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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

End institutional racism in Charlestown

It’s real and it has to go
By Will Collette

Slave population by town – 1755 (Copyright Peter Fay)
We are at one of those moments in history where it is not only appropriate but necessary for us all to do some soul-searching.

Charlestown residents may be thinking that while George Floyd’s killing was horrific and racism is wrong, this is not Charlestown’s problem because we have almost no black people. US Census data show only 0.2% of Charlestown’s population of just under 7,900 are African-American. Charlestown is 94.1% white.

But racism IS Charlestown’s problem, and in a major way. In my opinion, the town of Charlestown is committed to institutional racism in two significant ways.

The first is a determined and deliberate effort by Charlestown’s political leadership to KEEP Charlestown white by keeping non-whites out.

The second is Charlestown’s determination to maintain its centuries old dominion over the Narragansett Indian Tribe at all costs.

Decades of fair housing laws have outlawed overt racial discrimination in housing so Charlestown uses a more subtle approach: Charlestown fights every effort to create more affordable housing to the death.

When Cathy and I moved to Charlestown in 2001, we learned the code words the town uses to prevent “people from Providence” from ruining “Charlestown’s rural character.”

Charlestown opposes affordable housing for families and especially those with school-age children. The town has repeatedly asked the state to exempt Charlestown from the state’s affordable housing laws because we are somehow special.

An even more hardcore form of institutional racism is expressed in town attitudes toward the Narragansett Indian Tribe whose members constitute Charlestown’s largest minority group at 2.3%.

Long-time Charlestown residents have used the same “people from Providence” code when referring to the Narragansetts although sometimes, a disgusting racial epithet is used instead of “people.”

I can’t find a time when Charlestown was NOT in conflict with our Tribal neighbors. 

For example, there’s the fight over whether the Tribe can receive the old Camp Davis land as compensation for native sites destroyed in the Route 95-195 reconstruction project. Charlestown succeeded in getting state DOT to require the Tribe to cede its sovereignty rights over the land, knowing that was a deal breaker. 

At present, there are at least two pending claims of Charlestown Police misconduct filed by members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. The complainants both allege discriminatory treatment by CPD. 

Charlestown files with EFSB to intervene in Burrillville power ...
Narragansett leaders like Randy Noka, shown above, were the first in
Charlestown to stand in opposition to plans to drain Charlestown water
for the now-defeated Invenergy power plant proposal.
Both claims allege Charlestown took sides in an internal Tribal leadership dispute favoring former Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas’s faction.

In the federal civil rights case, Bella Noka charged she was denied police protection when she tried to attend a tribal meeting and was threatened with bodily harm. 

Domingo Monroe, Sr. filed a claim for damages for police brutality, alleging that when he tried to attend a tribal meeting, he was blocked, tasered and arrested by CPD.

Ironically, these two leaders come out of the dissident faction that were vital allies to Charlestown in the successful fight against a deal that would have allowed Invenergy to take water from the aquifer all of us in Charlestown use.

Charlestown’s guiding belief is that it has complete control over the Narragansett Indian Tribe. Charlestown is committed to blocking any action by the Tribe that does not have the Town’s expressed prior approval.

The guy in charge of carrying out that policy is attorney Joe Larisa who is paid a minimum of $24,000 a year as Charlestown’s special counsel for Indian affairs.

Progressive Charlestown: Larisa on the warpath
His sole responsibility is to watch and fight against any activity by the Tribe to exercise its sovereign rights as a federally-recognized Indian nation. Tribal leaders have called him a racist.

Larisa rarely lets any opportunity go by where he can remind the Tribe that their rights were greatly abridged by the 2009 Carcieri v. Salazar US Supreme Court decision.

This decision originated in a Charlestown lawsuit to block the Tribe from putting 31 newly purchased acres in trust with the Interior Department for use as senior citizens affordable housing. The Charlestown plaintiffs were convinced this was a Narragansett trick to build a casino.

Progressive Charlestown: Narragansetts receive almost $400K in ...
The Carcieri case started with the Town's fight to prevent this planned
senior housing project from being completed. The town thought the
Tribe planned to build a casino here.
As the case worked through the courts, the state took it over and former Governor Donald Carcieri became the lead plaintiff. 

The issue became a much larger one than the fate of the proposed senior citizens affording housing project and became a broad struggle over tribal rights.

In Carcieri v. Salazar, the Supreme Court majority ruled that Congress didn’t clearly state that all Indian tribes were covered by the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. They ruled the IRA only applied to tribes that were federally recognized in 1934. Forget about the 14th Amendment and the motto “Equal Justice Under Law” carved over the portico of the Court.

Equal Justice Under Law? . . . Well . . . Just How Much Justice ...
This is over the front entrance to the Supreme Court.
As a result, the Narragansetts and 500 other tribes federally recognized AFTER 1934 do not have equal protection under law. 

Each year, Congress considers a “Carcieri Fix” to clarify Congressional intent. According to Joe Larisa’s invoices to the town, he spends most of his time monitoring the “Carcieri Fix.”

