Justice for Jhamal

On October 20, following a peaceful rally for Jhamal Gonsalves, currently in a coma after, according to witness statements, a police cruiser hit his moped, rally attendees and police clashed. Nineteen people were arrested. Photographer Josh Bronto (@sorryaboutyoureyebrows) was on the scene and caught some of the salient moments from the night.

Start Planning for a Safe Thanksgiving: A summary of the governor’s October 21 press conference

Governor Gina Raimondo and DOH director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott gave the COVID-19 press briefing today.

At time of the presser, today’s data was not available for the Department of Health. Governor Raimondo and Dr. Alexander-Scott instead provided the data from yesterday, saying they were waiting for some final numbers before updating data for today. Yesterday’s data saw 156 new positive cases of the coronavirus. There are 135 people in the hospital with COVID-19. Of those, 16 are in the ICU, and 6 people in the ICU are on a ventilator. The percent positive test rate was 2.8% for yesterday. Hospitalizations are trending slightly downward at 94 new hospital admissions compared to 116 last week. The cases per 100,000 residents are at 149, well over the threshold of 100 the governor said they would use as a key metric.

Yesterday also saw five new fatalities, DOH did not disclose their ages or comorbidities. That brings the total deaths from COVID-19 to 1,164. 

The big news today is state officials again stressing people stay local for Thanksgiving. While offering no official prohibitions for the upcoming holiday season, the state provided guidelines today for a safe Thanksgiving. The governor said families should limit in-person gatherings, and find safer ways to celebrate like taking it outside or going virtual. 

Raimondo also said people should be extra vigilant and cautious about COVID two weeks prior to Thanksgiving and for a few weeks after. She advised people to get tests. “We learned a lot when we brought the students back to college,” said the governor. Dr. Alexander-Scott said if any one person in a household has symptoms, the entire household should stay home for Thanksgiving. Symptoms like loss of smell/taste, difficulty breathing and a dry cough are noticeable warning signs. 

Rhode Island is receiving a new, rapid test from the same company that produces the Abbot test. Called BinaxNOW, it will provide a result within 15 minutes, and Governor Raimondo said the state would receive 300,000 kits by the end of the year. Her team has put together a targeted plan of how to use them, prioritizing people in K-12 schools, colleges or high-density communities, and areas where there is a need for a speedy result.

Governor Raimondo and Dr. Alexander-Scott encouraged asymptomatic people to get tested. The governor had previously set a goal of 4,000 asymptomatic tests every week, and last week the state administered 3,500 tests to asymptomatics. Testing residents without symptoms is key to finding people spreading the virus without knowing it, and getting them into isolation to curb transmission. 

Dr. Alexander-Scott announced younger adults continue to be overrepresented in case data, totaling 21% of all cases for a week-long period in October. DOH is also seeing work-associated cases where employees are socializing outside the structured part of their work environment. 

During press questions today, Dr. Alexander-Scott revealed that over 50% of asymptomatic positive cases of COVID are in the population younger than 40. While the demographics of hospitalizations and COVID deaths remain among the most elderly or those with severe underlying conditions, DOH is seeing younger Rhode Islanders have no symptoms, but still spreading the virus invisibly. 

Governor Raimondo repeated that there was no widespread coronavirus spread in Rhode Island schools. According to the governor, the data in Rhode Island, and the world, shows that schools are safe. Raimondo also mentioned rates of COVID are higher among those that are distance learning, something she attributes to the structured environment in school. 

BTOWN reporter Bill Batholomew asked about police officers not wearing masks. Governor Raimondo said she knew and found it disappointing. She said she could imagine in the heat of the moment, police might forget to put their mask on, but said she doesn’t excuse it.

In Providence: The Woman at the Door

If you were walking down Benefit Street in Providence a few years ago, you might have seen an old woman standing outside a house asking to be let in.

“She was insisting. She was insisting that she lived at the house.”

The resident of the house was a family made up of two parents, a young son who was 6 at the time, and a teenage daughter. The daughter is now in college, and she reached out to me when she heard I was looking for scary stories.

“I was babysitting my brother. It was a Friday night. I think he was already in bed, or he was getting ready for bed. My parents were out for the night getting dinner and seeing a movie. I was watching tv in the living room and I heard somebody knocking on the door.”

The woman didn’t seem strange. She was nicely dressed in what looked like a business suit and an expensive coat.

“I remember the coat, and her scarf. She had on this big, beautiful scarf. My first thought was to open the door, and it’s not because I was trusting as a kid. I wasn’t, actually. Not at all. But she just seemed like somebody my parents would know. She was in her– It looked like she was in her late 60s or early 70s. She seemed friendly. I was looking at her through the living room window, because you could see who was at the front door that way, and when I was looking at her, I thought she looked nice, but then she turned and looked at me looking at her, and when I tell you, my blood froze. Something about the way she looked at me. It didn’t feel right. I closed the curtain and the first thing I thought after that was– I’m not opening that door.”

The knocking was light. Not aggressive, not forceful. Then the woman started calling out, “Hello?” There was more knocking, more calling out. But her voice was sweet. She didn’t sound aggravated or threatening.

“I started talking to her through the door. I asked her if she needed something, and she said she needed to come inside and talk to me. I told her that she had the wrong house, and that’s what I really thought– I thought she just had the wrong house. But then she kept saying that she didn’t, and that I needed to let her inside. I didn’t want to tell her that my parents weren’t there, so I told her that everyone was asleep, but I could go wake my parents up. I lied to see what she would say, and that’s when she said, ‘Your parents aren’t home.’”

