Say No To Cops

Police Tensions Flare in the West End's Cambodian Community

by by Benson Tucker & Emma Wohl

As its name suggests, the main thing that holds the West End together is geography. South of Federal Hill and west of Elmwood, the West End stretches out to the boundary of Route 10. It’s the most populous and perhaps most diverse neighborhood in Providence, home to a wide variety of languages and immigrant groups. Recently, after a police raid led to allegations of police brutality, West Enders rallied and marched, giving voice to concerns about how their neighborhood is being policed.

The neighborhood’s Cambodian community was a major presence in the protests. Since the U.S. government encouraged refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge to join Providence’s nascent Cambodian community, the community has grown, and religious institutions serve as hubs. At the Buddhist Center of Rhode Island, just across the West End border with the South Side, Yan Vichet and his colleagues live, pray, and teach in one house on a quiet street. Vichet, who came from Cambodia two years ago, teaches Khmer language and religious traditions. He says his role is to “protect the culture” of the immigrants’ homeland. But he and his colleagues have also created a space where anyone, “not just Cambodians,” can come to learn.


A few blocks away on Hanover Street, in the West End, bright prayer flags mark the entrance to the Wat Thormikaram of Rhode Island. Erected during the residence of three-time Nobel Peace Prize-nominated monk Maha Ghosananda, the temple on Hanover Street is a hub for the community around it. When the Providence Police Department coordinated raids on two homes where some young Cambodian men were believed to be selling marijuana, officers came to a house just down the street.

According to community organizations protesting the raids, police broke down doors and stormed into the houses. Far from a dangerous gang hideout, the house on Hanover Street was home to multiple generations of the dealers’ family. The police reportedly met no resistance from the shocked family, nor did they show a warrant, or, judging by the protesters’ account, pause to evaluate whether these residents posed any threat. According to the family, the police pulled a sleeping 13-year old boy out of bed and stomped on him, kicked in the door on a woman in the bathroom, and rounded up their semi-blind 77-year-old grandmother with all the other residents. Jeanie Dy-Harris, a family member who spoke publicly at a rally protesting the raids, tried to communicate the experience: “How would you feel if police officers broke down your door and pointed a gun at your grandmother?” The suspected dealers were indeed found with contraband: marijuana, cash, and “packaging material,” presumably plastic bags. No weapons or other drugs were reported found at either house in police announcements following the raids.

The Providence Youth Student Movement, or PrYSM, was among the organizations to speak out against the raids, and the stories of young people from the West End’s South Asian community suggest that the raids are just one instance of constant police aggression not limited to criminals. Sangress Xiong, a PrYSM member, claims that in the West End, some cops will search and question young people, even outside of their own homes, without any evidence of criminal activity. Jimmy Khiev shared a similar story with PrYSM: “One time, when I was going to Hanover Street for Cambodian New Years,” he recalls, “I got really dirty so I borrowed one of my friend’s bikes to go home. As I was riding off, I noticed a cruiser following me, and as I got home, I see two cops run in my backyard and they throw me against the wall. They asked, ‘What you doin’ here?’ and I said ‘I live here.’ They were like ‘No, you don’t live here, what are you lying for.’ The only thing that actually stopped them from actually arresting me and throwing me in the car was my neighbor. He came in at the right time and was like ‘Nah, he lives here, this is the landlord’s son.’”
PrYSM was founded in 2001 in response to repeated fighting and deaths among Cambodian gangs. It sees “state, street, and interpersonal violence” as root causes of ongoing conflict and seeks to build pride and solidarity within the local community. But—particularly in light of the recent police raids—PrYSM also emphasizes the police’s role in isolating and marginalizing members of that community. At a rally to protest the raids, PrYSM passed out booklets with sections titled “Call a Friend, Not the Police,” and “Do We Need Police?”


Young people of color are regularly stopped by the police for no apparent reason, and those who demand to know why they are being questioned hear the frequent refrain that they “fit the description” of a wanted suspect. Barely plausible reasons are accepted as justifications for extreme actions, despite the frail legs that these justifications might stand on. Police violence is often justified by officers’ claiming to have seen “furtive movements” that could be a suspect drawing a weapon.

Commenting to the Providence Journal, Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements dismissed the allegations of brutality in the raid by noting that no complaint had been filed with the department’s internal affairs bureau. Filing such a complaint, though, seems implausible given both the whirlwind nature of the raid and the fact that the complaints are submitted through an online form unavailable in Cambodia’s major language, Khmer. Furthermore, the form makes no mention of the Internal Affairs bureau, suggesting that it goes instead to the Office of Professional Responsibility. Contacted again by the Independent, the Department noted that they have still received no formal complaint.
The growing consensus regarding the failure of the drug war has been accompanied by the rise of more structural arguments that take on the problem of policing on a larger scale. Sociologist Michelle Alexander’s influential 2010 book, The New Jim Crow, points out that in fact drug use has long been widespread in American society and that racial disparities in punishment come largely from where police choose to look for drug users.

In Providence, racially selective policing seems to be alive and well. The comparison between the West End and neighboring Federal Hill is illuminating. While the two neighborhoods are by no means equivalent—Federal Hill is home to fewer households and fewer families—one of the major differences is that just over half of the population of Federal Hill is non-Hispanic whites, while that figure for the West End is only 14 percent. As might be expected, the drug war is almost entirely absent from whiter Federal Hill. During a typical 60-day period late last year, there were 13 drug-related incidents in the West End and only one in Federal Hill. Despite their difference in size, the two neighborhoods had roughly the same number of thefts, underscoring the disparities in drug-related policing. Judging by police activity, College Hill is apparently entirely drug-free, with not a single drug arrest recorded during the comparison period.


In the wake of the raids, the community’s push to change their neighborhood’s police presence has gained new focus. The family most affected by the raid has put a face on these longstanding concerns. On January 17th, the family led a march from the Temple on Hanover Street to the Public Safety Complex. Their demands were bold, including the dropping of certain charges against the accused and the end to all policing in their community.

The full battery of demands is unlikely to gain traction, and the Mayor’s office has yet to comment on the raid. A more promising path might be the racial profiling bill being considered by the Rhode Island legislature. Though the bill was first introduced over a year ago and has passed through the House Judiciary Committee, its progress was derailed when the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association withdrew its support. Nonetheless, the campaign continues, and the Rhode Island Coalition Against Racial Profiling has scheduled a return to the Statehouse with a press conference on February 4.

The legislation—called the Comprehensive Racial Profiling Prevention Act—primarily involves more thorough record-keeping and data collection on the reasons for stops and information (including race and ethnicity) of the person stopped. Major changes consist of barring officers from asking juveniles to consent to a search, since many young people don’t realize they have the option to say no. While the bill would not have prevented the controversial raids, it could be a step towards repairing the community’s relationship with the city department that one young man’s poster called an “occupation army.”

Benson Tucker B’13 and Emma Wohl B’14 share four  Nobel Peace Prize nominations between them.