Gov. Gina Raimondo praised Rhode Island protesters she described as “99.9% peaceful” in a special press conference at 10:30am today, saying that she supported their underlying demands for equality and empathized with their concerns, noting that the participants were observing COVID-19 pandemic precautions such as staying socially distant and wearing face coverings. Nationwide protests sparked by the May 25 video-recorded death near Minneapolis of George Floyd, a black man, in the custody of four police officers, have quickly evolved into a broader protest against police brutality specifically and racial injustice generally.
“COVID has brought to the forefront the racial inequities that have existed for a long time in this country that are ingrained in our society, across our society, in health care, in education, in housing, in wage disparity, economic opportunity, inequality, and so much more. And throughout the crisis across America, and here in Rhode Island, we have seen the real human cost of this institutional inequality and inequality that has existed long before COVID. But the crisis certainly highlights it,” Raimondo said, emphasizing the unprecedented nature of the pandemic emergency.
Turning to the recent protests, she said, “And then, of course, again over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been reminded, time and time again, of just how present and ugly and violent and hate-filled that racism and intolerance still is in our American society. Now, for many Americans, they don’t need that reminder because they live it every day. But for those of us who don’t, for those of us who are privileged enough, and such that we can go for a jog or go to the grocery store, live our lives without fear that we might be attacked, or discriminated against, or the victim of violence, or even killed for the color of our skin, the tragedy that we’ve seen has to be a wake-up call for all of us that institutional racism exists throughout our society, and we need to do more to deal with it and eliminate it.”
Addressing the numerous reports from other states of reporters being harassed, arrested, shot at and in the case of Linda Tirado even blinded when a “non-lethal” police round struck and shattered her eyeball, the governor said, “To you, the members of the press, I know this is a really challenging and fearful time for you and your colleagues around the country. As you see the news of some of your colleagues being arrested and attacked around the country, I can only imagine that it’s hard, it’s anxiety producing for you. And so I want to encourage you to stay strong and be courageous, and to stay out there and keep doing your job even though you might be afraid, and I want to thank you for everything that you’re doing.”
Without naming President Donald Trump, she alluded to his repeated vilification of journalists: “And as your profession and your work is being disparaged and dismissed by public leaders at the highest levels of our nation’s government, I want you to know that you have my respect and support. And I hope that you’ll just have the courage to continue doing what you’re doing. I would say that as we’re living through these truly unprecedented times, your jobs are more important than ever. So I hope you take part in that and recommit yourself to a free press and recommit yourself to a free or more equitable Rhode Island.”
Asked about vandalism such as graffiti defacing the State House, she said, “Vandalism in any form is unacceptable, as is violence. And, thank God, we’re not seeing some of the horrible violence you’re seeing in other places, here in Rhode Island. And those folks who have engaged in that vandalism are going to be held accountable. But I will say, we need to acknowledge what’s driving the vandalism and the outrage, and acknowledge that it’s very real and legitimate fear and anger. So while we don’t condone, and I don’t condone, the vandalism, and those folks who break the law will be held accountable, their fear and outrage needs to be heard. And we need to address it, address what’s at the root of it.”
Motif asked how things would be different going forward rather than a repeat of the “long hot summer” of 1967 during which 159 race riots led to the Kerner Commission of 1968 famously warning, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The governor answered, “The anger that we are seeing is real and warranted because what underpins it is decades of unresolved, unaddressed inequality. And until we get to the business of addressing the economic inequality, the educational inequality, the healthcare inequality, I don’t think that the anger will dissipate because until we do that it will be warranted… What are we going to do about this massive racial inequity in our education system, in our housing and our income? And as you say, also in public safety, but this isn’t just public safety. I mean, obviously what we are what we have seen in the recent weeks with the police racism and brutality is disgusting and needs to be addressed. But it’s not that. This is rooted in, as you say, decades of unresolved inequality and racism.”
The history is new for many, she continued. “I’m the mother of two teenagers who are just beside themselves: ‘How can this be happening?’ I think we have a whole generation of people – I referenced people in their 20s – think about their lives. If you’re an African American person in Rhode Island who is mid-20s, you have grown up with two economic recessions, you may or may not have a decent job, you’re probably overly burdened with college debt. You and your family and your community are probably hardest hit by this public health crisis. You’re probably out of work. You may or may not have the degree or credential to get a decent job, and you’re looking around the country and seeing racism everywhere you look, you might see it when you go to the grocery store. Maybe you went through a public education system that let you down. And that was racist. The point is, that is the generation I think where you’re seeing it is new for them in a way. They weren’t around in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. They are feeling it. But also, it’s what gives me hope. Like you saw after the Parkland shootings, it was younger kids who took action. Same thing with climate change. It’s a lot of younger people who’ve taken action. So to be honest, the thing that gives me so much hope is the younger generation who I hope is really going to push us all to do something about it.”