Jennifer Rourke is no stranger to bigotry on and off the campaign trail, but Wednesday night was the last straw. That evening she was holding a virtual town hall over Zoom with fellow candidates Nicholas Delmonico and Jeanine Calkin. Rourke is running for State Senate in District 29 challenging Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey in his Warwick seat. What should have been a typical online campaign event turned nasty around 17 minutes in.
“The final straw was ‘Jennifer go get lynched,” says Rourke in a phone interview. Her campaign shared the related text logs with Motif. Online trolls repeatedly spammed a Q&A box and chatbox with racial slurs, comments like “get back in the kitchen,” “women don’t deserve rights” and favorable references to President Donald Trump. It only lasted a few minutes, but to Rourke, it felt longer.
Rourke posted an earnest video on social media about her experience Thursday night. It’s since gone viral, garnering over 90,000 views online, and well over 1,000 shares each on Facebook and Twitter as of this writing. In the video she talks about her experience the night before, with comments about her appearance and telling her to get lynched. “In today’s world with everything that’s happening,” she says in the video. “Less than 48 hours after George Floyd was killed, that’s the message I received, to get lynched.” Rourke ends the video telling people to speak up and speak out against prejudice. “You can call me all the names in the book, but I am not going anywhere. I am not afraid of you,” she says.
Rourke ran for State Senate in District 29 in 2018 and is no stranger to receiving hate. “It’s never been this extreme,” she said. “I’ve been told you don’t belong here, I’ve been called a virus, that I’m not part of this. I’ve been told they’re gonna call the police on me because I didn’t belong in this neighborhood.” Rourke is biracial, and says a lot of people look at her and take her at face value.
“The one that gets me is I’m not qualified,” she says about the sexist comments she’s received in the past. “As a woman I’ve been told I should start out on the school committee or go work on the PTO. That has happened.”
Community response has been very positive. Local leaders and a few state senators and representatives have reached out to Rourke. McCaffrey publicly condemned the attacks online, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea called the attacks sickening and unacceptable. Candidate for Missouri’s 1st Congressional District Cori Bush called her at 11:30pm last night with words of encouragement. “If she can deal with everything she’s been through,” says Rourke. “I can do it.”
Rourke says it’s time to have the conversation about race, even if people do not want it. She says if you have privilege to embrace it and don’t deny it. “Ask people without privilege what you can do to help them,” she says. “What are the things that are blocking you from obtaining the things you want.” Rourke said to ask how people without privilege were treated in everyday places like the grocery store or workplace.
“Don’t offend and don’t incite any type of racial tension,” says Rourke. Comedians can make jokes, random people can make jokes, she’s fine with that. “I think that when a person is constantly perpetuating hate they need to lose that out, that platform they have. There’s no reason to hate someone else,” she says.
She’s part of the RI Political Co Operative’s slate of progressives running at all levels of local governance. As mother to four kids, her household of six lives paycheck to paycheck, like many other Rhode Islanders. Her district sees high taxes and not a lot to show for it. Warwick residents with septic tanks are being expected to take out loans costing thousands of dollars to pay for a municipal sewer hookup. The school budget may cut out occupational therapists for students’ next school year.
Rourke says the state of Rhode Island has lost a billion dollars in tax revenue since giving tax cuts to households making over $457,000 a year in 2006. Her campaign wants to raise taxes on that 1% of rich Ocean State households. “I’m not fighting for corporations,” she says. “I’m fighting for everyday people. I’m a mom that’s tired of the BS.”
As Rourke said in her video, they have not deterred her from her path.