Now she was scared.

She called her parents, and when her father picked up, her voice was already shaky. She explained the situation, and her father assured her that he and her mother would be home right away, and that her mother would call 9-1-1 from her cell phone while her father stayed on the line, and that she should not speak to the woman at the door any longer.

“I stopped talking to her, but she kept knocking and she kept asking me to open the door. Then she started calling out my name, and that’s when I lost it.”

She had no idea how the woman could know her name. It was unsettling enough that she went upstairs to her brother’s room and locked herself in with him.

“Like I said, I don’t remember if he was asleep or getting ready for bed and watching a movie as this was going on, but he woke up as soon as I walked in his room, and he was asking me what was going on. He could tell I was scared, but I told him to just stay quiet, because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know if this woman was by herself or– I don’t know what I thought. She was just this one woman. It’s not like she was going to break into the house or anything, but I was so nervous.”

The two waited for the sound of police sirens, but their parents made it home first. Her father stayed on the phone with her the entire ride home, but as they pulled up to the house, they didn’t see an older woman with a beautiful scarf standing out in front.

“The police got there a little bit later, but there wasn’t anything there. I think they thought that I might have been playing a joke on them or something, but my parents told them that’s not the kind of kid I was. It didn’t matter, because what were they going to do? Go looking all over the East Side for some woman? She hadn’t even done anything wrong. Or she could have been sick or something. They were sure she wasn’t going to come back.”

But how did the woman know her name?

“That was what nobody could explain. The police thought I imagined that part of it. I didn’t. You don’t imagine a stranger calling your name. She was getting loud when she would do it, too. That was the part you could hear very clearly. It was my name. No question.”

You might be thinking to yourself–

“She knew my name.”

This isn’t really that scary of a story.

“I remember my parents kind of laughing it off. They might have just been relieved, but I remember being so mad at them for laughing about it.”

A strange woman knocks on a door and then disappears.

“It wasn’t funny. The way she looked at me wasn’t funny.”

It happens all the time.

“My brother wasn’t even scared once my parents got home. He got to stay up late, because of all the excitement, so he was having a great time.”

Nobody got hurt.

“Meanwhile I’m crying my eyes out for hours.”

Nobody died.

“Hours and hours.”

A few knocks and the odd coincidence of a woman knowing a young girl’s name before vanishing into the night.

“I went to bed crying every night after that.”

Darker things occur all the time, don’t they?

“She’s still in my head to this day.”

All of that was something she thought, too. She thought she’d be startled and then grow out of it. It didn’t seem like any kind of trauma. Aside from the way the woman looked at her as she stood in the window, what part of it would stick in someone’s mind?

“I have a nightmare about her at least two or three times a week. I see a therapist. I talk to my therapist about her. Two therapists. I used to have to push my desk in front of my bedroom door to sleep. I slept next to my little brother’s bed for a month after this happened. I wouldn’t be alone — anywhere. Not home, not anywhere. When I left to go to college, I was– I thought it would end, but her voice sounds– For some reason, it sounds like a lot of other people’s voices. I would have a professor who sounded like her or the woman at the records office at my school, and I would ask myself if people always sounded like that before I heard that woman, but I don’t think so. I think this is all new.”

When she had to move home at the start of the pandemic, she was already struggling with her mental health, but something about being back in her old bedroom evoked memories of that night.

“One night, my parents were out, and my brother was at a friend’s, and I didn’t even think that I might not be okay to be by myself, because it had been so long, you know? As soon as I came downstairs and realized I was alone, I panicked. I had a full-on panic attack. I went back upstairs, closed the door to my bedroom, got in bed, and just stayed there the whole night.”

Why has this one moment in her life seized her in this way?

“It’s like asking why you’re scared of what you’re scared of– I don’t know. Does anybody know? People are scared of flying even if they’ve never been on a plane. I know what I’m scared of, because it was right there. I saw it. It looked at me. And I think about what would have happened if I had opened the door. I almost did. If this woman did want something innocent, why did she leave before my parents got there? Why didn’t she come back and apologize for scaring me? My mother tried to tell me that it might have been someone who knew her or worked with her, because she works with a lot of people, and someone could have just been in the neighborhood, but why wouldn’t the woman have said that? There’s no explanation and that’s what makes me even more upset, because I never heard anything about it again. My father asked our neighbors and nothing like that happened to them. Why my house? Why that night? I don’t understand it.”

Shortly after moving home from college, her mother locked herself out of the house. The incident with the woman at the door hadn’t been discussed in years, and so her mother must not have thought anything of first knocking, and then banging on the door, asking to be let back in. Her daughter was the only one home, and she was upstairs in her room, frozen.

“I knew it was probably my mom, but I couldn’t move. Just that sound — the sound of her pounding on the door and yelling for me. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t breathe. I just wanted her to go away. I knew it was probably my mother and I just wanted her to stop and go away or break into the house and get in that way, but to just stop knocking and calling for me.”

Her father got home shortly after that and let her mother in, but nobody spoke to her about why she didn’t go downstairs and open the door. It’s possible her parents remembered after the fact, or maybe they just didn’t think much of it.

“I stayed right where I was even when she was back in the house. I think I was like that for an hour — it might have even been more.”

It’s possible they forgot.

“I thought I heard the knocking even after it was over.”

Some people can do that.

