PROVIDENCE -- A sense of disquiet is bleeding through the city, a feeling that things have shifted, and safety is fraying.
There’s the ongoing pandemic, bringing the slow-rolling chaos of illness and death, unemployment and pending evictions, upheaval in schools reopening, and panic-buying of guns.
There’s the national revelations of racial injustice and deaths of Black people by white officers, and ongoing protests against police brutality.
Now, crime is catching up.
After an unusual season of quiet during the pandemic shutdown, some violent crime has been rising over the past three months.
In a year that’s felt like people are reeling from one trouble to another, this has felt like one more burden to bear.
“You put that all together, and you get this overwhelming feeling of ‘oh my God, let me stay in the house!’” said Bishop Jeffrey A. Williams of The King’s Cathedral in Providence.
Some of the violence this summer occurred in places where people feel safe. A man fatally shot and dumped from a car in Roger Williams Park. A young man stabbed to death in the food court at Providence Place mall. A man dying of stab wounds left at a fire station blocks from Federal Hill. Twice in one week, there were bullets fired at people near the home of Mayor Jorge O. Elorza.
Some of the violence is traced to a feud among local gangs. Some is attributed to guns bought during the pandemic and trafficked onto the streets.
Diana Garlington, a behavioral therapist, listens to her students in their remote sessions at a charter school over the line in Pawtucket, where violence has spilled over from Providence. They tell her about hearing gunfire and thinking they should have guns to be safe. A few boast that getting shot would impress their friends.
Garlington, whose daughter was murdered in Providence nine years ago, tells them how it would devastate their mothers.
Cedric Huntley, the interim director at the Nonviolence Institute, says this has felt like a different time in the city.
“You might want to say it’s COVID. You might want to say people are frustrated. You might want to say it’s a combination of years of trauma, but it’s happening,” Huntley said. “People are easily frustrated. The kind of crime that’s happening, some of it is targeted, but some of it is not. It’s just somebody walking down the street or somebody driving by. There’s just no connection.”
One reason this year feels different is that most of the crime was condensed into the last few months.
Providence isn’t alone in this phenomenon. A recent study for the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice that examined crime rates in 27 cities found homicide rates between June and August increased by 53 percent over the same period last year, and aggravated assaults went up by 14 percent.
Providence is already seeing more homicides than in previous years. A man was shot and killed in Smith Hill Thursday night, making him the 13th homicide in the city this year, and the eighth in eight weeks.
He also had the unwelcome distinction of being the third person shot within an hour Thursday. Police are investigating the shooting of another man who was in a car with the first victim, as well as the shooting of a clerk at a G.I. Joe’s convenience store.
That makes 44 shootings this year, more than in all of 2019.
The shootings have occurred all over the city, with more in the Smith Hill, South Providence, Elmwood, and Silver Lake neighborhoods. Most of the victims have been young men of color.
The rise in shootings in Providence is especially striking because there had been a steady decline since 2014, hitting an all-time low last year.
This year’s victims include men who have been shot before or charged with carrying guns. Some are in gangs, making them targets. Some of this is also summer in the city, when people are outside and feuds ignite.
Overall, the percentage of violent crimes and property crimes in Providence is down, 18 percent and 21 percent respectively, compared with the weighted five-year average. Nationwide and in Providence, crime is at historic lows.
“Separating facts from feelings is really important, especially right now,” cautioned Bishop Williams. “You look at the uptick in violent crimes, in murder, it’s no more violence than last year. It just feels that way. I don’t think the city is less safe, despite the violent uptick.”
Gangs and guns are driving the violence right now, said Providence Police Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr.
Another wrinkle this year is the record-setting gun sales, driven by fears of COVID-19 and civil unrest, which have led to firearms illegally funneled to criminals.
Providence police have seized 54 guns in arrests so far this year -- including one Thursday night from a suspect in a homicide in Cranston. Providence police and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives are also investigating dozens of guns that have been trafficked, some into the hands of local street gangs.
Clements said that some of those firearms came from Rashaad Mangun, 29, a Providence man who bought 85 guns from local shops in the early months of the pandemic and allegedly resold them through a middleman with gang ties. Those guns are missing. The State Police and North Smithfield police are also investigating the disappearance of another 11 firearms. Last month, a Providence woman was charged with buying four guns legally, then reselling them to her boyfriend and another man, both convicted felons.
