PROVIDENCE — One speaker outlined a history of violence against Blacks in Rhode Island, including the Hard Scrabble and Snow Town riots in which whites destroyed Black homes.
Another speaker told of how he and other Black men in Providence have faced police brutality in more recent years — kicked, stunned with tasers, and hit with billy clubs.
Other speakers called for Providence officials to take concrete steps going forward — to remove police officers from public schools, to reduce the size of the police force, and to increase spending on housing and education.
“It’s clear that incremental steps can be taken this year to get us close to a just and equitable Providence,” Vatic Kuumba said during a Zoom meeting of the City Council Finance Committee on Wednesday.
The committee chairman called the meeting in response to calls to “defund the police” after the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, in Minneapolis. In a scene that was captured on video and widely shared, a police officer held Floyd to the ground and pinned a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes.
The meeting came after a rally — held at Burnside Park, near City Hall — organized by groups such as Direct Action for Rights and Equality, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance, and Never Again Action Rhode Island.
Besides hearing from members of the community, the Finance Committee heard from city public safety officials.
The public safety commissioner said he is saddened by stories of police misconduct, but he called policing a “noble profession" that includes people working hard under difficult conditions.
The police union president warned that defunding the Providence police would result in higher crime rates, lower property values, and an exodus of businesses.
The police chief said public safety officials have denounced what happened to Floyd and racism in general, but he defended the city police force.
“We are not perfect, but we are a damn good police department," Police Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr. said. "One-hundred-fifty thousand times a year, someone from the community calls the Providence police for help, and by and large, we hold our people accountable and we do a damn good job.”
Before the meeting, a rally to “defund” and “disband” the police took place in Burnside Park “in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.”
“Defund, dismantle, and rebuild,” Candace Hazard, of the group Black and Pink Providence, said at the rally.
She said she does not consider Floyd’s death an isolated incident. “Racism has never gone away,” she said. “It’s just being televised, so more people are able to see it.”
Among other proposals, Hazard called for removing “plantations” from the state’s official name — Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — because it conjures up images of slavery, even though at the time, the word simply meant “colony” or “settlement.”
Organizers of the rally say they believe the city’s police budget should be redirected to invest in education, health care, and housing.
“Here in Rhode Island we are already laying off teachers,” said Kinverly Dicupe of the Providence Democratic Socialists of America and ReclaimRI. "What if instead of laying off teachers, we reduced the police force and the prison population? Can we really say we need police officers more than we need teachers or health care, especially in a pandemic?”
Wednesday’s action comes as a majority of the members of the Minneapolis City Council have said they favor disbanding that city’s police department.
And it comes as Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has said city officials are looking at reallocating some of the Police Department budget amid calls for reforms.
Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza issued a statement saying that his administration also is considering moving some police budget money around.
“I look forward to continuing to engage with the community and finding ways to adopt policies that address structural racism and make us a stronger, more resilient city,” he said.
Elorza expressed support for the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign, which calls for police departments to take steps such as banning chokeholds and strangleholds, require officers to intervene when they witness misconduct, and require officers to issue warnings before shooting.
He also expressed support for the Obama Foundation’s pledge to “Review, Engage, Report, and Reform.”
“We are living through a unique moment and I want to make sure that we will not let it pass without bringing about real, structural change,” Elorza said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the mayor’s office had received more than 2,420 e-mails in support of “defunding the police” in some fashion, spokeswoman Emily Crowell said.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Chief Clements said the Providence police have already taken some of the steps that are now being called for on a national level. For example, he said, Providence banned chokeholds in 2014.
“I do not know what defunding is,” Clements said. "I would be strongly opposed to what policing and safety and security would look like in the City of Providence without the community-oriented policing approach we embody.”
Michael Imondi, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, suggested conducting a six-month study in which police are shifted out of the wards of council members who believe their constituents want the police defunded. Police would still respond to calls from complainants with call-back numbers, he said, but it would provide an indication of what happens “when you have a police-free zone."
But community organizer Charlotte Abotsi urged the council to defund the police, saying national and local governments advocate for defunding services all the time.
“You defund schools. You defund hospitals, community health centers, programs for low-income communities all the time,” she said. “Essential services are defunded all the time. The government just calls them tax cuts.”
Now, the coronavirus pandemic is showing the ramifications of defunding health care and other programs, Abotsi said.
“When we say ‘defund the police,’ we mean ‘fund our futures,’ ” she said. "Fund community wellness, fund young futures — our students, our schools.”
Before Wednesday’s meeting, City Council Finance Committee Chair John J. Igliozzi said he had received many e-mails over the weekend calling for “defunding the police,” but he wants to understand what that means and what the implications would be.
So he said he convened the Finance Committee meeting to hear from council members, public safety officials, members of the public, the police union, and others.
Igliozzi said it’s clear police departments in some other parts of the country “have major issues,” but he wants to examine whether Providence is facing similar issues or if the problems are not as great here.
He noted that some police accountability measures require more funding, rather than less. For example, he said that several years ago the City Council approved the purchase of body cameras for police officers.
“Just to announce, in a politically expedient way, cutting the budget would be arbitrary and capricious and financially irresponsible, which could cause more harm than good,” Igliozzi said. “Therefore, we need to go through this process in a thoughtful, open, transparent way so everybody understands what are the potential outcomes.”