She Said the Right Thing, Always: For Wendy Overly

“Jim and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing, always.” ~ Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales

In 2004, the Gamm Theatre presented Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, a rarely done and intellectually ambitious play about a woman’s memories of her charismatic “Aunt Dan,” a friend of her parents, and the lasting impact she left on her. Playing the role of Aunt Dan was Wendy Overly, and while I could try to describe her performance to you, I’m not sure there are words that would do it justice. The role was a high-wire act, asking for a very specific kind of energy, unflappable charm and the ability to marry unappealing complex political arguments with unbridled enthusiasm.

It was one of my first times seeing Wendy onstage, and watching her work was akin to seeing a magician. When the lights came up after the bows, I remember thinking–

“How did she just do that?”

This was not an uncommon question to ask yourself after seeing Wendy onstage. While some actors are good and some are great, Wendy could walk onstage and change the atmosphere in the room. All of a sudden gravity would seem to loosen up a bit, and you’d find yourself having the kind of astounding theater moments you’re still thinking about 16 years later. I can still see her twirling a globe in Aunt Dan and Lemon with a gleefully maniacal look in her eye, knowing that I was going wherever she was going and wherever she was taking this character. I stole a quick glance at the audience sitting around me, and every single person was transfixed. When the play received a professional production in New York a few years later, it was not well-reviewed. One critic felt that the actor playing Aunt Dan was unable to muster what it would take to pull off a convincing performance. A friend forwarded me the review along with one sentence:

They should have gotten Wendy.

While she was acting in the play, Wendy was also teaching at Rhode Island College. I was one of her lucky students, and usually, if Wendy was teaching a class, you did whatever you could to take it. I would have signed up for Medieval Art for Beginners if she was the professor. The day I saw her as Aunt Dan, I had her for two classes in a row, and the person I saw onstage that night might as well have been a total stranger. She was both completely lost in the character and totally in charge the entire time.

The next day when I saw her on campus, I stumbled over my praise for what she had done. It was trying to compliment Houdini on escaping the water tank, in that I both wanted to know how she had done it and I also didn’t want her to ruin the mystery for me.

Wendy was, as always, gracious. Not only that, she told me about the trouble she had with the role. The knotty monologues that needed memorizing and then embodying. It struck me that most actors upon receiving acclaim would just smile and say, “Thank you,” but Wendy saw everything as an opportunity not just to teach, but to teach in a way that was abundantly human. If you accused her of being perfect, she would dispel you of that, not out of some show of humility, but because she was more interested in preaching that acting was a craft, and that not only could you do everything she could do, but she could teach you how to do it.

When I took my first acting class with her, I was unable to perform a monologue, even one far less complicated than the ones I had seen her tackle and conquer. For those of you who are unfamiliar with acting, not being able to perform a monologue is a little like trying to become a chef when you can’t successfully chop an onion. All my auditions were abject failures and if I did happen to get in a play and there was a monologue, I’d white knuckle my way through it, dropping words left and right as I went. It wasn’t just an inability to memorize, it was a fundamental block that kept me from being able to stand in a given moment and perform. I was confident that I would never be confident, and so of course, monologues were what we did in Wendy’s class. As much as I believed in her as a professor, I held far more disbelief in myself. Luckily, she was for me, as she was for many, a lifesaver.

By the end of that semester, she had somehow flipped a switch. Monologues no longer terrified me, and in fact, I began to enjoy them. This was not unusual. Miraculous artistic feats were commonplace with her as an instructor. If you took a class with Wendy, she’d ask why you wanted to be in that class, and I mean, she really asked it so that even you had to think about why you were there beyond just getting a good grade or a degree.

Whatever the reason, you found yourself arriving where you wanted to go if you trusted her to get you there. If you were a beginner, she could teach you how to look like a professional. If you were experienced but having trouble rediscovering your passion, she’d remind you what you loved about acting and theater. If you were scared, she made you feel safe. If you were big-headed, she brought you down to size in a way that felt appropriate. If you needed someone to believe you could do it, that was Wendy.

That was her all the time.

She was the first person I ever met who took real pride in being a theater artist. There was never any apologizing for taking it seriously. For treating the work as sacred. For striving to make the work better, and in doing so, becoming better in all areas of your life. When it came to the effort you put forth in her class, Wendy accepted nothing but the best, and she usually got it. Other teachers and directors I’ve had through the years tried to get the same result with fear or manipulation. But none of them could teach you how to do something in a scene study class at 2pm and then go onstage six hours later and demonstrate it for you in front of a live audience. 

After a show once, I saw her talking to a group of students, excitedly saying, “Do you see how that can work if you…?” I saw them looking at her the same way I did, with unfettered admiration, probably wishing they had brought a notepad with them. It seems that if you want to be that teacher students talk about for the rest of their lives, just show them respect and kindness and then let them watch as 200 people jump to their feet to applaud you, and you’ll be good to go.

As a director, Wendy was meticulous. Her research for any given project usually filled up a binder the size of a phone book, and she carefully chose what she wanted to work on so that everything she put her name to clearly held great meaning for her. Sam Mendes says that you have to find a “secret way in” every time you direct. “You have to have to a way in that is yours, and yours alone.” If you worked with Wendy as a director or saw one of her productions, you always felt the connection she held to the material, whether it be a farce like The Hypochondriac or a musical like Next to Normal. Great directors often get called captains or coaches, but more often, they end up creating temporary communities built on experiences. A few are able to give that precious once-in-a-lifetime theatrical experience to an audience. Others can offer that invigorating and unforgettable six or eight weeks to the artists working on a production. Only a handful of directors can do both.

