Up until the 5:30 start time for the special Providence City Council meeting, supporters of the Community Safety Act (CSA) seemed confident that the proposed ordinance, that prohibits profiling not just by race but expands the list of protections to include gender identity, gender expression and housing status, had the votes it needed to be sent to Mayor Jorge Elorza’s desk for signing.
But as 5:30 came and went, and city councilors continued to meet with officials from the Providence Police Department behind closed doors and hold quiet conversations between themselves on the floor of the council chamber, supporters of the CSA began to worry that something was up. Supporters began chanting, “We want a vote!” and “Whose City? Our City!” over and over again.
In the end, the worry of CSA supporters was justified. The city council voted to table the ordinance until June 1st.
The result was shock and outrage.
When supporters arrived, they found the public seating in the city council chamber full of off-duty Providence police officers. This was expected, of course. The police did the same thing last week during the first passage of the ordinance, but this time twice the number of police officers turned out. Some supporters said that this tactic was intimidating.
Once again cops trying to intimidate folks by filling up the seats. We ask everyone to show up now and take space!
— PVD Cmty Safety Act (@pvdCSA) April 27, 2017
Still, the mood among supporters of the CSA was positive at first. There were smiles on the faces of supporters representing groups like DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality), PrYSM (Providence Youth Student Movement), ONA (Olneyville Neighborhood Association) and AFSC-SENE (American Friends Service Committee – South East New England). There was a feeling of accomplishment and optimism. For the first time, the political system seemed to be working to the benefit of disempowered communities.
But the long delay, the backroom dealing, hushed conversations between city councilors and finally, a text message informing me that there was a Providence Police Department prison transport van parked across the street in Kennedy Plaza, told me something was wrong. The police don’t prepare for mass arrests when they expect people to be pleased.
The meeting began with role call. People booed when they learned that Councilor Seth Yurdin (Ward 1) was absent. Councilor Nicholas Narducci (Ward 4) led those in attendance in an overtly Christian prayer, then Councilor David Salvatore (Ward 14) led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was all very routine.
The CSA was introduced as the first item of the evening. Council President Luis Aponte (Ward 10) said he would “entertain a motion to delay this matter on the desk until June 1st.” The crowd was not happy. It was hard to hear what happened next, but the motion was made and seconded. The crowd reacted with outrage and did not quiet down until Councilor Kevin Jackson (Ward 3) rose to oppose the motion.
As Jackson spoke, the room seemed to fill with more and more police officers, responding to the outburst from the crowd. Jackson revealed that the opposition to passing the CSA was coming from the Providence Fraternal Order of the Police (Providence FOP) the union representing Providence police officers. Union leadership wrote a four page letter outlining nine reasons they oppose the CSA. (Dan McGowan does an excellent write-up and has a link to the letter here.) Jackson pointed out that many of the accusations made by the Providence FOP were, in his opinion, false. In addition to attacks on the ordinance, Jackson said that the FOP’s letter was an attack on him personally.
“They said this came up because of the potential recall election I’m facing on Tuesday, or because of the [criminal] charges that have been leveled against me in the court system,” said Jackson, “but I sponsored this ordinance in the last administration, before any of that came up.”
After Jackson, Councilor Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11), who had worked very hard with both Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré and community groups on a compromise CSA agreeable to all sides, rose to speak. She echoed Jackson’s contention that the Providence FOP had pressured the council to delay. Harris called the delay unfair and said she would not be supporting it.
Councilor Carmen Castillo (Ward 9) rose next to oppose the delay. “We have more than three years back and forth with this ordinance,” said Castillo, noting that it’s not fair for the Providence FOP to object at the last minute.
Councilor Sabina Matos (Ward 15) rose next to oppose the delay. Though she said she was “not proud of some of the comments that have been made against the police” by supporters of the CSA (referencing the letter from the Providence FOP), “I do believe we should pass this ordinance.”
The last city councilor to rise against delaying the final vote was Bryan Principe (Ward 13). Principe exposed what he saw as a false dichotomy. “There are those who are trying to frame this conversation as you are either in support of the police or you are in support of the Community Safety Act,” said Principe. Principe maintained that the ordinance has been vetted, over three years, and that further delay was unwarranted.
“I seldom speak from the rostrum,” said Council President Aponte, “and I understand the frustration that exists here both from the community and the police department. There have been countless hours dedicated to making this ordinance a much better ordinance than it was when it was first introduced… I cannot think, in my more than 20 years, of an ordinance that has been revised more than his one.”
