PROVIDENCE -- Like a modern version of the 1938 "The War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, the police say, a 28-year-old Providence man created fear and panic when he dropped a flyer for a “Purge of Providence” into the stew of social media a few weeks ago.
Sharp-eyed viewers would have seen the similarities to promos for the 2016 “The Purge: Election Year” movie, which was filmed in Providence and Woonsocket. The plot of the horror franchise centers on a night when all crime is legal, and people go wild.
When this same flyer has circulated around Halloween in the past, it’s barely drawn any attention. But everything is weirder in 2020.
This particular flyer seemed to promote a gathering on Oct. 30 and Oct 31, and threatened that it was “not a peaceful protest.” In a city reeling from last week’s violent protests over a police-involved moped crash -- and still jittery from the looting and arson and chaos on June 1 -- the flyer fueled an undercurrent of fear.
“It came at a very bad time when tensions were high, and people got a little nervous,” said Providence Major David Lapatin.
The flyer went viral on social media as people warned one another to stay out of Providence for Halloween, and businesses called their insurance companies to get ahead of potential trouble. City and state police were questioned about whether they were ready for possible mayhem. Former Mayor Joseph Paolino Jr. wrote to Governor Gina M. Raimondo, Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, and Police Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr., demanding that they work together to prevent a “possible violent attack.”
But no one drove the story harder than right-wing WNRI talk show host John DePetro, who talked and tweeted about it all week. He even planned to broadcast live from Providence starting Friday, to report on anything that happened.
He took the flyer seriously, he said Thursday, because the chaos in June had been so terrible.
“The only reason I did not discount it was because of the June riot,” DePetro said. “I was telling people there was no way anything was happening June 1, and then there was a riot until 4 a.m. I was wrong.”
DePetro has also drawn the ire of protesters by live-streaming demonstrations and condemning their actions. He was there last week, as protesters tried to march through Federal Hill’s al fresco dining area, and said his life was “viciously and repeatedly threatened” by one of protesters. DePetro made a complaint to the Providence police.
Then the protester and the purge came full circle.
Jonas Pierre, 28, of Providence -- who was out on bail on several misdemeanor charges stemming from a demonstration outside the Providence Public Safety Complex this summer -- was arrested Thursday afternoon on a charge of disorderly conduct for allegedly threatening DePetro.
Pierre, who was previously convicted of felony assault with a dangerous weapon in Massachusetts, was carrying a BB gun and a box cutter when he was arrested, so he was also charged with carrying a firearm after being convicted of a violent crime, Lapatin said. He was arraigned at District Court on Friday and ordered held without bail as a violator of his previous bail conditions.
Pierre’s lawyer, Shannah Kurland, was also arrested during another violent demonstration last week after allegedly spitting at Cranston police officers -- an action that DePetro also recorded on his live-stream. The Supreme Court Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which investigates allegations of misconduct and disciplinary complaints against lawyers in Rhode Island, will review her case.
Police confirmed that Pierre had posted anti-police messages on his Facebook page, under the name “Jonah Pierre.” He had also posted the home address of the Providence officer involved in the Oct. 18 crash that left a moped rider with critical injuries.
Pierre also posted the “Purge of Providence" flyer twice, first on Sept. 27 with “Meeting spot to be determined,” and again on Oct. 2, adding: “I have a meet up location I will drop it when It’s closer to the date.”
Pierre admitted to police that he had posted the flyer. “He said he was the one who posted it, but there was nothing to it -- no plan or organization behind it,” Lapatin said.
Pierre said he’d posted the same thing last year, Lapatin said. No one noticed then. This year’s Facebook posts did not draw much reaction at the time, either. It was after last week’s protests that the flyer circulated in earnest on social media -- and caught DePetro’s eye.
The night before Halloween in 1938, people heard the radio adaptation of “The War of the Worlds" and became hysterical thinking that aliens were invading, Lapatin said.
“[Pierre] was like a modern-day Orson Welles, who frightened many citizens of the city of Providence,” said Lapatin.
Police aren’t charging Pierre with anything related to the flyers. But even though the flyers have been debunked, ”we will be out watching, because it’s Halloween,” Lapatin said.