“There’s a lot more accessibility to firearms out there in the past couple of months, and that’s caused a portion of uptick in violence,” Clements said. “My opinion, COVID, firearms on the streets, and hot local disputes with different gangs, and the civil unrest -- it’s a confluence of factors all colliding together.”
Before COVID-19, the Providence police had strategies to go after those known to carry firearms and likely to shoot or be shot. They’re still following those practices, but the coronavirus has wedged itself into how police conduct investigations, a skill that requires human contact.
“We just need to do what we do best,” Clements said.
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The retaliation continues -- gunfire leading to a stabbing leading to more gunfire. Finding cooperative witnesses is necessary to solve crimes. But some people don’t like the police, and some are afraid of retaliation.
“The Providence police are doing the best they can with resources they have,” said Garlington. “It’s hard when they don’t have enough police officers, and in the community, when you have people who say ‘I’m not telling you what happened, I’m not speaking up.’”
That concerns Huntley, who says there’s more crime happening than is being reported.
“A lot of times we hear shots fired in the neighborhood, and nobody says anything. Nobody calls,” Huntley said. “It happens, and it’s always happened in the past, but are people just desensitized to it. Many, many times, people in the community for some reason still don’t want to get involved.”
Silence helps spread the violence, he says, and he implores residents to speak up, even reach out to a trusted community member or the institute for help if they don’t want to talk to the police. But there are headwinds from the civil unrest feeding into distrust of police, amid calls to defund police or abolish them entirely.
“I think it’s a dangerous message to tell someone, ‘Don’t call the police.’ I think it’s dangerous for the community they serve, and it’s dangerous for the state,” Huntley said. “I just wonder, if people in Barrington see something happen, is the message don’t say anything, don’t call the police? I don’t think so. That message is only spread in marginalized areas. That message gives life to the small percentage of people who are committing those acts of violence -- If nobody’s going to do anything or say anything, who else are they going to go after?”
The feeling that the city is unsafe these days is about far more than crime, said Mary Kay Harris, deputy majority leader of the Providence City Council and a longtime activist on police reform. This moment has illuminated long-standing stresses of racism and inequality that are exacerbated by the pandemic, she said.
“I think it’s a spotlight. This history and crime is not like it’s any different -- it’s just that we are standing still enough to see it and what role we are playing in institutional racism and systemic racism and structural racism,” Harris said.
Crime has always plagued her district, which encompasses Upper South Providence and the West End. These neighborhoods have seen more than their share of shootings, gang feuds, and young people wounded and killed over nothing.
From her home near Central and Classical high schools, and the Providence Career and Technical Academy, Harris can see children stepping over people passed out from drugs or alcohol, and she sees their suffering, too. She knows the struggles of families trying to hold onto their homes. And the young men, without jobs or direction, who seek family and form gangs.
And now, because of COVID-19, the economy is stalling, the low-wage jobs are disappearing, people are fearful of evictions, and feeling stressed and hopeless. Providence has had among the highest rates of COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island, and Black and Latino people have been particularly vulnerable.
“It feels worse -- because we are paying attention,” Harris said. “Because we are standing still in time, we are watching family members die because of lack of health care, be exposed to the fact there are no jobs, and fathers are bitter because they can’t take care of their families.”
But, she said, this could be an opportunity for significant change.
“I’m beginning to see more and more people accepting that there is inequity, that there’s people that have been marginalized through systemic racism, they begin to understand what institutional racism and structural racism is,” Harris said. “I’m looking forward to the day when people who are privileged start asking what’s happening. Asking, what’s triggering the violence? And where are they getting the guns, without jobs?”
She and Huntley are also hopeful that community leaders and the police have done over nearly 20 years to make the city safer will get them through these rocky times.
“We have law enforcement that’s engaged, and we have a great chief who is an asset, too,” Huntley said. “I’m hopeful and encouraged that we can continue building and collaborating and changing those things that we can, and educating on those issues -- housing, mental health, unemployment -- that haven’t changed.”
They are worried about what the fall will bring, with the tensions caused by a pandemic with no immediate end in sight.
“Can we get back to a pre-March, pre-COVID existence?” Bishop Williams said. “I don’t think we can without elevating the art of communication. You’ve got to hear me, and I’ve got to hear you.”