Community Safety Now: An Interview with Vanessa Flores-Maldonado

On Wednesday, April 5th, I spoke with Vanessa Flores-Maldonado, the Campaign Coordinator for the Community Safety Act (CSA). The CSA is a proposed citywide ordinance for a range of police accountability measures that has been in the works for years now, backed by a coalition of community organizations across Providence. Since the ordinance first appeared in City Hall last September 14th, the CSA has undergone a number of revisions.

Another public hearing has been scheduled for this coming Monday, April 10th, at 5:20 PM. This is one of the last opportunities to show up physically for the CSA before the crucial May deadline.

Below, Vanessa discusses some of the changes to the CSA since its last public hearing, and what Providence residents can do to ensure its passage. This interview has been edited for clarity.

bluestockings: Back in November, we thought the CSA was almost going to pass before winter. What ended up happening, and what does the timeline and process look like from here?

Vanessa Flores-Maldonado: We had a public hearing back in September of last year, and that was powerful because we inspired some of the City Councilors to take a big role in getting this ordinance passed. The people who were fired up from that public hearing have been really instrumental in getting the ordinance going.

We thought back then that the ordinance was ready to go. We had tried to get feedback from the solicitor’s office – they go over ordinances and bills and decide whether or not they’re legally accurate, inaccurate, plausible. So it was very important for us to get their feedback because that way we would know what parts of the CSA were not going to work out. They have never gotten back to us to this date – it’s actually really frustrating. We have continuously called them out for the fact that they never responded to us. [But through] informal conversation with City Council staff [and] phone feedback we had some small idea of what was liked and what was not liked.

Starting in November and December, City Council staff started meeting with us pretty regularly to help us rewrite parts of the ordinance that legally were not good or were troublesome. And it’s taken so long because there’s so many of us, and so many City Council people and staff. They wanted to meet not just with us but with other people involved in this – the mayor’s office, the solicitor’s office, the police and their union … Now we really, really need to work hard on this because unfortunately this stuff has an expiration date of May 2nd.

On Monday, what’s going to happen is there’s going to be a public hearing, and then right after that, the ordinance committee – which is a group of five City Councilors who vote on whether or not the rest of the City Council will vote on ordinances – are going to meet, and they’re going to vote on whether or not the CSA should be brought before a full vote. We’re confident we’re going to get it out of the ordinance committee. [After that] we need a solid ten votes to get it passed and through, and to send a message to Mayor Elorza that if he tries to veto it, we already got ten votes so his veto [wouldn’t] matter to us.

pcsa

bluestockings: Can you say a little more about what happens on May 2nd?

VF: One of the City Councilors was Kevin Jackson, one of three East Side councilmen and one of the members who actually got fired up by the public hearing back in September. [Now] his constituents want to do a recall vote on him [Editor’s Note: for reasons unrelated to his support for the CSA], basically trying to kick him out of his seat.

First of all, he’s the only, only City Councilor on the East Side who has supported the CSA from the start; who has been willing to talk to us, meet with us, and continuously work with us, which says a lot about the East Side and says a lot about its Council members. He became a huge part of these meetings, so we’re not happy about the fact that this recall is happening. Even if his replacement supported the CSA, [the ordinance] would not come to a vote until September later this year. And that is time we really do not have. We’ll have been doing this stuff for three years this June, and so we agreed amongst ourselves that we needed to get this done this year before May 2nd – before this recall vote goes down.

bluestockings: Can you talk a little about past and present issues that have been particularly contested, or are still under negotiation?

VF: So one of the things, actually, that Elorza really, really likes to say is that he wants Providence to become a sanctuary city – which is bullshit. Because the CSA aims to do exactly that. There were provisions in the CSA that were talking about making it so that the Providence Police Department is not able to collaborate with ICE, and in this national landscape of ICE crackdowns, that was so important and so crucial – there have already been roundups of people in Providence. And so even before Trump happened, we already had that in the ordinance, we already had a section on making it so that the Providence Police Department cannot work with ICE and they don’t have to honor ICE requests.

One concern became that Trump threatened to pull federal funding from cities and states that became “sanctuary cities,” and so that was something we got a lot of pushback on, like well, if this does happen, what does that mean for Providence’s money and federal funding? It was a huge concern about trying to get that wording down, and we actually went back and forth a lot on that part. Because the purpose of the CSA is to protect all people in Providence, including undocumented immigrant folks. And so this is something that we got a lot of pushback on from the mayor’s office, which doesn’t make sense. If Elorza is really talking about becoming a sanctuary city, then why is he not helping us get the wording down on the CSA? He never is and he never has. So I call bullshit on the “sanctuary city” crap that he keeps spouting, because the CSA literally aims to become that and he has given us nothing but resistance from the start.

bluestockings: On another one of the CSA’s policy points – there’s been a lot of critique of body camera initiatives, since they tend to increase funding towards the police. For the CSA in particular, how are body cameras going to be a measure of accountability?

