During a conference call with reporters ahead of Monday’s briefing, Gov. Gina Raimondo addressed the protests and violence seen in cities across the nation in recent days following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other incidents in which African Americans have died at the hands of police.
The governor said the pandemic has newly illuminated the “real human cost” of “institutional inequality” in Rhode Island and elsewhere across the country. In the Ocean State, communities of color have experienced a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases during the crisis.
“COVID has brought to the forefront the racial inequities that have existed for a long time in this country, that are ingrained in our society, across our society – in education, in health care, in housing, in wage inequality … and so much more,” she said.
She added: “For those of us who are privileged enough such that we can go for a jog or go to the grocery store or live our lives without fear … the tragedy that we’ve seen has to be a wake-up call, for all of us, that institutional racism exists throughout our society and we need to do more to deal with it and eliminate it.”
Raimondo praised those who demonstrated in Providence, including outside the State House, over the weekend, saying the event – which drew well over 1,000 people – made her “proud to be a Rhode Islander, because they were speaking out against injustice.” The activism of young people in particular, she said, “gives me hope.”
She said the gathering was “absolutely predominantly a very peaceful protest” and that demonstrators overwhelmingly wore masks and abiding by social distancing guidelines, although video and images of the gathering shared on social media and published by several news outlets suggested distancing had not been so uniformly practiced.
Asked about the vandalism that occurred at the State House toward the conclusion of the demonstration, Raimondo described the damage as “very, very limited.” While calling vandalism “unacceptable” and for those responsible to be held accountable, she said it is important to acknowledge the “very real and legitimate fear and anger” behind such acts.
“Vandalism in any form is unacceptable, as is violence, and thank God we’re not seeing some of the horrible violence you’re seeing in other places here in Rhode Island,” she said.
In terms of concrete measures, Raimondo spoke of her efforts to diversify state government, particularly the judiciary, and ongoing work to diversify the ranks of Rhode Island State Police. She said she has spoken with State Police Superintendent Col. James Manni frequently in recent days, and that the approach of the agency has been to “de-escalate, to encourage voluntary compliance with the new public health guidance.” She also said she and Manni are committed to doing “a lot more listening” – particularly to “younger people … teenagers and people in their 20s, because we’re seeing that’s where a lot of the anger is.”
She added: “I’m committed to engaging. We have to begin by really listening and engaging, and not dismissing … People like me have to do a lot more listening with humility before we can commit to specific actions.”
During her regular briefing Monday, Raimondo acknowledged that the scale of the weekend’s demonstration in Providence does create some concern over the possibility of a new COVID-19 outbreak.
“I’m worried about it. I’d be crazy not to worry about it … Thankfully, outdoors is much safer,” she said.
Addressing the weekend’s demonstrators and others who have staged protests during the current crisis, she urged continued adherence with social distancing and mask-wearing rules but added: “Your First Amendment right to peacefully protest is core to our democracy.”
The governor also told reporters she a participant in a teleconference earlier Monday during which President Donald Trump called many governors “weak” for their handling of demonstrations and riots.
“He urged us to be tough and the word he continued to use over and over again was ‘domination,’” Raimondo said.
She added: “My reaction to that is, No. 1, I think all of us need to do whatever we can to ratchet down the violence and ratchet up listening with empathy and sincerity … I find rhetoric which is overly aggressive is not overly productive.”
The governor again noted that Rhode Island did not experience the level of unrest and violence seen in other locations, and added: “Having said that, we’re going to do what we need to do to keep Rhode Islanders safe.”
During the morning conference call, in light of numerous incidents in which journalists across the country have been arrested or injured while covering protests and rioting, Raimondo also offered a personal note to the local reporters listening in.
“As your work is being disparaged and dismissed by public leaders at the highest levels of our government, I want you to know that you have my respect and support,” she said.