Charlestown’s ingrained institutional racism against the Narragansetts goes back to the time right after the founding of the state.

Governor Gina Raimondo recently signed an Executive Order dropping “Providence Plantations” on state documents because the state’s official name (Rhode Island and Providence Plantations) evokes memories of slavery.

She suggests a public vote on a Constitutional amendment to officially change the state’s official name. The RI Senate has already passed a resolution to do just that by unanimous vote.

RI Speaker of the House Nick Mattiello was asked for his views on the issue and said he had no idea that slavery had existed in Rhode Island.

However, Rhode Island was deep into the slave trade, including many of the state’s oldest families (e.g. the Brown family of Brown University fame). 

Indeed, the majority of slave ships in British North America were Rhode Island based, especially in Newport; they trafficked around 100,000 Africans despite a 1652 law that abolished African slavery in the colony, a law rarely enforced.

Beth Comery addressed Speaker Mattiello in an article where she suggests Mattiello walk down Smith Hill from the Capitol to the graveyard next to the Episcopal Cathedral. There he can see the graves of the slaves of the prominent Chace family (see photo, left).

Charlestown was a major part of the “Providence Plantations” though in the 1700's what we now call "South County was then called "Narragansett Country" and stretched from Wickford through Westerly.

Charlestown’s low lands were divided up into large plantations run by Charlestown’s founding families and dependent on slavery of Africans, indentured servants and especially Narragansetts.

By 1755, one out of every three residents of "Narragansett Country" were slaves, again despite the 1652 anti-slavery law.

In 1675, Massachusetts and Connecticut militias slaughtered many members of the tribe in the Great  Swamp Massacre. The site is off Route 2, just across the line from Charlestown. Captured survivors of the Massacre were enslaved on Charlestown’s plantations.

Great Swamp Fight painting.jpg
The Great Swamp Massacre, 1675
Though the Tribe continued to hang on to its identity and a small portion of its lands, the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations declared in 1880 that the Narragansetts no longer existed and “detribalized” them.

Today, the Trump Administration calls that process  “deinstitutionalization” and is attempting to do this to the Mashpee Wampanoags but has been stymied by a federal court challenge.

In 1882-4, “detribalization” led to a land grab by Charlestown’s ruling aristocracy, leaving only two acres remaining to the Narragansetts. Rhode Island courts rejected challenges by the Tribe to these land takings.

In the 1970s, the Narragansetts organized to get their land back. My first experience with the Tribe was as a callow youth in 1974. I was sent by the Office of Community Affairs of the Catholic Diocese of Providence to do on-site training for the Tribe’s community organizer, the late Sis Brown. 

Sis told me then they were going to get that land back and in 1975, the Tribe filed suit to do just that.
This led to the 1978 settlement agreement that formed the Tribe’s 1800-acre core homeland. On April 11, 1983, the federal government officially recognized the Narragansett Indian Tribe.

Many newly recognized tribes decided gambling was the fastest route to prosperity leading to a rush of bingo parlor construction and, of course, lawsuits. Eventually, Congress passed the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to regulate this new industry. Indian gaming generated $100 million a year when that law was passed and has grown to more than $26 billion year now.

Charlestown's biggest nightmare
In the years following its federal recognition, some Narragansetts expressed an interest in a bingo parlor, to Charlestown’s ever-lasting horror. In 1992, the Tribe even proposed a Foxwoods style casino on its lands but were precluded from that by the 1978 settlement agreement.

So that never happened. The Tribe gave up on the idea of building any gaming facility in Charlestown 30 years ago but did try to win approval for a casino in West Warwick just off I-95. In 2006, voters rejected that proposal by a 2-1 margin.

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) has never stopped using the specter of a casino in Charlestown to stir up fear and anger against the Tribe even though  the Tribe gave up on that idea over a generation ago, not to mention a Charlestown casino makes absolutely no sense.

So why is Charlestown still at war with the Narragansett Indian Tribe? As we learn from the history of town and tribal relationships, the central issue for the town is control over every inch of land. The Tribe’s central issue is sovereignty.

The Carcieri decision gives Charlestown the edge. However, that advantage is as tenuous as that decision. Nearly all of the efforts toward a “Carcieri Fix” have actually been bi-partisan. They failed largely because (a) Congress doesn’t work very well and (b) so far, this issue never made it high enough on either Party’s priority list to warrant a big push. But that could change.

Meanwhile, relations in Charlestown continue to fester.

We don’t need to wait for Congress to begin the process of reconciliation. People of goodwill in Charlestown need to call for an end to the hostilities and demand a serious effort to find common ground.

A good start would be to cancel our retainer agreement with Indian fighter Joe Larisa whose continued presence is an impediment to any hope of reconciliation.

We are not immune to what is happening in the rest of the country. Indeed, we have our own long-overdue responsibility to end our own institutional racism. I doubt it will be easy or neat but I also believe it is our duty to try, no matter how difficult and complicated it may be.