On January 21, just after 1 PM, residents from across Rhode Island gathered in front of the State Capitol in response to Trump’s inauguration the previous day. Providence Chief of Police put crowd estimates at around 7,000 people. Meanwhile, Mayor Elorza, along with a sizeable contingent of Rhode Islanders, chose to march in Washington, D.C.
It was sunny enough that people in the crowd were taking off their jackets. The surprising beauty and warmth of the day lent itself well to symbolism. “It was raining yesterday!” organizer Shanna Wells told the crowd. Early in the event, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo took the stage, telling the crowd, many of whom wore hand-knitted pussy hats, “You look great in pink!” She linked the Women’s Solidarity March to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a week earlier. Her voice echoed off the train station and apartment buildings behind the crowd and creating the strange impression of being in a gigantic fishbowl. A number of speakers that day quoted or paraphrased Dr. King. Raimondo’s husband, Andy Moffit, spoke next, referring to himself as the “first gentleman” several times. Food trucks parked on Gaspee St. beyond the crowds regularly honked their support.
Though it was technically an offshoot of the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., another rhetorical reference to Dr. King, the event was completely static, a march in name only. It was also “not a protest,” but “a demonstration of unity,” according to Wells. The organizers of the event stressed the importance of nonviolence, urging the crowd not to “engage” with counter-protesters—perhaps in an attempt to distance themselves from the protests in D.C. the previous day, which resulted in a number of arrests, or to fit into a broader liberal discourse which sanctifies non-violent resistance in the imagined style of Gandhi or Dr. King at the expense of any form of resistance deemed too ‘antagonistic.’
The only people who could remotely fit into the category of ‘counter-protester’ at the march were two people with makeshift “All lives matter” signs hanging around their necks whom I noticed walking across the street from the mall as I was leaving the march. There were hardly any police officers, either; several hung around the perimeter of the crowd, looking bored. The mood on the right flank, where I had joined the crowd, was positive and noticeably relaxed, mostly white families with children running around.
A minority of signs referenced specific and more radical causes: Black Lives Matter, prison abolition, the rights of sex workers and trans people. Most, however, were fairly conciliatory: “This is going to suck,” one hand-drawn sign declared. A small girl wore a red cape with the words, “the future is female,” printed on the back; a man held aloft a bag of Cheetos on a pole. That said, the speakers on the docket belonged to a wide range of causes, including: a representative from the Nurses’ Union, the director of the local Planned Parenthood, the head of the Rhode Island Committee on Human Rights, State Rep. Aaron Regunberg, the actress/singer/activist Rose Weaver, and Nellie Gorbea, the first Latinx person elected to statewide office in New England. Several high school students spoke and performed, including Laiza Jimenez, a sophomore at Classical who said they were “appalled and despondent” at Trump’s election, and Isabel Arango, who sang Alicia Key’s “Brand New Girl.”
The middle of the crowd at the Women’s Solidarity March was both denser, noticeably younger, and more racially diverse; high school and college students stood shoulder to shoulder. Booths for the ACLU and White Noise Collective RI, among others, lined the walkway. I spoke to a young person named Kai, who had a cardboard sign that read: “My president is black / your president is wack.” They said they had gotten more active in protesting since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement and that they were there today in support of “all the people—especially the women—who feel like this administration is a threat to their safety.” Another protester, Nino Jungels, was there with their siblings; the family runs an after-school program for the performing arts together. Jungels studies biology and was worried about Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of climate change. “We have knowledge and we refuse to use it,” they said.
Rep. David Cicilline had just flown in from Washington, D.C. to attend the event and was standing on the side of the capitol steps with an aide. “There’s a lot of alarm” surrounding this administration, he said, lauding both the values underlying the event and the impressive turnout. I asked him about the student walkout the day before, which he hadn’t been able to attend but praised in general terms, stressing the importance of young people’s voices. “I think the superintendent handled it well,” he said before being ushered away.