Wendy could do both.

Three weeks ago, I asked her if she would participate in an interview about her life and career. I had so many questions I wanted to ask her about so many shows and performances and things I still wanted to document. Things I wanted to learn and secrets I knew she would share if asked, because above all, she was generous — with her time and her talent. Her willingness to work on projects ranging from major motion pictures to two-person plays in a blackbox. She invested in new talent and made herself available as a mentor and confidante to whoever needed her. It’s hard to imagine not seeing her in an audience again, cheering everyone on with that unmistakable laugh. 

Once I had assembled a list of questions that stretched out for four pages, she told me that she unfortunately didn’t have the energy to answer them all. I understood, and I regretted having so much time to ask her those questions and never having done it. It’s easy to take even the best among us for granted. Still, it’s incredible how indelible her mark was on the community. 

Remarkably, theater was only one facet of her as an artist. She was skilled at so many things, and all the while she was fiercely devoted to her family and her friends, many of them colleagues, who have been expressing their grief and sharing their memories since her passing. The outpouring of words serves as a reminder that it’s impossible for any one person to sum up a life that was so rich and expansive. At a time when none of us are able to congregate in a theater, it seems cruel that we can’t gather to remember and celebrate such an extraordinary life, but the mosaic of recollections posted online, and spoken of between friends and even strangers, has become a light much like Wendy herself. Remembering great artists reminds us why we do art, and it’s no surprise that Wendy would find a way to inspire us even now.

As a teacher, she could bring out the best in a student.

As a director, she could bring out the best in a cast. 

As an actor, she could bring out the best in a play. 

She could take any character, and render them theatrically electric and unfailingly human at the same time. Under her direction, the oldest stories seemed freshly relevant and new work seemed to have the power of a classic. Whether she was playing Mother Courage or Queen Elizabeth. Whether she was working with the Southern iconography of Tennessee Williams or the intricate brilliance of Caryl Churchill, the dark humor of Martin McDonagh or the heartbreaking drama of Paula Vogel, Wendy always seemed to know the way in, and she always brought you along with her.

Rhode Island in a “Tough Spot”: A summary of the governor’s October 15 press conference

Governor Gina Raimondo and DOH director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott gave an emergency COVID-19 presser today at 1pm.

There were big upticks in today’s COVID data; DOH reports 228 new cases since yesterday. There are 129 people hospitalized for reasons related to COVID-19. Of those, 12 are in the intensive care unit and five are on ventilators. The percent positive rate for cases yesterday is 1.9%, but overall according to state leaders metrics are trending slowly up. The state saw two additional deaths since yesterday; both were in their 90s. This brings the Ocean State’s total fatalities from the coronavirus to 1,149.

Governor Raimondo and other state leaders promised new restrictions at yesterday’s press conference. Rhode Island COVID cases have been creeping up slowly over the autumn. Today the governor only announced one major change to restrictions, ordering common areas and workplace break rooms closed for 90 days. Raimondo said she was not lowering the social gathering limit, that it will remain at 15. According to state officials, analyzing the data and contact tracing shows most COVID spread is happening in groups well under the allowed limit. 

“We’re in a tough spot right now,” the governor said. “We’re not where we wanna be.” While no new big restrictions are on the horizon, the state is committed to enforcing restrictions on the books. Crucially, new mask-wearing regulations will be forthcoming, as the state expects Rhode Islanders to wear masks when in the presence of someone they do not live with. Governor Raimondo reminded Rhode Islanders big parties or other gatherings could incur fines of $500 per person. Rhode Island State Police have announced they are tripling enforcement presence for Halloween in a few weeks. Raimondo also asked college residents, teenagers and young students not to go out and party for Halloween. Department of Business Regulation will be stepping up enforcement of fines on businesses that violate COVID regulations.

Additionally the governor asked people to follow some of the COVID restrictions for trick-or-treating this year. Some of the guidance includes individually bagging candy to give away and finishing trick-or-treating before dark, among others. “It’s not forever, this is for now,” said Raimondo. While it’s fun to make jabs at the governor for implying the virus is afraid of the dark, trick-or-treating during daylight hours is to limit the time (and possible exposure) of community spread. Dr. Alexander-Scott noted it was possibly for a sick person to transmit COVID-19 by passing out candy, and said parents should feel welcome to wipe down candy.

The governor also asked people to keep Thanksgiving local, advising them not to travel on a plane or train. More official guidance and restrictions will be made available next week, but Raimondo added that there would be no official prohibition on Thanksgiving. The governor also said the reason for some of these restrictions and guidance was to avoid having to shut down the economy again.

Governor Raimondo also wants to step up asymptomatic testing again, using it to surveil community prevalence of COVID-19. If you are a close contact worker, a legal adult younger than 40, travel to or from other states, or recently attended a large protest or demonstration, the governor advises you to get tested.

“It’s Not Great News”: A summary of the governor’s October 14 press conference

Governor Gina Raimondo and DOH director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott gave the weekly COVID press briefing today at 1pm.

First, the data since yesterday. Rhode Island saw 160 new COVID cases since yesterday. One hundred thirty-one people are in the hospital, 13 of those people are in the ICU, and four are on ventilators. DOH reports eight additional fatalities today, bringing the total number of COVID-related deaths to 1,147.

