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Sunday, February 28, 2021

CCA revives institutional racism in Charlestown

Re-hires Indian fighter Joe Larisa as ProJo draws attention to slavery on local plantations

By Will Collette

Violating normal rules of procedure, as well as rules of decency, the ruling Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) forced a third vote by the Town Council to re-hire, notorious attorney Joseph Larisa (left) as Charlestown Special Counsel for Indian Affairs, winning a 3-2 party line vote.

Larisa’s contract renewal for an annual payment of $24,000 a year plus expenses to monitor the behavior of our neighbors, the Narragansett Indian Tribe, was rejected by the Council in December.

But in January, CCA Councilor Susan Cooper, who had apparently been told that her December vote to reject Larisa’s contract renewal was not in keeping with her duty to obey all CCA Party directives, moved in January to reconsider Larisa’s re-hiring but failed on a 2-2 tie vote.

The third time was the charm when, at its regular February meeting, the Council took up the measure again. This time, the CCA Party Council majority prevailed and Injun Joe was re-hired at his old salary of $2,000 a month plus expenses to read news clips and the internet. If he has to do any real lawyering, he can charge Charlestown an additional $130 an hour.

It’s hard to decide where to begin to examine the substance and symbolism of this despicable action, a continuation of our town’s deep-seated problem of institutional racism (detailed HERE).

Following history’s direct line

Great Swamp Massacre monument
Since Larisa is but one episode in Charlestown’s long war with the Narragansett Indian Tribe, let’s start with history. In that, we are aided by an interesting article by G. Wayne Miller of the Projo, who wrote a February 26 article, “Two prominent R.I. families, Champlins and Stantons, had slave labor in 1700s Charlestown.”

Miller was aided in writing the article by the Charlestown Historical Society. The article details an often-forgotten detail of Charlestown’s history – Charlestown and its leading families built their prosperity on the backs of slaves.

While Miller focuses on the use of enslaved Africans, other historians describe the use of Narragansett Indian slaves, tribal members who survived the Great Swamp Massacre in 1675 and later during the King Phillips War. In 1755, one out of three residents of “Narragansett County,” of which Charlestown was part, were slaves.

Charlestown landowners also systematically took tribal lands as their own especially after the 1880 General Assembly declaration that the Tribe no longer existed. By 1882, Charlestown landowners had stolen all but two acres of the Tribe’s land.

Genocide?

Some believe, as I do, that these actions constituted genocide under the definition used by the United Nations and the International Criminal Court:

“The International Court of Justice defines the crime of genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.’”

History shows that between 1675 and 1882, the Narragansetts were slaughtered, enslaved, dispersed and displaced, had their land stolen and then declared nonexistent as a Tribe. By any reasonable reading of international law on genocide, this was it.

The war continues today

The Tribe never accepted this and a century later, the Narragansetts organized to fight back, filing suit in 1975 for the return of their land. 

In 1978, a compromise was reached when Congress passed the Settlement Act that restored 3,200 acres of the Tribe’s land with conditions that limited their sovereign use of that land.

In 1983, the Tribe won official recognition from the federal government. Far from settling affairs between the Tribe and the rest of Charlestown, it simply created new venues for conflict.

In 1992 and 1995, the Tribe proposed either a bingo hall or a casino as a way to bring income into the Tribe. Both plans were beaten down by objections and lawsuits from the town.

Unfinished cottages: elderly affordable housing or
Narragansett casino. You be the judge
.
In 1991, the Tribe alarmed Charlestown’s elite by buying 31 acres to use for affordable housing for the Tribe’s low-income elderly. 

The Tribe did not ask for Charlestown’s permission, triggering lawsuits to block what some Charlestown leaders felt was a way to sneak a casino into town, despite how totally impractical the site was for a casino.

As photos of the site show, the unfinished cottages could have held at least three slot machines or one roulette wheel each, at least in the fevered minds of some Charlestown leaders.

The Tribe petitioned the US Interior Department to take those 31 acres under trust, thus removing that land from state and local jurisdiction. In 1998, the Interior Department announced that it was granting the Tribe’s petition.

Carcieri

That brought Governor Donald Carcieri into the fight. 

Carcieri had little sympathy for the Tribe as he demonstrated when he ordered the infamous 2003 Smoke Shop raid – a melee between Tribal members and State Police. See photo, left.

The State filed suit to block the Interior Department from taking those 31 acres into trust.

Eventually, the case led to the Supreme Court’s 2009 Carcieri v. Salazar decision signed by Justice Clarence Thomas. 

The Court majority ruled the Interior Department could not take those 31 acres into Trust because the Narragansetts (as well as 500 other Indian tribes across the US) had no rights under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) that establishes the relationship between Indian nations and the federal government.

Why, you might ask? The Court ruled that Congress was not clear whether the IRA applied to tribes recognized after the law was enacted in 1934, notwithstanding the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal justice under law.

Charlestown leaders – i.e. the CCA Party – worry Congress might enact a “Carcieri Fix” that clarifies Congress’s intent to treat all Native American tribes equally. That would up-end Charlestown’s domination over the Narragansetts and end the second class status of tribes recognized after 1934. 

Click HERE for a clear explanation of what the Carcieri Fix means from the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Why Charlestown should fire Joe Larisa (again)

One hour of work on retainer, one hour at $130.
Net hourly rate: $1,090
Larisa takes credit for the Carcieri decision but in fact, he was not hired by Charlestown until 2003, five years after the Governor filed the case. 

