In Your Neighborhood

Who is welcome in the house of the people?

An apparent racial profiling incident occurred off-camera at the March 27 rally in the Rotunda at the State House, a dark undertow in the conversation about gun control

Photo by Richard Asinof

Gov. Gina Raimondo addresses the rally on March 27 in the State House Rotunda, in support of legislation banning the sale of assault-style rifles in Rhode Island.

Image courtesy of UpRiseRI

TaliqTillman, a 17-year-old high school student, addresses the March 27 rally in the State House Rotunda.

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/5/08
An apparent incident of racial profiling by Capitol Police involving one of the student speakers at the March 27 State House rally served a potent reminder of how high school students speaking out about the threat of gun violence is disrupting the status quo.
When will domestic violence become part of the conversation around gun violence in America? Why are some Republican lawmakers in Rhode Island willing to dismiss high school student speakers at a State House rally as “just props?” Who will convene a dialogue between the R.I. Capitol Police and high school students about what happened on March 27? What are the medical costs of gun violence in Rhode Island? What is the relationship between childhood lead poisoning and future violent behavior in adults? Could what the rounds fired by an assault rifle such as the AR 15 do to human flesh and bone be classified as “obscene?”
Even The Wall Street Journal is beginning to talk about “the diseases of despair.” The most recent “Moving Upstream” video episode by the newspaper featured an interview with Princeton economists Anne Case and her husband, Angus Deaton, about the connection between suicide and the economic destruction of the middle class.
Missing from the conversation was the fuller range of research conducted by sociologist Shannon Monnat, connecting the mortality rates for suicide, alcohol and drugs with economic despair.
Here in Rhode Island, the conversation about the diseases of despair still appears to be locked into the silos of programmatic approaches and clinical solutions. It did not emerge as a topic of discussion at the most recent legislative breakfast meeting sponsored by the Rhode Island Business Group on Health, held on March 2. It is not yet on the agenda of the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention. It is not a question that is being asked by polling conducted by the news media in advance of the 2018 statewide elections.

PROVIDENCE – Are you familiar with the one liner by comedian Lenny Bruce? In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.

Before Dave Chapelle, before Jerry Seinfeld, before Eddie Murphy, before Richard Pryor, before George Carlin, there was Lenny Bruce, pushing at the boundaries of what can be said in public.

The “in the halls of justice” quip became part of Bruce’s stand up routine, describing his own misadventures with the criminal justice system in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, trying to obtain a cabaret license needed to perform in city nightclubs.

After witnessing the confrontation at the entrance to the State House on Feb. 27, between a young black man, 17, one of the student speakers at a rally organized by the R.I. Coalition Against Gun Violence, and the security detachment of the Rhode Island Capitol Police, ConvergenceRI wondered: what might be the modern-day equivalent of Bruce’s insightful commentary about unequal access?

In the people’s house, the only people welcome in the house are people who look like us?

But, what happened on Feb. 27 was no laughing matter.

Setting the scene
There was a long line for those waiting to attend the rally in the Rotunda to support legislation being introduced by Sen. Joshua Miller and Rep. Jason Knight to ban the sale of assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines in Rhode Island. The line wound its way out the front doors, down the front steps and onto the expansive marble and brick walkway, waiting to pass through the slow funnel of metal detectors and security screening manned by the R.I. Capitol Police. More than 500 people would crowd into the Rotunda that day.

[Note to legislators: the lack of available parking spaces for the general public appeared to be a big reason why there was such a long waiting line; ConvergenceRI had to circle the area four times before finding a space.]

It was a few minutes past 3:30 p.m., the rally’s starting time. The distorted, amplified words from the rally’s first speaker, Linda Finn, president of the R.I. Coalition Against Gun Violence, were difficult to discern, as the sound bounced off the marble walls. Dozens waited patiently to get in past the metal detectors.

What ConvergenceRI witnessed next was disturbing. Kat Kerwin, the director of communications for the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, attempted to help one of the late-arriving student speakers, Taliq Tillman, a student at the MET school, get through security, in an expedited fashion.

[As Kerwin told ConvergenceRI the day after the incident, she had previously spoken with the Capitol Police, alerting them to the situation, and, according to Kerwin, the Capitol Police had assured her it would not be a problem to have the student speaker move ahead in the line, a common courtesy often afforded legislators.]

But when Tillman arrived, a young black man with his hair braided in corn rows, wearing a doo-rag, he was quickly surrounded by the Capitol Police detail, who angrily shouted at him: “Where do you think you are going?” They ordered him to go back to the end of the line.

While Kerwin, a professionally attired white woman, attempted to intervene and explain the situation again, that Tillman was a student speaker at the rally, the Capitol Police appeared not to believe that the young black man was an actual speaker at the event.

After roughly frisking Tillman, then repeatedly swiping him with a security wand, the Capitol Police finally allowed Tillman through.

Intimidating but not surprising
Tillman, to his credit, did not overreact to the tense, humiliating confrontation, despite being an apparent victim of racial profiling. ConvergenceRI had watched in disbelief as the scene unfolded, a mere three feet away from where he was standing.

“It was intimidating and unsettling, but it was not surprising,” Tillman told ConvergenceRI, in a telephone interview three days after the rally.

“Safety” means different things to different folks, depending on what community you live in, Tillman continued.

What he had experienced attempting to gain admission to the rally, and the resulting confrontation with law enforcement at the entrance to the State House, Tillman explained, was a common occurrence for many young black men in his neighborhood. It was something, Tillman said, that while growing up, he had witnessed his own father having to endure.

At the same time, Tillman said, in a sign of his maturity, it was the content of the words he spoke at the rally that mattered most. Tillman said he would welcome the opportunity to sit down with the Capitol Police, to discuss what had happened, as a way of building a better relationship moving forward.

“The last thing we need now are armed teachers,” Tillman said, in response to a question by ConvergenceRI, about a policy being pushed by President Trump and others. “We need to keep more guns out of schools.”

“Silence is another word for acceptance”
In today’s world, the dominant dichotomy – disparity might be a better descriptor – seems to be one that divides those who have to wait in line and those who do not, where access is based upon wealth, privilege, status and racial identity.

Then, too, the view from the stage at rallies and speeches is always much different than what the actual experience is like attending an event, being in the crowd.

[“We have become conditioned to being spectators rather than participants, to watch rather than speak out, expecting to see what we have become accustomed to seeing through the lens of the news media,” ConvergenceRI said, during his interview with Tillman, when asked by Tillman his thoughts about the rally. “The willingness of students to speak up, demanding to be heard, has disrupted the status quo.”]

The racial profiling incident involving Tillman and the Capitol Police at the gates to the State House was not “witnessed” by any other news media; many of which were already crowded around the podium, awaiting the speeches, particularly the one from Gov. Gina Raimondo.

The news media crowding around the podium included: Kathy Gregg from The Providence Journal, Ian Donnis from Rhode Island Public Radio, Tessa Roy from WPRO, and Steve Ahlquist from UpRise RI, among others, as well as the governor’s own, ever-present videographer.

When he spoke, Tillman, like his other student counterparts at the rally, added a gravitas to the event often missing when politicians speak.

“We’re letting our nation know that silence is another word for acceptance,” Tillman said, speaking at the rally, describing the burden of silence as tiring, draining and infuriating.

“I’m standing here today because I believe in myself, I believe in my peers, I believe in the youth, and I believe we can shape our national narratives,” he said.

“We are not pawns”
One of his fellow high school student speakers, Adah Bryan from Classical High School, railed against those who would deride students speaking up as pawns, puppets and even child actors. “I am not a pawn. We are not pawns,” she said.

[Yet, perhaps not surprisingly, two Republican legislators in attendance at the rally, Rep. Michael Chippendale and Rep. Justin Price, disparaged the high school students speaking out against gun violence as “just props,” according to reporting by Steve Ahlquist.]

Tillman’s photo had graced the online front page of The Providence Journal the next day; his voice had been heard.

And yet, of all the images witnessed and broadcast at the rally, of all the words spoken and recorded by the news media, it was the off-camera confrontation on the outskirts of the rally between Tillman and the Capitol Police that stayed with ConvergenceRI.

It captured the drama in the way that students were changing the conversation around guns in America, demanding a voice, challenging the status quo, saying that they deserved to be heard.

It also illustrated the courage and risks entailed in speaking out – and the fear that the student voices have created in so many adults, accustomed to controlling the conversation and access to the decision-making, and access to the stage.

What showed on the faces of the Capitol Police as they over-reacted to Tillman? Was it anger? Was it fear? What was so threatening about a young black man with braided hair and a doo-rag entering the State House? Good questions.

If no one in the mainstream media reported on it, if no cameras portrayed it, did it happen? Yes.

Wasn’t it necessary to give the Capitol Police the benefit of the doubt, given how tense such anti-gun rallies can be? That is what one organizer, who had not personally witnessed the scene and who had not talked with Tillman about it, asked ConvergenceRI.

The organizer, it seemed to ConvergenceRI, was attempting to push the narrative back toward a safer, more comfortable political ground, not only questioning the accuracy of ConvergenceRI’s account of the incident but the need to write about it.

ConvergenceRI responded: The event had taken place right in front of where he was standing, a few feet away. Tillman and Kerwin had confirmed the details of what had happened.

Was it better to pretend that it hadn’t happened? To sweep it under the rug, because it did not fit in with the political narrative?

Corporate leadership
In the aftermath of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump, the National Rifle Association and Republican congressional leaders have scrambled to maintain political control of the conversation around gun control. At one point, Trump even claimed that he would have charged the shooter, whether he had a gun or not, if he had been there.

Others have attempted to prioritize the conversation away from gun control, arguing about the greater need to look at mental health and school security issues, even proposing arming teachers.

The response by Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Edward Stack, to borrow a phrase invoked by many students, called bullshit on the politicians.

Last week, Stack said his chain of stores, one of the largest retailers of its kind in the U.S., was taking immediate action to curtail the sale of firearms, including ending sales of assault-style rifles and banning the sale of guns to people younger than 21.

“When we take a look at what those kids and the parents and the heroes in the school, what they did, our view was if the kids can be brave enough to organize like this, we can be brave enough to take these out of here,” he said about the assault-style rifles, in an interview with ABC News.

Raising a red flag
A proposal by the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association to enact a “red flag” policy to allow the police to remove guns from a person’s possession if he or she were judged to be a threat, has picked up speedy traction. [WPRO’s Dan Yorke has claimed credit for sparking the idea, as a result of his discussion with R.I. Attorney General candidate Peter Neronha, which in turned led to a conversation among police chiefs, who said they had been listening to the show.]

In an executive order signed on Feb. 26, Gov. Gina Raimondo put in place a “red flag” policy, the first governor in the nation to take such an action. Legislation is still needed on the books to allow police to remove guns from a person’s possession, according to Raimondo. Toward that end, new “red flag” legislation proposed by R.I. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is being fast-tracked, with hearings scheduled on Tuesday, March 6.

The R.I. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has raised questions about the legality of such a policy.

The true red flag
On Thursday, March 1, the murder of Vicky Sonevong in her Providence apartment, who was allegedly fatally shot by her boyfriend, Steve Soundara, who then fatally shot himself, became the first domestic violence homicide of 2018, according a statement by the R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“Domestic violence murder is rarely an isolated incident, but is often the final act in a pattern of abuse that has escalated over time,” began a statement released on March 2 by Deborah DeBare, executive director, R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Vanessa Volz, executive director, Sojourner House, and Channavy Chhay, executive director, Center for Southeast Asians.

“Certain factors indicate an increased risk for domestic homicide; for example, when a firearm is present in a domestic violence situation, the risk of homicide for women is five times greater than when a firearm is not present,” the statement continued. “This tragedy is a stark reminder of why we must continue to advocate for common sense gun safety measures, including the firearms safety bills that have been introduced at the R.I. General Assembly this legislative session. We urge our elected officials to take critical action to save lives.”

The statement by the three advocates continued: “Let us be sure to call murder-suicides what they are: the ultimate act of domestic violence. According to media reports, Soundara allegedly physically abused Vicky over the course of many years and repeatedly threatened to take her life. Vicky and Soundara were also often estranged, and we know that ending an abusive relationship can be one of the most dangerous times for a victim. When a victim attempts to separate from the abuser, there is a higher risk of escalating violence and homicide as the abuser tries to retain power and control over the situation.”

The statement concluded with a message about accountability: “Domestic violence occurs every day, in every Rhode Island city and town, and because we cannot hold the batterer accountable in domestic violence murder-suicide cases, we must hold ourselves accountable as a community.”

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