“It’s not great news,” the governor announced today. Rhode Island has seen gradual increases in a number of key metrics the state uses to assess transmission of the coronavirus. The percent positive rate is 2.7% for yesterday, the highest it’s been since August. Hospitalizations have doubled in the last four weeks. The hospital system still has plenty of capacity, but local healthcare system administrators are starting to get worried. As a result, the governor will be announcing more restrictions at a press conference tomorrow at 1pm. There will be no major changes to K-12 schools, retail or restaurants.

“Bottom line is this: Let this be a wakeup call for Rhode Island,” said Raimondo. She referred to the example in Wisconsin. The governor explained that data patterns in RI and the rest of New England are looking similar to other states before those states saw big surges. “There was nothing to worry about until there was,” she said. Wisconsin, an example the governor detailed at length, saw small but consistent upticks in percent positive testing rates and hospitalizations.

The current upticks are not from large gatherings according to the governor. Upticks in spring and summer were driven by large gatherings. The governor today said the current upticks were from small gatherings. People who might not follow the rules with friends or close family, not distancing, handwashing, observing mask guidance, etc. 

Congregate settings, while still seeing deaths (deaths from COVID are still tied to age and underlying conditions), are seeing fewer cases; colleges and universities are seeing fewer cases; K-12 schools are still seeing fewer cases. “It’s not like letting kids work [on school] from home is the answer because [case numbers] it’s 50/50,” said the governor. According to contact tracing, the uptick in cases is coming from outside these areas, small gatherings of people bending the rules.

“Anytime you’re out of your house with people, wear a mask and keep your distance,” said Raimondo. According to the governor, it doesn’t matter if you’re visiting family or friends the next town over, you still need to be following the guidelines. Essentially, you should be following COVID regulations around anyone you don’t live with.

Raimondo today said anyone planning a Halloween party to cancel it. “If you’re making plans for Thanksgiving, think about not traveling,” she said. The governor acknowledged it would be difficult, but key to stop virus transmission. Specific announcements on new trick-or-treating restrictions will be announced tomorrow.

“We’ve gotten good at isolating people when we test positive,” said the governor. Contacts comply with state officials when quarantining after exposure to someone with COVID. The governor wants to ramp up asymptomatic testing, saying today it was key to the next phase of flattening any rise in cases.

In other announcements, the governor stated today Central Falls and Providence Public Schools would remain in their hybrid model for the rest of the semester. Metrics in the schools themselves have been good, but wider spread in their cities has the governor concerned. The Department of Commerce today announced additional relief to the state’s small business relief program, the Restore RI initiative. While only 20% of the money for the program has been awarded since its start two months ago, the governor said they were doubling the amount businesses could be eligible for. Eligibility has opened up to sole proprietors, non profits and childcare businesses.

Governor Raimondo also announced she would be getting tested weekly on Dr. Alexander-Scott’s recommendation. Within the next week state leaders are expected to roll out a new mandatory testing system for specific asymptomatic populations in order to obtain an accurate picture of community spread. One of the examples the governor gave when asked would be RIC/CCRI commuters getting tested weekly. The state can’t force people to get tested, Raimondo acknowledged, but the state will offer it. The state doesn’t intend to send cops to people’s houses if they have large gatherings, people have gotten lazy not malicious. State regulators will be cracking down on bars and other places.

In Their Own Words: Brandon Potter (D), House District 16

Brandon Potter (D)

We talked to many of the local candidates running for public office in the upcoming 2020 election. We asked each of them the same set of questions, with the promise to print their answers only lightly edited for clarity. The following answers are from Brandon Potter (D), running against Maryann Lancia (R), for RI House District 16.

Motif: What are, in order, your top three priorities or issues if elected?

Brandon Potter: In the immediate, we need to start by properly addressing our health crisis. Our General Assembly has been out of session and there’s important work that needs to get done urgently. We need safe staffing in nursing homes, and we need rules reform that brings a change of culture to our State House. 

Secondly, we have to address our state budget and ensure the state aid provided to cities like Cranston remains in place. Cutting funding to Cranston would force the city to raise property taxes, devastate our community and exasperate the financial fallout from COVID. I’ve met many retirees and seniors who are either planning on leaving the state because of taxes, or worried they’ll be forced to leave because they have fixed incomes and can’t afford any more. People have to be prioritized in whatever budgetary decisions are made.

Third, we need to invest in the future economy with infrastructure and renewable energy. We can come out of this period stronger than before and lead RI forward with economic development and good paying jobs. We have to rebuild our economy, and with interest rates being near 0, now is the time for government to make investments that stimulate our economy and create jobs. 

Motif: After the election, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case with ramifications that could eliminate the Affordable Care Act, potentially reducing the high insured rate in Rhode Island. In a country without ACA protections, what should healthcare for Rhode Islanders look like?

BP: Sick people shouldn’t be thought of as a business opportunity. There’s no reason anyone here should ever be without access to affordable healthcare. My girlfriend Katie is 31 and has a genetic kidney disease called FSGS. She’s been a dialysis patient for three years and has been denied a transplant because of our broken system. People with preexisting conditions must be protected, and the assault on the ACA by the Trump administration is an inexcusable disgrace. RI should codify the ACA into state law with a public option, and we should continue to expand our healthcare as we work toward a single-payer universal system. 

Motif: Do you think police departments are overfunded, and if so, how would you reallocate those resources?

