walking. Some ended up marching back to Kennedy Plaza alongside officers, seemingly ending the day of the protest on a positive note.
“United we stand, divided we fall!” a protester yelled into a megaphone.
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