A discussion of Black Lives Matter and the importance of this movement in terms of criminal justice reform, prison abolition and the next phase of Civil Rights in our state was held at the First Unitarian Church of Providence. The mostly white, middle and upper middle class church members were interested in what they could do as a congregation to ally with and support this important movement. Much of what was presented was in line with the liberal values of those in attendance, but when speaker Marco McWilliams, director of Black Studies at Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) spoke about prison abolition and the dismantling of capitalism (admittedly long term goals) some in the audience showed visible reservations.
It was a radical message different from the one that Jim Vincent, President of the NAACP Providence Branch gave. Vincent wanted to convey the immediacy of the problem. Police are killing black people “under the most questionable circumstance imaginable,” said Vincent, and he then proceeded to relate a long list of stories of police killing unarmed black people, ending only because of time constraints and asserting that he could have easily continued for hours in this way. These stories, coupled with startling statistics about the disproportionate rates of black arrests and black incarceration act as a call to action.
Pilar McCloud, assistant secretary of the NAACP Providence Branch, put the larger structure of systemic racism into a personal context. Despite her college education, as a black woman she is often treated as someone who is uneducated, regarded with suspicion or, as in one story she told, served as almost an after thought at the Starbucks located in the Providence Place Mall. A paying customer, her coffee was delivered long after she ordered, the man behind the counter actually prioritized the coffee of a white woman who ordered after her before preparing Pilar’s drink. McCloud asked for her money back and retrieved her tip from the tip jar.
McCloud also talked about the differences in the conditions of the schools in Providence. Nathaniel Greene located in a neighborhood populated mostly by people of color, is falling apart. Nathan Bishop, on the East Side of Providence, is in immaculate condition. It seems that some students, says McCloud, “…don’t deserve well lit auditoriums or brand new books, and brand new computers, and well shined floors.”
The first speaker of the evening was Susan Leslie, Congregational Advocacy and Witness Director for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in Boston. She set the tenor of the meeting, stressing the importance of events like these and the involvement of UUA churches in the struggles for civil rights. The UUA, said Leslie, “was slow to respond” to the Black Lives Matter movement, but congregations across the country are beginning to take action. Sixty UUA churches have hung “Black Lives Matter” banners outside their churches. These churches are active as allies (or what McWilliams called “accomplices”) in marches, on corrective legislation such as the Providence Community Safety Act and in calling on their leaders to take action on the abuses of the criminal justice system towards people of color.
The members of the First Unitarian Church of Providence are beginning the process of deciding on whether or not to display a “Black Lives Matter” banner in front of their church. About a third of the banners displayed across the country have been vandalized or stolen, said Leslie, but these churches have held “really powerful rededication ceremonies” and “recommitted in the face of that.” This provides imporatnat opportunities for community engagement and bridge building.
Below are the full videos of all the speakers and the robust Q&A that concluded the evening.