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Protesters hung a "Black Lives Matter" banner on the statue of Major General Nathanael Greene outside the Rhode Island State House in May 2020.
Protesters hung a "Black Lives Matter" banner on the statue of Major General Nathanael Greene outside the Rhode Island State House in May 2020.Edward Fitzpatrick/The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — One year ago, the nation convulsed in sorrow and rage as it watched video of George Floyd gasping for breath, pinned beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

His death spurred millions to march, including more than 10,000 Rhode Islanders who took to the streets, surging to the State House steps to demand not only justice but an end to the brutality and the systemic racism that has bedeviled the country for so long.

Now that a full year has passed, Black leaders in Rhode Island say some superficial progress has been made — such as removing the word “plantations” from the state’s official name. But they say many miles remain in the march toward true, systemic change.

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“There has been a lot of talking and Band-Aid solutions, like let’s create this position or this commission for diversity and inclusiveness,” state Representative Anastasia P. Williams said. “But the reality is the real change is not as tangible as it could and should be. People claim to be woke, but the reality is their eyes are wide shut.”

Representative Anastasia P. Williams, a Providence Democrat
Representative Anastasia P. Williams, a Providence DemocratCourtesy of Representative Anastasia P. Williams

“The killing of George Floyd was a wake-up call to many about the systematic racism that permeates our society, but these injustices have been long known to Rhode Island’s community of color,” Williams said last year, during a 40-minute speech at the State House on June 4.

At the time, Williams — a Black and Latina Providence Democrat who has been in office for 29 years — called for immediate, permanent change in 17 specific areas.

The first item called for addressing “the lack of diversity reflective of our state in the Rhode Island judicial system and the lack of judges of color on the bench.”

One year later, the state Supreme Court has its first Black justice, Melissa A. Long, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell has established a Committee on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in Rhode Island courts headed by Long. The state also has seen the appointment of Judge Elizabeth Ortiz as the first Latina on the Family Court.

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But many of the other 17 goals have yet to be achieved, either because bills remain stuck or working their way through the General Assembly machinery or because government agencies have not changed their policies.

Williams said a top priority is her proposal to revamp the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), the state law that dictates how police departments around the state deal with officer misconduct. Her bill would rename it the Law Enforcement Officers’ Accountability Act.

“Now is the time to reform our state’s law so that rogue law enforcement officers can no longer hide behind a system of protection while also dragging down good and honorable cops who truly do protect and serve our communities without prejudice and bigotry in their hearts,” Williams said in introducing the bill.

While it has had a hearing, the bill has not received a vote on the House floor. Williams hopes it will pass before the end of the legislative session.

Another unrealized priority is requiring all police in the state to wear body cameras.

Representative Jose F. Batista, a Providence Democrat, and Senator Jonathon Acosta, a Central Falls Democrat, have introduced a bill that would require body cameras and outlaw certain methods of restraint, such as chokeholds. The bill, titled the Rishod K. Gore Justice in Policing Act, is named for a man that a Providence police officer was convicted of assaulting in 2020.

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But those bills remain stuck in committee. And Williams said there’s a danger that momentum for change could wane.

“There is real concern that the period is cooling down to the point of ‘Oh, once upon a time,’” she said. “But there is still a little bit of time left in order to make some big changes to the injustice processes that remain.”

And everyone can play a role in preventing a return to “business as usual,” Williams said. “You don’t have to be [an] elected official to speak up or step up,” she said.

Harrison Tuttle, executive director of the Black Lives Matter RI PAC, said the conviction of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in Floyd’s murder provided a “sense of accountability — but not justice, per se.” True justice, he said, would mean “addressing systemic problems and ending them.”

Harrison Tuttle, executive director of the Black Lives Matter RI PAC, spoke during a protest on the steps of the Rhode Island State House in April.
Harrison Tuttle, executive director of the Black Lives Matter RI PAC, spoke during a protest on the steps of the Rhode Island State House in April.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Policing can be “reimagined,” Tuttle said, by using local groups such as the Nonviolence Institute and programs such as CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), a public safety system used in Eugene, Ore. Rather than dispatching police officers, that city sends a medic and a crisis specialist to calls involving mental illness, homelessness, and addiction if public safety isn’t threatened.

Also, Tuttle said that if Rhode Island legalizes marijuana, it should expunge the criminal records of those convicted of marijuana charges, provided the crimes were nonviolent. “We know the war on drugs and the criminalization of this drug has affected Black and brown communities disproportionately,” he said.

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Tuttle, 22, said change will come through the election of young leaders of color, such as Representative David Morales and Senator Tiara Mack, who are pushing for progressive priorities. The Black Lives Matter political action committee has raised $80,000 since it formed in July 2020, he said.

“The younger generation of candidates and activists are looking to not wait,” Tuttle said. “We are looking to see tangible things being done.”

Jim Vincent, president of the NAACP Providence branch, said one of the few signs of change over the past year has been the November vote to remove “Providence Plantations” from the state’s official name.

He noted that the state Senate created a task force to make recommendations about the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, and he hopes to see action this legislative session to change or repeal that law, pointing out that 35 states are able to discipline officers without a separate bill of rights for the police.

Vincent also called for passing the “Let RI Vote” legislation that would lower barriers to mail ballots, expand use of early voting and drop boxes, and allow same-day voter registration in Rhode Island. Those changes proved successful in voting during the pandemic, and should now be codified, he said.

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The Rev. Howard M. Jenkins Jr., president of the Ministers’ Alliance of Rhode Island, said the past year has raised public awareness about racial inequities, but now action is needed to change the disparities in crucial areas such as housing, wealth, and health.

Pastor Howard M. Jenkins Jr. of the Bethel AME Church in Providence spoke during a March 25 news conference, calling for the state to hold a mass COVID-19 vaccination weekend for people of color in Rhode Island.
Pastor Howard M. Jenkins Jr. of the Bethel AME Church in Providence spoke during a March 25 news conference, calling for the state to hold a mass COVID-19 vaccination weekend for people of color in Rhode Island.Edward Fitzpatrick

Jenkins, pastor of the Bethel AME Church in Providence, called for doing more to provide COVID-19 vaccines to people of color. While 46 percent of white residents are fully vaccinated, just 31 percent of Black and Latino residents are fully vaccinated, according to state Health Department data.

Jenkins served on the Senate’s LEOBOR task force, and he hopes to see change in that law soon. But he said that would only address officer misconduct after the fact. What’s needed, he said, is more police training and greater diversity both within the ranks and the leadership of police forces in Rhode Island.

While it’s good to see Central Falls Police Chief Anthony Roberson just became the third Black police chief in Rhode Island history, he said, “It can’t be a one-off.”

Jenkins said his fear is that white people will decide that all these issues of equity and justice are not important because it’s not a problem for them. But he said the goal in the year ahead is to keep pushing for change.

“We have to continue to be a force in the community, we have to encourage one another, we have to continue to help the next generation,” Jenkins said. “There is just a lot of work to do.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.