PROVIDENCE — More than a thousand people of all ages and races rallied Saturday in Burnside Park carrying handmade signs demanding justice for George Floyd, the Black man who died Monday after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck — and the end of police brutality.
And when they marched to the State House, the crowd gained another thousand followers, holding signs and chanting, “Black lives matter!” and “No justice, no peace!” as stopped motorists honked their support.
The protesters were angry about what they saw on the shaky cellphone video that showed Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, die under the knee of a white officer. As they marched, they chanted the names of Black men and women who were killed by police officers around the country.
They weren’t there to “burn down Rhode Island,” as one of the rally organizers put it, referring to the violence and riots in other cities.
But they’ve had enough: of police brutality, of racism, of white supremacy. And they were not alone.
For some, that realization was the best part of the rally.
Justin Alves, who is Black and lives in Cranston, stood in front of the State House with his wife, 16-year-old daughter, and 11-year-old son, holding signs reading “Enough is Enough,” “I Can’t Breathe,” and “Black Lives Matter.”
“We have a nation divided now, but seeing the amount of people that came out, from every race, it’s not going to happen here, at least not in the state of Rhode Island,” he said. “I see the city sticking together, and I love what I see today.”
Nadim Robinson, who is Black and lives in Providence, told the crowd about being abused by the police when he was a teenager in Maryland. He urged protesters to hold onto the energy from the rally.
“This is amazing,” Robinson said of the gathering. “I’ve been a part of protests before, but I’ve never seen anything like this. The racial mixture is amazing. We’re here and we’re not violent.”
Representative David N. Cicilline held a sign that read “Enough is Enough” and listed the names of Black men who’ve been killed, including Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Eric Garner.
“I thought it was important today to join my community, to be here to express the pain that I think everyone is feeling in witnessing the murder of George Floyd,” he said. “To say that we as a community will not tolerate violence against members of the African-American community. We have a responsibility to speak out.”
Cicilline, a former Providence mayor who is now chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, criticized President Trump’s tweet “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in response to the protests in Minneapolis.
“We expect a leader to bring us together, to speak to our higher angels, to talk about our shared values,” he said. “Instead he exploits it as a way to rile up what he sees as his political base, rather than healing the country.”
Providence resident Leslie Pho, who is Asian, brought two friends: Elena Gressier, a white woman from Providence, and Andrea Maduro, who is Latina and from Pawtucket.
“As an Asian person, I feel like it’s important to use my voice like this,” Pho said, holding her sign “Racism is the real pandemic.” “Not to be here would be an injustice. These are all my neighbors and my friends.”
Gressier, who held a “Black Lives Matter” sign, said it was her first protest.
“I think with my white privilege I should be here, and my heart is broken over what’s going on,” she said. “I feel like this is history and it’s important to be here.”
Nearly all wore face masks, though it was difficult to social distance and take precautions against the coronavirus in a rally.
Jan Cawley, an infectious diseases nurse in Connecticut who has cared for patients with COVID-19, understands better than most about the virus. But after watching the video of Floyd dying, Cawley was horrified and wanted to be part of the rally.
“There are things that are worth it,” Cawley said. “Getting a haircut: no. Protesting: yes.”
Her sign made fun of “Karens," the term for white women who call the police unfairly on Black people. Cawley’s sign said: “Karens Against Systemic Racism. Hey officer, I want to see your manager.”
For the most part, the Providence police and the Rhode Island State Police gave the rally space, standing away from protesters and stopping traffic as they marched.
Earlier in the week, Providence Police Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr. and Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Pare issued a statement condemning the actions of the Minneapolis police officers and offering their condolences to Floyd’s family and friends.
Clements said he reached out to the leader of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island and discussed how to work with the rally.
The fury over Floyd’s death was having an impact on all of the officers, he said.
“This incident, and the others, hurts all in our profession,” Clements said.
As he spoke at the corner of Francis Street, facing the State House lawn, two young men on dirt bikes paused and stared at him and Pare, and other officers standing nearby.
One of the men held up his hand, as if to wave at the police. Then, he cocked his fingers like a pistol and “shot" himself in the head.