NORTH SMITHFIELD – As cities across the nation see marches, gatherings and memorials protesting the tragic death of 46-year-old George Floyd, residents and officials in North Smithfield reacted to the news this week.
Floyd died in police custody on Monday, May 25 after a former Minneapolis police officer held his knee on his neck for more than eight minutes. The incident has triggered widespread protests and condemnation from figures across the globe, from Pope Francis, to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
On Wednesday, local resident Kristen Fontaine posted a form letter on social media calling on North Smithfield residents to contact their elected officials and ask them to do the same.
“Because I care so much about our community, I am concerned for the well being of our black brothers and sisters not just in North Smithfield, but also in Rhode Island and the nation as a whole,” the letter stated. “I, as your constituent, am asking you to take a stand with me against all forms of racism and unnecessary police brutality. I ask that you make a public statement condemning the murder of George Floyd, committing yourself to anti-racism, and promising to take actions in your position to strive for racial justice in our community.”
The letter noted that 95 percent of North Smithfield residents identify as “white,” while 2.8 percent identify as “black.” It also points to a 2018 controversy over the North Smithfield Town Council’s decision to boycott Nike over an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, who famously first knelt during the national anthem in 2016 at the start of a football game in protest of police brutality.
The issue became a point of contention for supporters of Kaepernick and the protest, both locally and nationally.
The letter also points out that in 2018, North Smithfield was one of four towns in Rhode Island that were found to have particularly high rates of racial profiling in traffic stops.
“All lives cannot matter until society recognizes that black lives matter,” the letter stated.
The form included a list of local representatives, with links to their contact information.
Leadership of the North Smithfield School Committee issued a statement Wednesday night.
“The video of the pain and senseless death of George Floyd is unconscionable. In this country or anywhere, for that matter, we should never allow this to happen,” noted the statement, delivered by Committee member Peg Votta on behalf of Chairman James Lombardi and Vice Chairperson Jean Meo. “We cannot fathom the pain suffered by the Floyd family and people of color. We support their quest for justice, and equally important, the pursuit of equality of all people everywhere.”
“Now more than ever, we must work together to put a stop to inequality and injustice.”
School Committee member Paul Jones, who is running for the position of Town Administrator, issued a separate statement.
“In response to the whirlwind of the past week, I have resolved to listen more than I speak,” Jones wrote. “I admit that in the past, I didn’t get it. People would say ‘Black Lives Matter’ and I would reply ‘All Lives Matter, too.’ I was careless. I tried to rationalize and normalize a system which I saw failing the same people over and over.”
“I support change. I support communication. I would like to see community conversations held throughout Rhode Island – including North Smithfield – to discuss that which divides us,” Jones wrote. “Tangible, policy changes need to follow.”
Citizen group Engage North Smithfield reacted to the committee’s call for change, also issuing a statement.
“It’s also time to act on comments that have been said, just this week, today, in fact, that NS needs to address racism in our schools,” noted a communication from Engage NS leadership referencing the group’s Facebook page. “According to the comments, some families of color in NS have regularly experienced and report being victims of acts of interpersonal racism. Others have added there are few, if any, teachers of color in our school system. I believe the community needs a forum for hearing residents’ concerns and leaning into changes that need to happen.”
In reaction to racially-focused dialogue on the page, the group also noted, “ENS core members have been engaging in educating ourselves and each other about racial equity and all forms of oppression. We advocate for policy and practice change on the community level to open up our community and make it a more welcoming, equitable, safe, anti-racist, place where all people can thrive.”
“We believe that the hard work of addressing racism must be done through actions and through in- person dialogue, resident engagement, our own deep self-work, and through changing our, yes our, systems, in this very community.”
On Thursday, June 4, Councilor Douglas Osier weighed in.
“After hearing from constituents, I felt it was important to make a public statement regarding the current issues our country is facing,” Osier wrote.
“It truly saddens me to see the division, bigotry and hatred that still exist in our country,” Osier said. “The sickening and senseless murdering, brutality and disregard for others needs to stop.”
“It is time for change and time for a new normal. I stand by all persons regardless of race, color, age, gender, national origin or genetics, class, political/religious affiliation, sexual orientation, disability as well as economic status. I fight for all residents of North Smithfield because their voice matters and should be heard; it cannot, nor should it be, marginalized. I am here to represent and advocate for you. No matter how difficult the conversation is.”
“The actions of those officers in Minneapolis do not represent the majority of those who keep us safe and serve our communities. I support our local police and fire and all they do to serve us. What I do not support is inequality. I do not support anyone who utilizes or abuses their powers to cause pain, to profile or to hurt others,” Osier stated. “We need positive reform now.”
“To create change, we need all parties to engage in this dialog to ensure that meaningful, peaceful change takes place.”
Rep. Brian Newberry responded to Fontaine directly.
“Off the bat, it really shouldn’t be necessary for anyone to have to affirmatively ‘condemn’ what happened to George Floyd to prove anything,” wrote Newberry. “The man was murdered on camera and the cop(s) responsible should and will be prosecuted. I would assume any decent human being, elected official or not, can see that.”
“I also am fully aware that non-white people in this country are not always treated equally due to their skin color/ethnicity.,” Newberry continued. “While I love North Smithfield – and probably know more people personally in this town than anyone – I am not of the belief that we are a perfect town or that it doesn’t happen here. Most of our residents are good decent people but incidents do happen just like they do everywhere.”
“So I agree that as a society we have a long way to go. I would add however, that no society will be perfect in this regard. Personally I think ‘racism’ is ingrained in people to some degree as an evolutionary defense mechanism against ‘the other,’ Newberry said. “It is stronger in some people than others and people can be taught to overcome it, but it is part of the human condition. It is not a ‘white’ problem. It is a human problem.”
“That all said, there are a number of problems with your letter and approach, primarily that one can agree that a problem exists but not agree on a solution,” the representative noted. “There is great opportunity for people from both ends of the political spectrum to reach agreement on at least certain items. One thing that jumps out at me is the recent focus on the militarization of the police across the country. This is something libertarians have been complaining about for years. No police department needs armored cars.”
Newberry’s full 9-paragraph response can be found on the ENS Facebook page.