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R.I. activist groups criticize Nonviolence Institute for working with police

In an open letter, some progressive groups and activists demanded that the nonprofit organization give money directly to victims of shootings instead

Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, left, talked with Cedric Huntley, director of the Nonviolence Institute, before a vigil for Tatyana Francois, 19, who was murdered in Pawtucket in May 2021.
Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, left, talked with Cedric Huntley, director of the Nonviolence Institute, before a vigil for Tatyana Francois, 19, who was murdered in Pawtucket in May 2021.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

PROVIDENCE — When the Rhode Island Foundation and Brown University announced a $500,000 gift to the Nonviolence Institute amid an uptick in shootings and homicides in Providence last month, they lauded the Institute as “one of the most successful efforts in the state in preventing violent crime.”

But some progressive groups and activists say there’s another side to the story: The Nonviolence Institute, they say, should give the money directly to victims of shootings instead, and called on the Institute to stop working with the Providence Police Department.

“Our youth are in need of community support and funds to pay medical and legal expenses — yet it is you who is receiving money,” several activist groups and dozens of people, including three state senators, said in an open letter.

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Those who signed the letter demanded that the Institute stop working closely with police officers.

“We additionally call on you to end collaboration with police in your efforts to intervene in this violence, and to invest in healthy and affordable housing, economic opportunity, mental health, recovery, and reentry services, strong public schools, out of school programs, and safe spaces for youth,” the letter read. “The Institute’s collaboration with police not only makes it complicit in the violence our communities are experiencing. It also makes the Institute tone deaf and ineffective in its efforts to squash conflict.”

The organizations planned a march for Friday afternoon, starting at the offices of Direct Action for Rights and Equality on Lockwood Street and ending at the Nonviolence Institute’s offices.

Cedric Huntley, the executive director of the Nonviolence Institute, declined to comment specifically on the open letter, but said: “We stand on the work we’ve done for 20 years. We’ll continue to do the work. We stand on the principles and steps of nonviolence.”

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The Nonviolence Institute is a nonprofit organization that employs street outreach workers and provides reentry services for people getting out of prison. Its workers often respond to the scenes of shootings, stabbings, and homicides, working in hospital emergency rooms and accompanying people to court in an effort to stop the cycle of violence. They try to cool down feuds and mediate disputes.

Among the tasks the Institute took on recently: responding to the largest mass shooting in Providence history, what prosecutors said was a gang-related shootout between two groups that injured nine people on Carolina Avenue.

The Institute’s supporters say it does vital work in the city.

“The work of the Nonviolence Institute is needed now more than ever,” said Providence City Councilman David Salvatore. “It’s my hope that the Nonviolence Institute can continue working with members of the community to prevent the violent crime we’ve been witnessing before it occurs.”

Asked if he shared the other activist groups’ concerns about the Institute working with police, Salvatore said simply: “No.”

Many of the signers of the letter are proponents of defunding or even abolishing the police, a movement that has gained little traction in cities and towns across Rhode Island. Supporters say taking money out of police budgets in order to fund things like housing, education, and health care would be more beneficial than upholding what they consider a racist and oppressive system.

In the letter, they also criticized Hugh T. Clements Jr., chief of the Providence police, for saying that the people involved in the Carolina Avenue shootout “have no regard for life at times.”

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“This language is dehumanizing and damagingly represents gun violence as an issue stemming from individuals. Gun violence, like so many other forms of harm, is structural and systemic,” the letter said.

One of the signers of the letter was state Senator Tiara Mack, a Democrat of Providence. Her signature reflects an evolution of her own thinking: Last month, she signed onto a different letter asking for more state funding for the Nonviolence Institute. She said talking to people in the community changed her view of the situation.

“They’ve really seen this system be an extension of the police department,” Mack said, “and really a pipeline to criminalizing their youth, rather than helping them and creating authentic change.”

Mack pointed to the systemic issues behind the Carolina Avenue shooting. It’s her understanding that some of those involved had been “priced out” of housing on the East Side, forcing them to move to an area where people with whom they had interpersonal conflicts also lived. That doesn’t mean people should resort to violence, but it does highlight broader issues, Mack said.

“Why were these groups in such proximity?” Mack said. “They were priced out of housing. If there wasn’t a housing crisis, would this have happened?”


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.