BP: I’ve been critical of the defund the police narrative for a few reasons. One, I think racial justice is one of the most serious issues in our country, and we need to consider it in how decisions are made in all areas. When we can witness Black people murdered and assaulted on video like we have, it should be clear to everyone how serious of a problem there is. We need to acknowledge that with the seriousness it deserves. Systemic racism doesn’t just exist in our criminal justice system or police departments. These tragedies are only allowed to happen by failures in our education system, failures in our economy, failures in our healthcare system. We ask police to do too much, and certainly we need to take a holistic look at how we can better combat and reduce crime long term. But trying to simplify the solution to a bumper sticker sized slogan like “defund the police” does this conversation a big disservice. We need to hold police accountable to the highest of ethical standards, and there has to be absolute zero tolerance for abuse of power. We also need to recognize the difficulty and danger of what it means to be a cop. We have to acknowledge police are people too, they’re affected by what they see and experience in that job. In some cases, it might make sense to invest more money in training, counseling or hiring more officers. In some cases I’m sure we can eliminate needless spending on military equipment. We also should be divesting from prisons and ending privatization, so this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. We have a lot of work to do and we need to be able to pull people into the discussion, and not be more divisive and escalate the tensions if we want real progress to happen. I think it’s a lot deeper than that. 

Motif: Should school funds be pooled and redistributed on a weighted scale to address statewide equity issues, or should districts continue to fund their own community schools? Are there school districts that should be combined?

BP: The inequities in our education system have to be addressed at the state level. Local property taxes disproportionately fund education, which breeds inequity and strains working families and seniors. I don’t know that combining school districts is the solution, but we certainly need to move more toward a state-based funding formula that isn’t heavily reliant on local home values to determine education quality. 

Motif: COVID most harshly impacted a lot of core industries in Rhode Island (eg, hospitality, restaurants, arts/entertainment). What can elected officials do to revitalize these industries and improve the lives of our poorest residents?  

BP: Before we can revitalize we have to preserve what we have. Small businesses from restaurants, retail shops, event venues, etc. have been devastated. People have had to close their businesses, many are dangerously close to. We need to release the aid to provide assistance to small businesses. This money shouldn’t be used to plug holes in our existing state budget. From there we can rebuild our economy by investing in infrastructure and renewable energy, and make our state an attractive place to live and work. We need to bring public and private funding together on appropriate development. We need to raise the minimum wage. There’s a lot of work to do in our economy, but with political courage and independent voices that are willing to speak up on behalf of what’s best for regular people, I’m confident we can come out of this stronger than before. 

Motif: Climate change is a very real threat in Rhode Island — we are in close proximity to the ocean and broke temperature and drought records this year. If elected, what steps would you take to protect the environment?

BP: I support all efforts to get us to carbon neutrality as soon as possible. I see addressing climate change locally with two critical components. One, we have to acknowledge the severity of climate change, the financial impact it’s having on us and will continue to have, and display a sense of leadership in deciding to play our part in addressing it. I believe in leading by example, and I think Rhode Island being the smallest state has a unique opportunity to demonstrate what’s actually possible. Secondly, I think we need to recognize working people in how we shift to a new energy system. We have to make sure as we shift to a new energy system we’re not leaving working-class families behind. 

We can create thousands of good-paying jobs right here in the state by investing in renewable energy and lowering utility costs for families and small businesses, but it will take standing up to the fossil fuel industry, National Grid and powerful special interests. I think we need to use this moment, as we’re rebounding from the financial fallout of COVID, to be really bold and kill two birds with one stone. Rebuild our economy, invest in an emerging market and do our part in combating the climate crisis. 

In Providence: Missing in Providence

If you ask when anyone last saw her, you’ll get a variety of times and places. You’ll get assurances that she looked happy. That she seemed fine. That she was always doing this sort of thing. Appearing and disappearing. Cutting ties with people for no reason at all. There’s only one friend who doesn’t buy it.

“This was different. It doesn’t feel like it did all the other times. She would still call. Her thing was– she’d get a job somewhere or two jobs and she’d get home late, wherever she was, and you’d wake up to a voicemail from her in the morning. One Sunday I got three of them from her, telling me I need to keep my ringer on when I go to bed, in case there’s an emergency. But when is there ever an emergency anymore?”

They grew up together. Went to school together. They were each other’s prom dates. Their houses were on the south side of Providence, but after attending Johnson and Wales together, they got an apartment near Parade Street.

“We had a good time. She was fun. When she decided it was time to party, that was it. You were going to have a party. One night it was a Tuesday, and you would have thought we were giving money away. People were coming from up and down the block, because our house was– It was the place to be. That was because of her. Everybody wanted to be around her.”

But sometimes the brighter something shines, the harder it is to keep it burning.

“She would bail on you. That’s true. She stiffed me on rent more than once. I never held it against her, but you couldn’t stay mad at her. It was impossible to stay mad at her. The first time she disappeared, she was gone for a week. I think after that it was a little more than a week, and for the next couple of years, when she would go missing, it would be for a month. Sometimes two months. Never more than that.”

It’s been five years.

“Nobody will say she’s missing now, because people keep saying they’ve seen her. I see people all the time — and people will message me — and tell me they saw her working at a restaurant downtown. I call the restaurant and they’ve never heard of her. Somebody else says they talked to her outside a bar. Talked to her for an hour. They told her that people were looking for her, and she laughed it off. Said she doesn’t want to be bothered. I don’t buy it. It’s not just me she doesn’t talk to anymore. People she stayed friends with her whole life. People who were like family to her. Now the only time anybody sees her is by accident, and when you look into it, it’s wrong. It was the wrong person or they were drunk and only thought they saw her. I say she’s missing. That’s what I say.”

