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Demonstrators converge in Providence overnight, looting stores and setting a police car on fire; 65 arrested

A Providence Police car was set on fire near the entrance of the Providence Place Mall on Monday.
A Providence Police car was set on fire near the entrance of the Providence Place Mall on Monday.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE -- Dozens of demonstrators turned out in downtown Providence overnight, breaking into the Providence Place shopping mall, setting a police car on fire, and smashing the windows of stores they then looted.

This morning, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said 65 people had been arrested; 35 of them were from Providence, five were from out of state, and the rest were from other Rhode Island cities or towns. Several police officers and state troopers were injured when they were hit by bricks, none seriously.

Elorza said he believed the people involved in the vandalism and looting “were out to cause trouble,” and he does not consider them to be protesters upset by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes in Minneapolis a week ago.

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Rhode Island State Police Colonel James Manni told Caroline Goggin of WPRI Channel 12 that he did not believe the crowd was made up of legitimate protesters, but rather was “a mob. This was a coordinated, intentional attack on the city.” He said several officers were hit by bricks thrown by the demonstrators. Massachusetts State Police assisted local law enforcement, he said.

A Providence Police car was set on fire near the mall, at least four other vehicles were damaged, according to Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare. He said law enforcement found itself “'overwhelmed with the number of people who wanted to get in the mall,” which led to dozens of people running through the mall and between 12 and 18 businesses being looted.

“We were as prepared as we could be last night,” Pare said. “Unfortunately, there were too many people that wanted to create violence in the city.”

Several youths smashed the windows of stores on Westminster Street, around the corner from City Hall, including the liquor store Eno and an adjacent shoe store, and stole liquor and sneakers before police arrived. Around 2:30 a.m., at least a dozen people were seen climbing through the shattered windows of each shop, while others handed bottles of wine to people in cars parked on the narrow street.

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Police quickly swarmed the area, with one officer seen running after a young man who appeared to be one of the looters. At one point, police apparently used tear gas to evacuate the area, sending people running.

Sneakers litter the street in front of a store window smashed by looters on Westminster Street in Providence early Tuesday morning.
Sneakers litter the street in front of a store window smashed by looters on Westminster Street in Providence early Tuesday morning.Dan McGowan/The Boston Globe

Dozens of state and Providence police, apparently alerted that there would be a massive gathering, began assembling in the area around the Providence Place mall, and at every parking lot entrance of the State House before 11 p.m. Monday. The law enforcement presence initially dwarfed the number of demonstrators, but the crowd grew rapidly by midnight.

Chants of “Black Lives Matter” and “No justice, no peace” broke out in front of the mall, before dozens of protesters move closer to the police. Before long, a chaotic and dangerous scene that included people running through the mall and a police cruiser set on fire began to emerge.

Streets were blocked off around the mall, at least six police dogs were on the scene, and 30 or so officers in riot gear rushed toward the burning car.

There were anywhere from 200 to 300 people in the area, but it was unclear how many were there to protest and how many arrived to see what was going on.

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Around 2 a.m., dozens of people began running, claiming that police were firing pellets at them.

Providence City Councilwoman Kat Kerwin, at the scene, said she had heard earlier in the night that some youths were planning to loot and steal from stores, and that events “kind of spiraled.”

However, she said when she arrived, there was a peaceful protest going on, with people chanting “Black Lives Matter.” But then, she said, “police began getting aggressive.”

She said a young man, who she estimated to be in his early 20s and who was sitting on the ground, was “trampled” by police officers when people started throwing rocks at the Providence Place mall and then running, chased by police.

“He kept saying ‘Help me, I can’t move, I’m not trying to do anything, you’re hurting me,'” she said.

As the crowds dispersed from the mall area, smaller groups traveled in multiple directions vandalizing bus stops and landmarks along the way. A half mile from the mall, shattered glass filled the sidewalks as young people could be seen looting several shops.

Several blocks away, a different group of people were seen breaking the window of a coffee shop on Chestnut Street.

Asked how the city would prepare in the event that more looting and violence breaks out, Elorza said he intends to speak with Governor Gina Raimondo about a plan on Tuesday. He would not rule out instituting a curfew, as other major cities have done.

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Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.