PROVIDENCE — Hundreds of people came out to the State House Monday night for a candlelight vigil to honor Tyre Nichols, whose death after a violent arrest by Memphis police earlier this month sparked worldwide outrage.
It should also spark change here in Rhode Island, beyond attending one vigil, organizers said.
“It’s going to keep happening if we don’t get involved,” said Harrison Tuttle, the executive director of the Black Lives Matter Rhode Island Political Action Committee. “We’ve got to be able to create the change that we need to see in our own communities.”
Attendees held candles or flashlights as speakers called for specific police reforms in the wake of another death of a Black man in an encounter with law enforcement, as well as broader changes in society — mental health support, affordable housing, a living wage.
Nichols, a father whose family has said he enjoyed photography and skateboarding, died after being beaten by Memphis police officers earlier this month. The officers have been fired and five were charged with second-degree murder and other charges. Two other officers reportedly have been relieved of duty. The five officers who face criminal charges are also Black, which, attendees Sharon Stowe and Denice Smith said, illustrated a double standard. They doubted that the media or authorities would have treated the situation the same way — showed the video with strong warnings about the brutality, or acted so swiftly to fire and charge them — if the officers had been white.
“I’m here in support of a Black mom losing her son to police brutality,” Stowe said.
Videos of the beating were released Friday. When former state Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell heard Nichols in the videos crying out for his mom, she thought of her own sons.
“It breaks my heart,” Ranglin-Vassell said when she got up to speak at the vigil. “That’s why you’re here.”
They were also there to acknowledge problems in Rhode Island policing, which may not have a unit named the “Scorpion” unit like Memphis did, but does have what some call “jump-out boys.”
“I’m not looking for allies, I’m looking for disruptors,” Ranglin-Vassell said. “And you won’t disrupt a system if you’re quiet!”
The event happened at the site of some of the biggest protests in Rhode Island history two and a half years ago. Critics say a state law called the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights protects bad cops by making it too difficult for police chiefs to hand out discipline. It was one of the top demands of protesters in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020. It still is: Not a syllable of it has changed in response. Rhode Island has learned to live without things like Benny’s, said Jim Vincent, a senior adviser to Black Lives Matter RI PAC.
“And we can live without LEOBOR,” said Vincent, urging attendees to call their state representatives and senators to press them on repealing the Bill of Rights.
Attendees included Sylvia Carey-Butler, a Providence resident who works in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“We all have to be part of the change when it comes to this type of brutality,” Carey-Butler said.
Attendee Dion Baker said he was there to express his frustration about what happened to Nichols — something that could have happened to him or a family member. He was also frustrated about how influential people in Rhode Island have responded. In recent years, politicians and influential organizations have, at best, paid lip service to making a difference, Baker said. But then nothing changes.
“I came out here because I’m sick and tired of all of this,” Baker said. “For years, Black men have been killed, and nobody gets held accountable, period, as long as they wear a badge or they have some type of political connection or some type of money. And I’m over it.”
Brian Amaral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.