On October 1st, Rhode Island residents gathered in the Providence Public Library for a brief public teach-in on the Community Safety Act (CSA). The CSA, a proposed city ordinance that would instate a variety of accountability measures for police, recently packed City Hall with supporters during the public hearing on September 14th. Three activists from the CSA Coalition, Vanessa Flores-Maldonado, Dania Sanchez, and Sophia Wright, formed the panel that led the teach-in. It (or “the teach-in”) was followed by a banner painting session in support of the CSA for the Providence HONK! Fest held this Indigenous People’s Day.
Here are five things to know about the CSA:
1) The CSA is a shared effort among a broad coalition of community organizations. Among the activists present, Wright works with Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), and Sanchez and Flores-Maldonado with the Providence Youth and Student Movement (PrYSM). the Olneyville Neighborhood Association (ONA) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker group, have also both spearheaded the CSA. Beyond these four, the coalition is backed by a number of other organizations. Bringing together youth and older activists, neighborhood associations and political organizations, the CSA represents a widely held understanding that the police are not here to protect vulnerable residents.
2) The CSA Coalition has been in work for two years and counting. If you’re new to Rhode Island, the CSA may seem like new legislation due to the recent national media attention to the “crisis of policing”. However, the City Council hearing held in September was, in fact,, the work of several years of community activism. Local media coverage fails to demonstrate this. “Reporting and media is a huge launching point,” said Flores-Maldonado, taking care to emphasize the importance of radical journalism and social media in getting the word out. “This isn’t new.” Providence residents, particularly Black residents and residents of color, have been facing racist violence at the hands of the police for years, and the panel linked the CSA to a broader liberation struggle of 250 years and more – where folks come in and out, fighting in different ways. “We learn lessons from those who came before,” the panelists commented.
3) Despite being a legal reform, the CSA is rooted in an abolitionist vision of a world without police. “We’re all radicals,” said Flores-Maldonado, gesturing at herself and her fellow activists. All three went on to emphasize that legislation is not – and cannot – be the ultimate solution. Instead, the CSA is one of several measures aimed at preventing the worst of police brutality, as part of the long-term fight against state violence. The end goal of the CSA Coalition is not to work with the police, but to create a community without them. “What about the good police officers?” asked someone in the audience. The panel described various ways in which policing as an institution upholds racist hierarchies that guarantee violence. Wright argued that laws tend to be selectively enforced in white communities through a “boys will be boys” attitude, while police officers of color have a higher incentive to crack down on communities of color to prove that they’re “worthy of the badge”. “The thing about police is that you can invite them in,” said Wright, “but you don’t know who you’re getting.”
4) The city-wide ordinance is the legal aspect of a larger grassroots project for community empowerment. Sanchez, who works with the Community Defense Project (CDP) under PrYSM, described some of the work they’ve been doing to hold police accountable and reclaim power for the community. The CDP organizes mental health workshops for those targeted by police abuse. It also organizes and trains community members for CopWatch, where civilians go out in groups to watch and record police officers. A more detailed description of their work can be found here.
An audience member asked about what to do with footage of police abuse. While the lack of legal enforcement means that no footage, whether filmed by civilians or by body cams, is guaranteed to result in accountability, the act of filming is still one way civilians – particularly those who are white or light-skinned – can put pressure on the police. If you have footage of police violence, some steps forward include offering the victim your contact info, and connecting them to the CDP, which can provide free or low-cost legal services. The panel also commented that another way to exert pressure on police is by pulling over or stopping during situations where Black or Brown people are facing the police, and asking about the nature of the crime, and whether the person in question is all right.
5) It’s imperative to pressure elected officials now. The panel described how the original plan by the City Council was to let the ordinance sit for two years before voting, which means that it’s up to Providence residents to put pressure on them by calling City Councilors. If you live on the disproportionately white and wealthy East Side (which includes College Hill, and held a forum on the CSA two weeks ago), your input could be particularly impactful. If you can, please take some time to leave a message with City Councilors, or send them an email emphasizing that the CSA cannot wait.
Flores-Maldonado identified specific members of local government to target:
- Councilman Seth Yurdin, who has refused to meet over the CSA and doesn’t show up to City Council meetings. (401) 484-7207 / firstname.lastname@example.org
- Councilman Sam Zurier, who won’t explicitly state his support for the CSA but believes that a “more diverse police force” will improve relations. email@example.com
- Mayor Jorge Elorza, who promised to pass the CSA while running for his position, but withdrew his support after being elected. (401) 421-2489 / contact form here
As Providence residents, however temporary, we all have a stake in the Community Safety Act. But the issue here is bigger than one City Council hearing, or one particular city ordinance – it’s about honoring and supporting Providence residents of color in the ongoing struggle for survival and justice. The CSA Coalition represents the latest installment in this struggle, and it’s a change that is needed now, more than ever.
Edited by Marianne Verrone and Thoralf Island.