If you go to the police and tell them somebody is missing, but everyone keeps seeing them, you don’t get very far. Whenever it seems like enough time has passed without a sighting, three will pop up. Somebody will say they bumped into her at a movie theater in Warwick. Somebody else will say she was walking down the road in Pawtucket and they waved to her as they drove by. Another person will even say they saw her at a concert in Boston. The appearances are always quick, and if anyone manages to speak with her, she’ll tell them she’s doing well and there’s no reason to worry. Nobody thinks she looks sick or under any kind of influence. She still seems like the same magnetic personality that used to throw parties on a Tuesday and once bought a drum set off the back of a pick-up truck without any intention to learn how to play.

“Her old phone number doesn’t work. Why wouldn’t she still have her phone? You ask people about that and they tell you she must have run out of money. If she doesn’t have money for a phone, how is she going to bars and concerts? Someone saw her in the front row of a concert at Foxwoods two years ago. Where’d she get the money for a front row ticket? One of our friends said they saw her in a brand new car, stopped at a light in North Providence. She could never afford a brand new car. I just want to know what’s going on. Something isn’t right. If she wants to disappear, why is she still at all these local places? Why are people seeing her in Rhode Island all over the place? It doesn’t make any sense.”

But this is where I disagree.

“That’s saying all these people are right, but they can’t all be wrong either.”

Rhode Island seems like the perfect place to get lost. Any place can be, really, if you think about it. After all, what does it take to fall off the map?

“How come I’ve never seen her?”

Deactivate your social media. Disconnect your phone. Stop answering emails. Quit your job. Get a new one. Don’t tell anyone.

“If I saw her for myself, then I would believe it, but why haven’t I?”

Change where you go. Your habits. Get your coffee from a different cafe. Buy your clothes from a different store. Or better yet. Online. Do as much online as you can.

“Why does the person who wants to see her the most never see her? You would think if anybody would be seeing her, it’s me. The person who’s been looking for her all this time.”

The scary thing about loving someone is the constant hum in the back of your mind, telling you that if they wanted to, they could, at any point, disappear. Nothing keeps anybody anywhere. Not leases. Not marriage licenses. Not promises. Not the longevity of a friendship or the comfort of someone who loves you no matter how many times you walk away from them. Not the warmth of knowing that if you went missing, somebody would come looking for you.

“If I saw her, I’d tell her I’m glad she’s doing good, and I’d ask what’s going on. That’s all I want to know. What’s going on. But if she tells me it’s all good, then it’s all good and I don’t have anything else to say. I only need five minutes. That’s it. But I need to see her for myself.”

If you’re in Providence on one of these chilly October evenings, you might see a woman who looks familiar to you. You might wave at her. She might wave back. You might think she looks overdressed. In clothes that don’t quite fit her, but because of their style, not their size. You might see her sharing a cigarette with someone outside a bar. You might see her sitting outside, having a cup of coffee.

“She’s always alone when people see her. She was never alone. Never in her life was she alone.”

But it could be your mind playing tricks on you. Maybe you’re not seeing what you think you are.

“I don’t trust it.”

As the nights arrive earlier, it’s harder to tell what it is you’re seeing, isn’t it?

“But maybe one day I’ll see her for myself.”

In a city where everybody knows everybody, it’s easy to think you know someone.

“That’s what I pray for.”

Until you realize–

“I pray for it every day.”

You don’t.

Despite Rising Case Numbers, Raimondo Expressed Pride About RI’s Response to COVID: A summary of the governor’s October 7 press conference

Governor Gina Raimondo and DOH director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott gave the weekly COVID press briefing today at 1pm.

Rhode Island has seen 145 new cases of the coronavirus according to data provided by DOH this morning. The governor announced during her comments today that the state performed 9,524 tests with a percent positive rate of 1.5%, far below the 5% recommended by the CDC. “If you look at how Rhode Island is doing relative to other states, you should be proud of the 1.5%,” said Raimondo. 

State officials in the Ocean State calculate that rate differently than other states, something local media has frequently critiqued. RI is among the few states to count repeat tests, and the positive percent rate is higher if you only count first time COVID test takers. Calculating how many positive tests there are is a key metric in discovering the virus’ spread. When asked today, the governor said the state records data using both ways, and that it was unfair to penalize the state for essentially just testing more. Dr. Alexander-Scott today added they weren’t look at aggregate numbers, but pointedly testing in specific communities such as college students or congregate care homes in order to determine the prevalence of the coronavirus. The governor also announced today her intentions to scale up testing, saying residents should not be surprised or alarmed to hear of 10,000 COVID tests being performed daily statewide.

There are 107 people hospitalized for reasons related to COVID-19. The state is trending downward in this statistic. Last week, 70 people were admitted to the hospital for COVID while this week it’s down to 66. Ten people are in the intensive care unit statewide with the virus, and five of those people are on ventilators. DOH reports one additional death today, a person in their 80s.