Larisa’s main duty as Charlestown’s Indian Affairs lawyer has been to watch and wait for any action that might change the effect of the Carcieri Supreme Court ruling.

In the CCA pitch to re-hire Larisa, the CCA councilors stressed how important it is to have an experienced Indian fighter like Larisa on hand to fight any change to the Carcieri status quo even though that case was not his

CCA councilors Cody Clarkin, Susan Cooper and Bonnie Van Slyke argued that Larisa’s experience is both unique in the state and invaluable.

Except that’s not true. Larisa wasn’t even hired when Charlestown waged the lawsuit that morphed into Carcieri v. Salazar. 

Plus, according to Council President Deb Carney, Larisa’s knowledge is not unique: Claire Richards who was on the case is still at the Attorney General’s Office. If the Carcieri case is re-litigated, it won’t be Larisa doing it, but the state.

Also, there’s a reason why no other town has a professional Indian fighter on its payroll: Charlestown is the only town that is in a state of perpetual war with the Narragansetts.

This brings us to the merits of employing Larisa. Is he, as Councilor Cody Clarkin claims “worth it?”

In his letter requesting re-appointment, Larisa claims his victories not just include Carcieri v. Salazar (not his case), but also the Smoke Shop case (not his case). He claims the central role in addressing two police brutality civil rights cases brought by tribal leaders.

Speck leaves court after guilty plea to drug dealing
He omits any mention of his central role in the 2014-15 fiasco over the false arrest of two young members of the Tribe by the later discredited former Charlestown Police officer Evan Speck. Speck was convicted of drug offenses.

Read the unrefuted details of the case in this court filing HERE.

Larisa used the misdemeanor trial in Charlestown v. Gonsalves and Barber as a grandstand for his belief that the Narragansett Indian Tribe has no sovereign authority, a theory that was thoroughly rejected by Judge Joseph Houlihan in his ruling against the Town.

Larisa does not address charges by Tribal elders who have called him racist. I can’t see into Larisa’s heart to determine if he has racist intent, but I can look at his actions to see clear racist effect. But to the CCA Party, Larisa is a heroic figure standing up for the Town’s supremacy over the Tribe.

CCA Councilors Susan Cooper and Bonnie Van Slyke argue we need to have Larisa under retainer so he won’t represent interests contrary to Charlestown’s. But he already does!

There is consensus in Charlestown against a Charlestown casino, but no consensus to block the Tribe from making any economic progress. 

Nonetheless, as Charlestown’s official Indian fighter, Larisa worked to block the Tribe from getting into other gaming interests elsewhere, including fighting the statewide referendum on the Tribe’s proposal for a casino in West Warwick, and the Tribe’s attempts to buy into Twin Rivers and the new Tiverton casino.

If all we want is to block a casino here, it would have been in our interests to help the Tribe find opportunities that don’t adversely affect Charlestown. But instead, Larisa has worked to block every such effort by the Tribe. From this, I conclude the CCA’s real agenda is to use Larisa to block the Tribe from gaining any economic power to make them easier to dominate.

Scout’s Honor

On February 5, I sent Councilor Cody Clarkin (left) a detailed account of the reasons why he should vote “no” to re-hiring Larisa. I had hoped his history of service to the town when he was an Eagle Scout would mean he shared the Scouts’ strong stand against institutional racism.

I was wrong. At 6:40 PM, February 8, 20 minutes before the start of the Council meeting where he voted the CCA line to re-hire Larisa, Clarkin sent me this e-mail:

Hi Mr. Collette,

I wanted to thank you for all of the articles and stories regarding Joe Larisa. As a lifelong resident, I have been aware of most of the big happenings in town over the past fifteen years but I cannot express my thanks enough that there are people like you that care about all of the happenings. The ones that go under the radar or aren’t big enough to garner the wider attention, still deserve to be understand [SIC] and recorded.

I have taken your comments under consideration over the weekend and today while I thought about this item. I do believe Charlestown is better served with an Indian Affairs lawyer at this time. Going through Larisa’s bills there are big items, like the Invergy [SIC] or Railroad fight, that included large bills. Without the retainer, those bills could go up drastically.

In the coming months if there is a time that you are available to meet over Zoom or a phone call it would be great to get to meet you and open a dialogue on other issues the town is facing or will face. Let me know if you are interested and if you are when would work best for you.

Best, Cody Clarkin

Clarkin is correct in noting the large number of hours Larisa claimed for the Invenergy and AMTRAK fights. However, as I have detailed in earlier articles, Larisa had no useful role to play in either campaign.

In the Invenergy fight, his intervention only served to wipe out the good will built between Tribal members and the town through collaboration to protect Charlestown drinking water. 

If anything, Invenergy and AMTRAK are two examples of Larisa padding his bills and his C.V.

Through the CCA Party’s abuse of its power, we have had a major setback in the fight against institutional racism.

Rather than acknowledge our long, shameful history with the Tribe and follow the example of the Chariho School District that set up a special taskforce to examine institutional racism in the school system, Charlestown has made a murky regression.

I agree with Council President Carney’s closing words on this subject: “It’s time to rethink our relationship to our Narragansett friends.”