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Protest for Black Lives Matter in Providence is massive -- and peaceful

Demonstrators faced-off with Rhode Island State Police on the steps of the State House during a Black Lives Matter protest in Providence.
Demonstrators faced-off with Rhode Island State Police on the steps of the State House during a Black Lives Matter protest in Providence.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE -- A massive and peaceful protest of 10,000 marchers that filled downtown streets and the State House steps grew tense as the city’s 9 p.m. curfew arrived and a couple of hundred demonstrators refused to go home.

But the event ended quietly, with the crowd eventually dispersing after walking up and down several streets, chanting and shouting at police, some of whom walked alongside the protesters. Police, who had decided not to enforce the curfew so as not to inflame tensions, said there was just a handful of arrests.

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo held hands with activist Bradley Souffrant, left, on the steps of the State House as she led the protesters in prayer.
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo held hands with activist Bradley Souffrant, left, on the steps of the State House as she led the protesters in prayer. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Governor Gina Raimondo, who showed up at the State House rally around 9:15 p.m., encouraged the crowd to stay peaceful, promised to work for change, and asked them to join her in prayer. Some hecklers booed and yelled, “Do something.” Someone yelled, “How does it feel not to be listened to?” And when someone asked her if she would still be there when they started getting shot, she replied, “No one is going to shoot you for being peaceful.”

The rally was held to protest the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes while he was being detained.

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The protest, led by students from Providence’s Central High School and Veteran’s Memorial High School in Warwick, was more than double the size of the Black Lives Matter rally held last Saturday.

That wasn’t the only difference between then and now.

On this night, they marched from Central High School past the barricaded Public Safety Complex and past downtown buildings that had been boarded up after looters hit them late Monday night. The crowd packed the area outside City Hall and marched up Francis Street, chanting as they walked past the Providence Place mall, which also had been looted on Monday night and was now guarded by armed members of the National Guard and Humvees parked at the entrances.

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Demonstrators gathered outside the Rhode Island State House during a Black Lives Matter protest in Providence.
Demonstrators gathered outside the Rhode Island State House during a Black Lives Matter protest in Providence.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Providence police stood in clusters along the streets, state troopers stood watch on the State House steps with Guard members, and a helicopter from the Massachusetts State Police slowly circled overhead.

This was the heaviest police presence for a rally -- about 145 troopers, 170 to 200 Providence police, 200 National Guard, 30 sheriffs’ deputies, and 25 Capitol police on hand.

Some of those boarded-up windows had been painted over with murals honoring Black Lives Matter and Black people who suffered from police brutality.

Artist Benny N. worked on a mural titled "Justice" on Westminster St.  in Providence.
Artist Benny N. worked on a mural titled "Justice" on Westminster St. in Providence.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

This is the generation that has been robbed by COVID-19 of its graduations, proms, and regular school events. . So thousands of young people came out Friday to take their cause back, bringing an energy that the city hasn’t felt for months since the coronavirus shutdowns.

“I feel like this whole movement -- the racial injustice -- has gone too far. We need to take over,” said 19-year-old Destiny Monteiro, who is Cape Verdean and lives in Pawtucket. “It’s unfair to all of us, especially those coming here to make a better life. Other people don’t realize, it’s our daily life. People are still being profiled. People are still losing their lives.”

A group of protesters knelt before the Rhode Island State Police on the steps of the State House in Providence.
A group of protesters knelt before the Rhode Island State Police on the steps of the State House in Providence.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Several hundred people remained at the State House past the 9 p.m. curfew, booing as the State Police told them to leave. They remained in place, holding a moment of silence for several minutes, the amount of time it took Floyd to die.

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Raimondo appeared with her husband, Andy Moffitt, and National Guard Adjutant General Christopher Callahan after she had called State Police⁩ Superintendent James Manni to ask if it would help if she came down to talk with the protesters. He and Callahan both said yes; later Manni said her words helped de-escalate the situation, despite the heckling.