VF: So the funny thing, actually, is that people keep getting confused and saying that the CSA is calling for body cameras, but we never actually believed in body cameras. A body camera is not going to stop the police from beating your ass – how many Black people have we witnessed being beaten up and murdered not just on body cams but on Facebook live and street cameras? Eric Garner was filmed being choked to death, and the man who filmed it was the one who ended up being arrested. We recognize that the idea of body cameras are not what is important or urgent, but it is something we do talk about very briefly in the CSA.

Basically, we defined video and audio recording [as] not just in body cameras, but also in dashboard cameras and digital audio recorders. So that if the police department is audiotaping something but doesn’t have a video part, we still want to make sure that is being regulated because that is something that could be obstructed. And so what we’re trying to do is set guidelines for making sure that police don’t use their own personal recordings, don’t tamper with the recordings, because that’s something we’ve seen also. Now the CSA is calling for standards to be set forth, so this is a little of a compromise. We’re basically asking for the police department to adopt written procedures versus us setting them up, which can be a little tricky. But we’re also saying other things that can [hold police] more accountable, like the police cannot in any way whatsoever harass or intimidate people who are taking videos or recordings of the police. They always have to let people know that they’re being recorded.

bluestockings: So what can East Side residents like Brown and RISD students do in the next couple days, or after Monday, to pressure those Councilors?

VF: There’s three Councilors for the East Side: Kevin Jackson, who’s already a strong supporter, and then there’s Sam Zurier and Seth Yurdin. Sam Zurier has met with us several times in the past, and has actually been pretty helpful with us since he’s a lawyer, so he’s gotten at the legal language behind the CSA. But he’s still not a 100% supporter, so putting pressure on him to support the CSA would be really great.

Seth Yurdin has never met with us, has never wanted to talk about the CSA … and now that I’ve cornered him a couple times to talk about the CSA, he’s reiterating language that I’ve heard from Mayor Elorza, who was never a supporter of the CSA. So we’re perceiving him as being a no, because he’s literally borrowing phrases from Elorza.

What we’re asking is, after Monday especially, to call up City Councilors to express your support and to get Seth Yurdin and Sam Zurier to also support the CSA. We’re also asking businesses and organizations to write letters of support, so if there’s a student group at RISD or Brown that wants to write a letter of support, that’s totally fine. If you can get [an] entire [academic] department at Brown to write an official letter to support the CSA, that would be amazing.

April will be the month we get this passed. We have very short weeks left to get this done, so the more people are calling their City Councilors up to say that they support the CSA and that their Councilors should also support the CSA, that’s great. Because that actually does really work. I’ve heard it from City Councilors before, saying “I get it, I get the pressure, you want me to support this.”

bluestockings: What are your hopes for Monday’s hearing?

VF: My hope for the public hearing is just to get one of the largest turnouts that Providence City Hall has ever seen, which I feel like is easy for us to do because a lot of different people are passionate about this. We have teachers, we have students from all ages who are into this, we have environmental groups, groups that you normally would not see. Like why is this group who is focused on making sure Providence divests from banks showing up at a hearing about police accountability?

So my goal is really to get City Councilors and Mayor Elorza to understand that this isn’t just an issue that affects certain people in certain neighborhoods, it’s an issue that affects everyone, and everyone has the right to feel safe in their neighborhood, in their skin color, in their gender expression and sexuality and employment status, whether or not their English is perfect, whether or not they have American citizenship … My goal is really to get that across to City Councilors who are still undecided about whether or not they should still support the CSA, and to get that across to Mayor Elorza who will most likely veto the CSA. To get them to understand that this is something that is inevitable. We need police accountability now, and we need community safety at the hands of the actual community, not at the hands of an institution that was designed in the first place to oppress and suppress, and to some extent exterminate, these community members. The last public hearing was very powerful, and that was felt by some City Councilors who were then like, “All right, I’m in, tell me how to help you.” I’m hoping to get that again this time.


Contact info for Council members:

The second public hearing for the CSA will be from 5:20 to 7 PM on Monday, April 10th at Providence City Hall. The Facebook event is here, and the description is below:

Get ready for one last Public Hearing before we #PasstheCSA!

As we strive to obtain 10 total votes from City Council, we need to address the changes that have been made to the CSA these past few months.

Come hear testimonies from community members about the need for such a critical ordinance like the CSA and help us sway City Council and Mayor Elorza in why they must support this ordinance.

Is your business or organization interested in helping us by writing a letter of support? Contact vanessa@prysm.us for how you can help us.

#PeopleOverPolice #CommunitySafetyNow #PasstheCSA

Stay informed on updates by liking the CSA Facebook page and following their Twitter account.


Jessica Jiang is a first-year who’s just trying to stay hydrated, keep up with her readings, and learn how to live with ghosts. She’s a Libra/Scorpio cusp from Washington state and can be found dreaming of the Pacific Northwest and noodle soups of all kinds.

Edited by Malana Krongelb.

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