The Providence Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3 (FOP), a local chapter of the national Fraternal Order of Police which has 325,000 members nationally and acts as a union that lobbies for pro-police legislation, held an emergency meeting on Sunday, October 2. At this meeting, the FOP issued a printed statement that ended with the declaration that “ALL LIVES MATTER.” The meeting was called in response to an incident, first reported on social media, and then on GoLocalProv, in which an employee at a Dunkin’ Donuts on Atwells Avenue handed an officer his coffee with the hashtagged phrase “#BlackLivesMatter” written on the cup.
In the original Facebook post, officer William O’Donnell wrote, “So my coworker just went to get a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts on Atwells Ave in Providence. The worker was immediately rude, and didn’t appear to want to serve him in uniform. Upon leaving he noticed what she wrote on his coffee cup...#blacklivesmatter.? Would you drink it? My suggestion...absolutely not, go to Starbucks. When is this silliness going to end. But if the store gets robbed she’ll be calling us immediately to help AND we will because that’s what we do!!!!”
After the story broke out on local news, Dunkin’ Donuts corporate issued a statement, saying that the franchise owner had apologized to the police officer and verbally reprimanded the employee. Meanwhile, the statement that the FOP released after their meeting called for the employee’s firing, deeming her actions “unacceptable and discouraging.” The statement made reference to the larger Black Lives Matter movement: “the negativity displayed by the #Blacklivesmatter organization towards police across this nation is creating a hostile environment that is not resolving any problems or issues, but making it worse for our communities. They are doing this by increasing tensions amongst the police and the people they serve.” How the offending cup exacerbated those tensions wasn’t made clear by the FOP’s statement, and they made no direct reference to the actual mission of Black Lives Matter, which, according to a mission statement on blacklivesmatter.com, a website run by leaders of the movement, is “an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”
Speaking to the Indy, incoming President of the Providence FOP, Robert Boehm, reiterated the possibility that the coffee may have been spiked. Though he refuses to characterize the Black Lives Matter movement as violent and believes there are “people trying to do the right thing,” Boehm called the Black Lives Matter movement “hostile to police.” Boehm added, “protest is one thing, being unruly is another.”
Originating as a hashtag on Twitter, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” has become a battle cry against racialized police brutality and the bias of America’s justice system. Though the phrase has also become an offline protest movement, it’s still commonly used by those with no affiliation to a larger organization.
Speaking to GoLocalProv, FOP Vice President, Mike Iamondi, implied that the slogan was a physical threat. “We have to look at the possibility if ‘Black Lives Matter’ is on the cup, is there anything else going into the cup? That is a possibility, given what’s going on around the country. If a guy goes in for a cup of coffee at a place we know, where we’re patrons at, and they’ve always been great with us, do we have to worry?” No report has indicated that anything besides coffee was in the coffee cup.
Retired cop, Tony Lepore, called on Dunkin’ Donuts to fire the employee, in another statement to GoLocalProv. “This incident that happened at Dunkin’ Donuts at Bradford St. & Atwells Ave. is unacceptable from the employee, and management. Yes, management! They are just as responsible for not rebuking. This employee’s action was beyond verbal reprimand. She should have been fired.”
In an interview with RI Future, Mayor Jorge Elorza seemed unwilling to directly comment on the situation, and opted instead to talk about policing in Providence in general. When asked if something should be done about police officers calling for the firing of a black teenager for writing on a coffee cup, Elorza made the distinction between the FOP and the police department, responding “well, remember this is the police union, and the Providence Police Department are two completely different entities,” and stressed that he was focused on “making sure that we have these strong relationships in the community.” When pressed on the matter, Elorza repeated, “so we’re going to continue to make sure that we have strong relationships between the community and the police department and take all the steps that we need in order to move in that direction.” Elorza’s main point seemed to be that Providence’s lack of the kind of violence seen in Ferguson and Baltimore was a sign of a better relationship between police and the communities they’re charged with protecting.
Robert Boehm agreed, telling the Indy, “99% of the time we have a great rapport with a community of any color, but when a story hits, people with their own agenda come out and their voices are loud at the time. But if you come to the office, you’ll find something different.” Boehm also rejected any possibility of widespread racial profiling by police. “I don’t believe at all in police racial bias.”
Though it’s true that Providence hasn’t made national headlines for either police brutality or protests turning violent, the reality is not nearly as rosy as Elorza’s statement suggests. In fact, Providence seems to have many of the same conditions of police-community tensions and lack of police oversight that led to the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson. According to a report from the Rhode Island ACLU using data published by USA Today, racial disparities in arrests in Rhode Island are higher than those in Ferguson. In 2012, Rhode Island police officers arrested black individuals at a rate 9.14 times higher than that of non-blacks, while Ferguson’s rate was 2.8 times higher. The rate of racial disparities in arrests in Providence, though lower than Rhode Island’s overall rate, is 3.7.
It is also easy for cops who abuse their power to evade punishment in Rhode Island. Police officers are protected by a state law called the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which states that any disciplinary measure more severe than a two-day suspension requires a hearing with a panel of three active or retired police officers, one of whom is selected by the officer being charged. These laws have the support of the FOP. Earlier this month, a police officer was arrested for texting death threats to his doctor, the most recent of four arrests in the last year, including one for possession of a gun with a scratched off serial number. But protected by the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, he still has his job. Similar laws in other states have been sources of controversy. The police officers in Baltimore involved in the murder of Freddie Gray were protected from consequences in the police department by such laws.
In light of the FOP’s response, Rhode Island’s STEP UP Coalition published its own statement on October 9. The coalition supports the adoption of the Community Safety Act ordinance in Providence, which would forbid racial profiling, and set standards for police stops, such as explaining to individuals why they are being stopped and prohibiting police from asking for consent for searches without probable cause. The statement further asked that police “stop addressing acts of peaceful protest and dialogue as ‘unacceptable and discouraging’ and start giving that label to acts of racial profiling and police brutality,” praised a decline in violence against police since the founding of Black Lives Matter, and called the Dunkin’ Donuts employee’s act one of free expression.
Beyond issuing statements, both sides of the issue have taken action. The FOP initially staged a boycott of Dunkin’ Donuts, which was later changed to a boycott of just the Atwells Avenue location, and protested outside the storefront on October 11. The next day, the STEP UP coalition held its own demonstration of solidarity at the location, buying cups of coffee and holding signs outside.
Just a few days later, on October 14, at Tolman High School in Pawtucket, a School Resource Officer body-slammed a 14 year-old student. The next day, 200 students protested the officer’s tactics outside the high school. The event suggests that communities in Rhode Island are not nearly as confident in the fairness and good judgment of police officers as Jorge Elorza would have them believe.
After all, the issue can’t even be kept out of a coffee chain. A slogan on a Styrofoam cup is enough for a police union to hold an emergency meeting in condemnation. This also suggests that police have yet to understand what their communities are asking for.
JANE ARGODALE B’18 takes her coffee with milk, sugar, and justice