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A legacy of powerful protest

Rhode Island activist turned politician Mary Kay Harris offers her experience and advice to a new generation of people seeking social justice and police reform

Mary Kay Harris fought for reform of the Providence Police Department in the wake of a fatal shooting of an off-duty Black officer 20 years ago. She is now a deputy majority leader in the City Council, and well-respected by the community and the police.
Mary Kay Harris fought for reform of the Providence Police Department in the wake of a fatal shooting of an off-duty Black officer 20 years ago. She is now a deputy majority leader in the City Council, and well-respected by the community and the police.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — For Mary Kay Harris, this year’s urgent calls for social justice and protests against police brutality bring with them a feeling of deja vu.

Twenty years ago, Providence erupted when Cornel Young Jr., an off-duty Black police officer, was shot and killed by white officers while he was trying to break up a fight outside of a restaurant. Residents marched and shouted in public forums, demanding change from police and political leaders. They fought for diversity in the Police Department, civilian oversight, and accountability by the police to the community they serve.

Harris — a mother of four raising her children alone — was among those leading the protests, her activism sparked by personal experience.

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“On Oct. 22, 1996, my whole world changed,” she said, describing her son’s arrest and assault by Providence Officer Randell Masterson.

“By the time I got outside ... my son was laying on the ground,” she said. His forehead had been “split open” by the police officer. “Masterson had the gun pointed to his head, and there were neighbors screaming, ‘You didn’t have to hit him, he wasn’t resisting.’ ”

“And he was pointing the gun at them, and he was pointing the gun at [my son],” she remembered. “I ran up and didn’t know what to do. He pointed the gun at me, so I ran back into the house to call the police. Then, I realized, ‘Wait a minute, that is the police.’ ”

The charges against her son — and, later, a federal criminal indictment and civil case against Masterson — were eventually dropped, but Harris had found her mission: to advocate for people, and to seek justice.

She began working with Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), accompanying people to the police station so they could file civilian complaints, and bringing complaints to the attention of police, who would sometimes refuse to read them.

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“It became not my pain, but the pain of other mothers who would come to me, the pain of men who would come to me, the pain of families who would come to me,” she said. “I hadn’t heard these stories before. If I hadn’t been home, it would have been hard for me to believe my son’s story. I had no disbelief in police at all. My father had a best friend who was a police officer. I started to witness what other people had [been through], and the bruises.”

Since then, Harris, 66, has evolved from protester to politician, wielding a quiet power as deputy majority leader in the City Council, where she represents the city’s Ward 11, in South Providence and the West End.

She’s proud of the close relationships she’s built between her community and the police officers, with their summer block parties bringing people together. She speaks affectionately about the “scars” that she and Police Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr. earned as they also developed a relationship of mutual respect and trust over the last two decades.

Harris has won awards for her community activism, which has included work with the Rhode Island People’s Assembly, the Rosa Parks Human Rights Committee, the Women of All Colors Assembly, and the Providence Youth Student Movement.

She said she was humbled when US Congressman David Cicilline introduced her to Congressman John Lewis, telling the civil rights hero from Georgia that Harris was like him.

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In this current age of unrest, Harris sees a familiar story and more work that needs to be done. She talked to Globe Rhode Island about laying the groundwork for the next generation of activists.

(Interview was edited and condensed.)

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Mary Kay Harris
Mary Kay HarrisJonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

I was a member of DARE, and we would plan how we would go into meetings. We did a lot of protests and direct actions on the old Providence police department at 209 Fountain St.

When we talk about protests, we talk about taking back power. And the only power we had at that time was possessing space and to release. “No justice, no peace!” I’d say, “Control your police!” We had different chants we would chant. It was a release. And when we did a direct action, it was even better.

We were so well positioned by meeting together, talking about how we change the policies on the inside. We talked about things that needed to change. First of all, how you file a complaint at Internal Affairs needed to change, because people would go there to file a complaint, and they had this civilian … and she was mean to people, and people would get upset and leave. And they’d come get me. I created another process for people filing complaints. We started to go to court with them … for moral support. But in the meantime, we kept working on these policies. We called ourselves PERC, Providence External Review Civilians.

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And then, the death of Cornel Young shocked the entire community.

There was so much unrest because of the pain of a Black officer, off-duty and shot by one of their own. Everyone wanted to get involved and make changes. We placed ourselves in all those areas to redirect the vision and the agenda.