Aponte praised the heroism of the Providence Police and praised Chief Hugh Clements. Aponte maintained that the action and proposal regarding the CSA at this meeting was not intended to end the CSA or send it back to committee, “it is to create a moment to yet again allow a group of stake holders an opportunity to…”
That was as far as Aponte got before the crowd drowned him out with chants of “We want a vote!”
Aponte banged his gavel to no avail. Somehow he communicated to his staff that a vote should be taken. Each vote was met with cheers or boos.
“Shame on you, Luis Aponte!” shouted one member of the public.
“You’re done, Zurier!” said another, referring to Councilor Samuel Zurier (Ward 2), who voted to delay the CSA.
In the end, nine councilors, Aponte, Zurier, Narducci, Jo-Ann Ryan (Ward 5), Michael Correia (Ward 6), John Igliozzi (Ward 7), Wilbur Jennings (Ward 8), Terrence Hassett (Ward 12) and Salvatore voted to table the CSA.
Mayor Elorza’s spokesperson said that the vote does nothing to change his position on the ordinance. He remains ready to sign the CSA into law when the city council passes it.
Despite the anger of the crowd and the noise they generated, the city council did attend to some business. The City Council went on to approve $4 million in tax breaks for the Manchester Street Power Station, a fossil fuel burning power plant in Providence. Not only will this encourage the use of fossil fuels and contribute to global warming, it also takes the property off the tax roles, paving the way for the city council to raise taxes on all city property owners.
Councilor Jackson rose to speak to his fellow council members for what may be the last time, in the event that he loses the recall election scheduled for Tuesday.
But most amazingly, the council passed a resolution that would weaken the CSA, in the event that the ordinance is eventually passed! The resolution establishes “a working group for the purpose of ensuring the proper and appropriate implementation and enforcement of the Community Safety Act. The working group shall meet at least once per calendar month until January 1st, 2018, when the Community Safety Act will take effect. The working group shall be permitted to enter executive session. The working group shall be empowered to make recommendations to the City Council for amendments and/or ordinances changes that would help achieve proper implementation and enforcement of the Community Safety Act. The working group shall consist of the following members:
- the Commissioner of Public Safety, or his designee,
- the Chief of Police, or his designee,
- the President of the Fraternal Order of Police, Providence, Lodge #3, or his designee,
- the City Solicitor, or his designee,
- the Chairman of the Committee on Ordinances,
- an appointee selected by the Mayor,
- two City Council members, appointed by the Council President.”
Note that there are no community members on this list, and that this working group will have the power to suggest changes to the CSA with no community input. In essence this could have the effect of completely nullifying the CSA.
Vanessa Flores-Maldonado, who leads the STEP-UP Coalition‘s effort to pass the CSA, stood up after the city council meeting to call out a police officer who had emerged from the back room with a camera and started taking video of those in attendance. As much as I want to report on this somewhat objectively, I cannot imagine what possible reason the Providence Police Department has to film people lawfully engaging with their government, other than intimidation. I have been attending meetings of legislative bodies throughout the state for years, and I have never seen this before.
“We are so done and tired of this,” said Flores-Maldonado, “Take names. Find out if your city councilor supported the CSA tonight. Is your city councilor really about the city? Because tonight – this shit show, this disgrace, this fucking mess that I saw tonight – that is not public service…”
“They don’t care about us!” shouted someone in response.
“They don’t,” agreed Flores-Maldonado, “It would just be easier if they told us that black lives don’t matter. It would just be easier if the told us they don’t think trans is beautiful. It would just be so much easier if they just said they’re racist. If they said we don’t have to play these fucking games.”
“We live on a fucking plantation!” said a young black woman.
“I hope you’re taking note of what happened tonight,” said Flores-Maldonado. “I hope you’re listening to the fact that the fucking police used every single ugly fear tactic they could to try to intimidate us… Tonight we saw public servants, who are supposed to be here for us, who are supposed to be here for the community, for you, for people of color, for people who live in broken down homes, for people, who are, whatever they are… We saw tonight that ‘public servants’ decided to say ‘fuck you’ to every single one of us in this room right now.
“I am so angry tonight, because we thought they were here for us. We thought they were here to defend our rights.”
“Now we know!”” yelled a woman in the crowd.
“Now we know!” agreed Flores-Maldonado. “They’re not here for us. They’re here for themselves. So to Jennings, Correia, Hassett – You’re done. Ryan! You’re done. Yurdin! Where the fuck were you? Where was Yurdin tonight?
“So, we’re not done. I’m so angry I cannot think. But, please stick with us. Please stay with us… This is not over. We are going to figure out how to get this through because we need to be safe. When we walked into this room and we noticed how many officers there were, some of us did not feel safe. And we need to change that now.”
[UPDATE: Councilor Seth Yurdin sent the following: