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Monday, October 12, 2020

YES on Question 1

Fight institutional racism in Rhode Island and Charlestown

By Will Collette

Image credit: RI State Archives, "A Heritage discovered: Blacks in Rhode Island" (1976).

There is only one statewide ballot question for voters to decide in 2020. It is aptly named State Question  1. This question asks you to approve or reject the elimination of “Providence Plantations” from the state’s official name, “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”

This question was put before voters in 2010, without success. A decade later, I hope Rhode Islanders will vote APPROVE. Here’s why.

The word “Plantations” has connotations of slavery and in this year of struggle over America’s legacy of racism, it is the right time to stop memorializing the vile institution of slavery.

Few Rhode Islanders know the extensive history of Rhode Island and slavery. The Speaker of the House Nick Mattiello actually said he didn’t know slavery ever existed in Rhode Island.

Some of the state’s most prominent founding families – the Browns of Brown University fame among others – were main players in the transport of Africans to the Americas, and to Rhode Island in particular where African slaves worked in prominent Providence and Newport households and South County plantations.

Even though Rhode Island officially banned the slave trade in 1652, it persisted in practice for more than 100 years more. You can see slave graves in the old cemetery at the Episcopal Diocese in Providence. In 1755, one out of three residents in “Narragansett Country” (which includes Charlestown) were slaves.

But much of our local slave labor, especially in South County, did not come from Africa. Instead, they were mostly Narragansett Indians who were captured after the Great Swamp Massacre in 1675. With permission from Roger Williams, our local founding families ran Charlestown’s plantations with Narragansett slave labor.

Our misdeeds toward the Narragansetts did not end when the last slaves were freed. In 1880, the state decided to declare the Narragansett Indian Tribe no longer existed. Unspoken but understood was the belief that Rhode Island had succeeded in its genocidal efforts. What is crystal clear is that the state tried to erase the Tribe from history for land and profit.

From 1882-1884, whites grabbed virtually all of the Tribe’s land, leaving only two acres in Charlestown as the nub of a homeland.

For the next hundred years, the Tribe fought to regain its land, achieving some success, first with the 1978 settlement agreement that returned 1800 acres to the Tribe and 1983 when the Tribe won official federal recognition. At every stage, they faced unceasing white resistance.

We cannot erase this history. Personally, I think we need to learn and talk more about it, because these events still affect how Charlestown operates today. But I truly believe it is a step in the right direction to strike the odious term “Providence Plantations” from our state’s official title. So please vote APPROVE.

There’s a statewide group pushing for approval of this measure. You can CLICK HERE to get their reasons for why we need to change our name.

Let’s move on to how Charlestown remains locked into a system of institutional racism.

NOTE: you can find more historical detail and numerous links to historical sources in my June 30 article End institutional racism in Charlestown.

At least since the 1978 settlement and 1983 federal recognition, old Charlestown has fought to prevent any further advances by the Narragansett Indian Tribe. Our town’s official position is that we hold dominion over the Tribe in all land use matters.

Larisa's most recent bill show he spent 1 hour of work for which we
are paying him more than $2000.
We hire attorney Joe Larisa as the town’s Special Counsel for Indian Affairs and pay him a baseline retainer of $24,000 a year. 

His job is to watch the Tribe as well as any legislative, judicial or regulatory matters that affect the Tribe and to stop any self-advancement efforts by the Tribe. 

Larisa raises the town's conviction that it has dominion over the Tribe at every opportunity.

This is raw, flagrant institutional racism. If Charlestown wants to remedy institutional racism, it can start by cancelling Larisa’s retainer agreement.

A second step could be to reach out to the Tribe to seek a process of reconciliation perhaps adapting Nelson Mandela’s reconciliation formula that worked in South Africa. It won’t be easy given we’ve had our knee on the Tribe’s neck for 345 years.

But far from reconciliation, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) that has controlled Charlestown for the past decade, has instead doubled down. 

The recurring theme of the CCA Party’s re-election bid is to make the Trumpian claim that they – and only they – can protect Charlestown from dire threats (real or imagined) to the town’s “rural character.”

Set their “rural character” rhetoric next to Donald Trump’s white supremacy dog whistles about protecting the suburbs and marvel at the similarity.

Charlestown does not have a definition of “rural character” even though the term is used endlessly. It's all over this year's CCA Party campaign propaganda.

In 2016, I formally asked the town under the state’s Access to Public Records Act to provide any document used by the town to define “rural character.” Not surprisingly, no such document exists.

Nonetheless, the CCA Party knows what they mean by “rural character” and so do a growing number of Charlestown residents.

Meanwhile, on July 21, the Chariho School Committee approved formation of a task force to examine “policies, practices and curriculum through the lens of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice” in the school district. That’s a commendable step – I hope it will lead to concrete findings and meaningful change.

Charlestown needs to address its own festering institutional racism problems. They are not going to go away by ignoring them. The Town is currently in federal court facing two civil rights lawsuits from elders in the Narragansett Indian Tribe. Read HERE and HERE.

We need new town leadership and an end to dog whistles. We need to make a good faith effort to reconcile with our Tribal neighbors.