As night fell and the 9pm curfew approached demonstrators confronted RI State Police deployed on the state capital steps.
As night fell and the 9pm curfew approached demonstrators confronted RI State Police deployed on the state capital steps. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Some left the State House and marched to City Hall, then around downtown and up into Federal Hill, while others remained on the State House steps more than an hour past curfew. The State Police ultimately left them alone. Providence Police Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr. and Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Pare said that as long as the protesters were peaceful, they did not intend to enforce the curfew.

The marchers walked down Broadway, past the convention center. At times the crowd was agitated and yelling, the scene chaotic. At one point a scuffle broke out, which led to at least one arrest.

Eventually the protesters moved to Kennedy Plaza where the protest ended just after 11 p.m.

Throughout the late afternoon, the protest was largely peaceful.

 Jay Alvarez spoke to the crowd.
Jay Alvarez spoke to the crowd.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Demonstrators chanted George Floyd’s name and took a knee by the thousands. They sang “Happy Birthday” to Breonna Taylor, a Black woman fatally shot by Louisville, Ky., police who were executing a no-knock warrant on March 13. Friday would have been her 27th birthday. They raised their fists as a 14-year-old girl shouted through a megaphone, “We bleed the same blood. Raise our fists in unity. We pray for peace to stop the violence.”

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They demanded to know where their political leaders were. “You want to speak about our pain, but you don’t want to share it with us,” said one of the teen speakers.

The Shabani family, immigrants from the Congo living in Providence, marveled at the scene. “This is empowering,” said 18-year-old Marie Shabani, standing with her mother, Aline, and brothers Popio, 16, Venance, 14, and Emile, 10. “In Congo, we can’t do this [protest], because you would be shot. This is unlike anything we ever experienced.”

Doctors, nurses, and health officials, including Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, joined the teenagers in their protest. Providence resident Denisha Gibson, a dental hygienist at Thundermist Health Center, said she and her fellow employees had taken a knee while at work to support the cause. “I am African-American, and I’m tired of racism. I want it to stop,” she said.

The movement was worldwide, said Nerea Paris, 16, an exchange student from Spain, with Chloe Probst, 17, an exchange student from Switzerland, who are both studying at Chariho High School. “I think it’s important to speak what we think,” said Probst.

Earnest pleas for change and stories of racism drew empathy from the crowd.

A Providence firefighter, Terrell Paci, spoke emotionally about being racially profiled by two Providence police officers as he sat, in uniform, inside a friend’s car outside the Messer Street station. The officers, with guns drawn, started yelling about a gun, and searched his side of the vehicle.

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Paci said he kept saying that he was a firefighter: “I’m PFD. I’m one of you. Don’t shoot.” But he said the officers never asked him for an ID.

Paci said although he received an apology from police officials, he has not heard from the officers involved. Firefighter union president Derek Silva later tweeted that the union stands by Paci and “while we value our working relationship with the Providence police, and know that there are many officers working to change police culture, this incident proves that there is more work to be done.”

Throughout the rally, the protesters shouted for the state police and National Guard to “take a knee.”

State trooper Roupen Bastajia, standing on the State House steps facing the crowd, knelt to cheers from the teens. He said he knelt to show the protests that he believes “Black Lives do matter.”

“We shouldn’t have injustice,” Bastajia said.

The young men standing next to him thanked him, and one pointed to Bastajia’s “state police” emblem on his bulletproof vest. “This doesn’t mean he’s racist,” the young man said to another teen next to him.

“Thank you,” Bastajia said. And the young men had a moment, talking with the troopers, as people behind them chanted and shouted, some holding anti-police signs. The young men complained about leadership and injustice, and the trooper told them that was why they needed to vote and make their voices heard.

Nelson Baptista, 27, a Cape Verdean man living in Providence, admitted he’d been leery about coming to the protest, worried that it could become violent.

But this was peaceful, and it felt like a moment in history, Baptista said. It made him think about the future.

He didn’t have a child yet, but he hoped things would change, because “I don’t want my child to go through this.”

Dan McGowan and Edward Fitzpatrick of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com