So, we created two commissions: One was here at City Hall and the second one at the State House, and that’s the one that Chief Clements sat on. That’s how we met. We wanted to talk to [then-Mayor Vincent] Cianci about an independent investigation. We brought over 800-something people and shut City Hall down.

Cianci was a very stubborn man, but we kept pushing at him. [Then] City Councilwoman Pat Nolan had tried to put in civilian oversight, and we talked to her about the path we were trying to take. I spent most of my time at City Hall trying to convince the council that we needed a civilian oversight [group].

That work showed me when people come together, and when people have a common goal, things can change. When I was a civilian, protesting against the police, of course the police union wouldn’t have a meeting with me — but Pat Nolan was the bridge. They were mean, but they would listen, because I always had a presentation for them. They would push back and ask questions.

I started building coalitions all around. I started to see changes when we brought the Justice Department here. They spent a lot of time with us and interviewing victims. They made quite a bit of recommendations for the Police Department, and along with the two commissions, and passing of PERA [the Providence External Review Authority]. Changes started to take effect.

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I was learning about the inside culture, because I was told a lot that I didn’t understand what police went through, usually by the high-ranking cops. The ones that were patrol cops, the beat cops — they were pretty supportive, because they knew change needed to happen. Commissioner John Partington tried to keep us all together — the community and the police — and he played a major role in making sure community forums happened. After Cornel Young’s death, there had to be a healing as well. The community had to not live in fear and understand that change was going to come.

I learned you have to be focused on what your message is, and you have to stick to that message, and it has to be repeated over and over. Repetition has to get people’s attention, especially when they don’t understand. I learned to direct a crowd in a way that brings no harm. Because after that came more protests, marches, and actions.

When did I realize there was change? When we could go right up to Internal Affairs and file a complaint. We would be listened to. I started to see that they started to understand that we were very serious.

What I learned from young people [is] they go through a lot of things they don’t even report. I hear them say they’re stopped with a gun in their face. That makes them bitter. I don’t think the relationship between young people and the police is any better. This younger generation is seeing things going backwards.

I’ve been writing a lot about these young people, and I’ve been thinking a lot about them. And what the confusion must be to be in a world where there’s no jobs and no opportunities for education, no housing, where you step over people, because there is no place for them to go.

Let’s add on the pandemic with all these other things. … We are in a strange place right now, and these young people don’t understand how we got here.

It’s important that we listen to each other. Young people are screaming for help, and nobody is understanding what they’re screaming for. I do know there needs to be change, they need to see change. And I believe that there should be some type of new reform, based on today’s time, based on the fact that young people do have something to say.

But, let’s talk about “defund the police.” I never understood that message, because if you defund the police, how do you get to the root cause of the problem? ... That argument started out by talking about systemic racism. Let’s go back and talk about the root causes.

Has the culture changed? I don’t think so. I think times have changed, things have changed, but I think some remain the same. Why don’t we have Black majors? Why don’t we have Black lieutenants? ... That’s what the young people need to see — they need to see these things to believe in the system.

My lens is a little different. I have to stand in the middle now. I not only have a community that’s dependent on me for safety, I also have to be strategic about how we provide that.

I take this power very seriously. But power is like privilege — it’s what you do with it. There’s nothing wrong when you hear people say, you’ve got white privilege — that’s not a bad thing. It’s what you do with it. There’s nothing wrong with me having power. It’s what I do with it.

John Lewis said it so well: The torch has to be passed on, it has to be given to the young people.

I’m up for working with the young people. That is right now on my mind and in my heart: How do we leverage off this energy that young people have, leverage off in a way that they feel safe and a part of change, in a way that John Lewis would want us to do it?

The young protesters should understand what it is they are fighting for. I would say to them: ”Try to get your message together. Try to use people like myself, politicians, to come up with great policies to change conditions. It’s not instant, it’s consistent, there is no easy answer. You have to be committed to the cause.”

We’re all in this together. It’s not just police, it’s not just politicians, it’s the community, and I’d like to see us get to a place where we dig deep into these causes of problems.

I believe there is a structure of racism, it’s everywhere, but it can be dismantled just by accountability. The last time we went through this was with Cornel Young. That changed everything. This is going to change things, too.


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.