Raimondo addressed the status of the K-12 testing system today. K-12 schools have their own testing infrastructure, separate from the regular COVID testing system that’s been in place for months. Any student, staff member or teacher who needs a test should be using the separate testing system. Since school began, the K-12 system has performed almost 6,000 tests, with just 2,500 of those tests being performed last week. That system has turned out 109 positive cases, making its percent positive rate around 2%. The governor noted that the number of positive cases in the school system overall was 260, indicating that members of the K-12 system had received testing outside the one designed specifically for schools.

Out of the 95 schools that have seen COVID cases, most of those schools only have one positive case of the virus. Governor Raimondo stated they had not seen outbreaks, and that when they arise the state has become experts in handling them. “Bottom line is these systems are working and you should have confidence,” she said.

Governor Raimondo also put out a call for substitute teachers today, citing a desperate need for them in schools. She appealed to folks’ sense of duty and called on retired teachers to sign up to be substitute teachers. One member of the media noted they were hearing teachers in some districts were encouraged not to use sick time due to the lack of coverage. The governor repeated that most students were back in school after a month and the state had yet to see a breakout.

When asked today by the press corp if district court rulings against social gathering limits concerned Governor Raimondo for any future lockdown situations, the governor said she was not concerned. The district rulings were not in Rhode Island’s district, and her executive orders limiting gatherings have been time limited to 300-day periods. She said she hopes to avoid another lockdown situation like in the spring, when they didn’t even know how to test for the virus. Raimondo finished by saying it was a balancing act between people’s freedoms and matters of life and death.

McManus Brothers Sound Off: The Block Island Sound draws the filmmaking duo home

“Everyone knows what Block Island feels like in the summer, but in the winter it’s like a Stephen King set, just a spooky place,” says Matthew McManus. “It’s cold, every house is boarded up, every tree is barren — it has this wonderful, eerie quality to it. We just fell in love with it.”

Matthew and his brother Kevin McManus are the directing duo behind The Block Island Sound, the indie horror film that premiered in August at Fantasia International Film Festival. The movie was a homecoming for the Warwick natives, who shot their debut feature, Funeral Kings (2012) in RI, and went on to garner an Emmy nomination for their writing on the hit Netflix series “American Vandal” in 2018.

The Block Island Sound focuses on a series of strange happenings on the titular island. First, a mass beaching of fish, which brings marine biologist Audry Lynch (Michaela McManus) back to her hometown. Once there, she finds her grizzled fisherman father (Neville Archibald) has been acting strange. After a sudden tragedy, Audry and her brother Harry (Chris Sheffield) must reckon with the mysterious force disturbing the island. The film blends a cosmic horror story with a taut family drama, and the sibling dynamic between Sheffield and McManus has real depth and believability.

The film also taps into cultural anxieties over climate change. Numerous mass animal die-offs are mentioned, and each of them, according to Kevin McManus, are sourced from real life events. “It’s funny how many people have emailed us with an article like, ‘All these fish died off, you guys predicted it.’ It’s like, ‘No, this happens every day,’ so hopefully this is a way of bringing attention to that. Two-thirds of wildlife has died out since the 1970s … it’s pretty fucking dark.”

Another uncannily relevant part of the movie is Dale, Harry’s conspiracy theorist pal who attempts to tie the island’s strange happenings together. “When we were writing him we thought we’d get dinged for this by critics, like ‘This guy doesn’t really exist,’” says Matthew. “Sure enough, just when we’re ready to put it out into the world, half the country are these crazy
conspiracy theorists. I guess it’s more prescient than we could have appreciated.”

The impetus for the film came from a college experience: “We were shooting a zombie movie, and we needed a place that would look abandoned and not cost a fortune. It was February on Block Island. I think as soon as we saw it we thought, ‘We need to do something bigger here, longer here, something real.’ It’s been in the back of our heads ever since.”

They got their chance in spring 2018. “We shot April into May, so it started ice cold and ended sweltering hot. We were like, ‘We only shot for 15 days, how did we get summer and winter and no spring?’ But that’s about right for Rhode Island.”

The McManus’ Block Island is beautiful in its barren bleakness — a washed out seascape beneath which lurks eldritch, Lovecraftian forces. The film is full of local color and insider details, and it’s clear the McManuses relished their homecoming. “My sister is one of the leads in it, my mom makes a cameo, my buddy Matt Giacheri is one of the producers — it felt like this great communion of all these people we’d worked with when we were kids. It was a special experience.”

One more McManus family member made it into The Block Island Sound, in an unexpected way. I remarked on the movie’s unnerving, ethereal soundscape, which I learned has a secret ingredient. Kevin explains: “The ‘monster sound’ you hear was a really hard one to pin down. We had it written in some kind of gibberish in the script, and everyone kept asking us,
‘So what is the sound going to sound like?’… Nothing was quite working, and eventually, right after we were done shooting the film, that September I had a daughter, so we took a break from the film for a minute, and when she was about seven months old, she started cooing in this high pitched guttural way, in short little bursts, really high pitched, and if I slowed it down 15%, it had this almost crocodilian growl to it. Suddenly, you get this really organic creepy otherworldly kind of sound that’s really hard to put your finger on, and of course it’s just a little baby. It was exciting to give my daughter her debut as a monster.”

The McManus brothers hope that the film will appear at other festivals in the near future. It will be available to the public sometime in 2021. “It was fun being able to make another film in Rhode Island,” said Matthew. “Something just draws us back to shooting there.”

Michaela McManus, Matthew McManus, Kevin McManus, Chris Sheffield.
Photo cred: Erin Douglass

To see the film’s trailer, go to youtu.be/2P30Ynj0gxA