A day earlier, Providence High School students had staged a walkout in order to protest Trump’s inauguration. Organized by Youth in Action (YIA) and the Providence Student Union (PSU), the walkout began at 11:08 AM, a reference to the ill-fated date of the election. Over a thousand high school students flooded out of their classrooms and into the streets, marching to the capitol and congregating on its steps. There were fewer pink hats to be seen, and more pointed, substantive signs: “Racism/Sexism/Homophobia is not normal,” “Refugees welcome,” “White silence equals white violence,” “We demand police accountability,” “FIX OUR FUTURE.” After some milling around, the Classical High School contingent made its entrance, accompanied by What Cheer! Brigade, and a number of students spoke and performed.
A week after the walkout, I spoke to two student representatives from PSU: Jayleen Salcedo, Student Leader of Fundraising and a senior at Classical High School, and Tatiana Hall, a senior at Central High, who does media and jokingly referred to herself as the “hype man.” Salcedo and Hall both played an active role in organizing the walkout, which included getting the word out through social media and targeting calls to those high schools without representatives at either YIA or PSU. They also coordinated with adult allies, who were assigned to specific high schools and tasked with safeguarding the protesters on their march to the capitol. The Providence Public Schools superintendent, Chris Maher, had been aware of the walkout beforehand and had promised that no one would be penalized beyond receiving an unexcused absence, but explicitly did not endorse the walkout. He kept his promise, but Salcedo and Hall told me that there have been reports of individual teachers failing students for the day or using the walkout as an excuse to assign extra essays; there has also been significant backlash from some Providence residents, with a number of angry and hateful comments online.
There was a visible police presence at the student walkout, with some officers on horseback. “They were there, they were grumpy, but they just had to put up with it,” said Hall, who thought their presence was a bit redundant given that the role of the adult allies was to keep the students safe. Still, the event went smoothly. “It was shocking to actually see it all come together at the State House,” said Hall, “it was really powerful to see that we could organize like that.” Salcedo echoed her words, reiterating: “It was the most powerful leadership experience that I ever had.” Salcedo wasn’t able to make it to the Women’s Solidarity March the following day; Hall attended a portion of the event which she thought seemed “awesome.” Along with PSU, their next steps are figuring out how to continue to engage and mobilize those students who may have had their first experience with activism and organizing at the walkout.
The Trump administration’s decisions will wide-ranging in who they effect, but they will be specific—and deeply personal—in the precise shape they take on in our communities. Undocumented residents from Guatemala and the Dominican Republic will live in increased fear of deportation, potentially without the protection of Rhode Island’s current designation as a sanctuary state. International college students from targeted nations could lose their visas to study in the U.S. or be barred from leaving the country until graduation. The 106 Syrian refugees resettled here through the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island since last February will have little hope of being reunited with family members still trapped in Syria or in limbo in Europe. One 22-year-old Syrian man meant to arrive in Rhode Island this past Friday has already had his arrival indefinitely postponed, as has a family from Somalia. Families across the city and state will lose their health insurance and face prohibitively high costs for medical care. Rhode Island Public Radio might fold; the Planned Parenthood down on Point St., could lose its funding too.
Student activists like Salcedo and Hall who organized and participated in the walkout could see their schools undermined by an administration hostile to the very concept of public education. Though the students didn’t organize the walkout with the specific aim of protesting Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, her confirmation stands to have significant impact on funding opportunities in the Providence public school system. Moreover, DeVos doesn’t believe in the federal enforcement of special education requirements for public schools mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and she refused to state in her confirmation hearings whether she supports the Office of Civil Right’s investigation of harassment and discrimination at school—signals that she would almost certainly contribute to a more hostile school environment for vulnerable groups of students.
These degradations, large and small, of everyday life, are what every student and resident who protested the inauguration were marching against. Though they chose to express their rejection of the new administration in different ways, the student activists and the organizers of the Women’s Solidarity March have the same basic task in the days and weeks ahead: to extend the resistance beyond a single event, to bring to the fold those protestors who saw the protests as a first call to action, to keep others active and vocal about their dissent.
PIPER FRENCH B’17 stands with students.