2016-07-14 / Front Page

Rallies Break Silence

By Olga Enger


After Middletown resident Seneca Pender learned two black men had been fatally shot by police earlier this month, he created a Facebook event to assemble in Washington Square. Hundreds turned out and peacefully yet purposely marched the streets of downtown Newport chanting, “Never Forget, Never Here.” As a next step, Pender is coordinating a focus group to identify problems related to race within the community. After Middletown resident Seneca Pender learned two black men had been fatally shot by police earlier this month, he created a Facebook event to assemble in Washington Square. Hundreds turned out and peacefully yet purposely marched the streets of downtown Newport chanting, “Never Forget, Never Here.” As a next step, Pender is coordinating a focus group to identify problems related to race within the community. “The word racism makes people uncomfortable. It’s not being talked about. Racism has become a taboo. It’s frustrating. It’s suffocating,” said Newport resident Angela Monteiro.

Stunned and angered by the deadly violence and escalating racial tensions sweeping across the country, Newport joined communities across the U.S., with rallies demanding accountability, justice and change.

Middletown resident Seneca Pender said the recent news of police brutality raised him to action.


Newport Police Chief Gary Silva said the department is proactive about preventing tensions and violence by developing personal relationships with community members. In 1989, the department was the first in the state to implement a community police department, which has received national acclaim for its approach to problem solving and serves as a model for other departments. The community policing unit has four officers, each assigned to a specific area of the city. The department is currently seeking a $21,897 grant to fund overtime details for police officers participating in the program, through the U.S. Department of Justice. This summer, the unit has engaged with local children through a geocaching event in Miantonomi Park, a "Cops & Bobbers" fishing event and a surf camp. Newport Police Chief Gary Silva said the department is proactive about preventing tensions and violence by developing personal relationships with community members. In 1989, the department was the first in the state to implement a community police department, which has received national acclaim for its approach to problem solving and serves as a model for other departments. The community policing unit has four officers, each assigned to a specific area of the city. The department is currently seeking a $21,897 grant to fund overtime details for police officers participating in the program, through the U.S. Department of Justice. This summer, the unit has engaged with local children through a geocaching event in Miantonomi Park, a "Cops & Bobbers" fishing event and a surf camp. “I was feeling really upset about what was happening, so I wanted, I needed to do something,” he said.

The chain of tragic events began in Baton Rouge, La. when a black man, Alton Sterling, was fatally shot by officers while pinned to the ground on July 5. It continued with the death of Philando Castile, who was killed by police during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn. after was reaching for his license and registration.

In response, Pender created a Facebook event called “A Peaceful Assembly for Awareness and Change” to take place at Newport’s Washington Square on July 9.

Then, in the deadliest incident for law enforcement since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, five officers were fatally shot by a sniper who said he was angry over the killings of Sterling and Castile.

“After the Dallas shooting, the event really grew,” said Pender.

Hundreds turned out to march the streets of Newport. Although some held signs supporting the national movement Black Lives Matter and the slogan was written across a banner spanning the speaker’s podium, that was not the original intention.

“I believe in the Black Lives Matter movement, but that’s not why I did this,” said Pender. “I did this for myself. I was really upset and wanted to do something, anything. I was going to show up if there was one person or 3,000 people.”

Monteiro was one of several residents who spoke before the crowd at Washington Square, breaking the silence on racism in Newport.

“Yes, racism exists in Newport,” Monteiro told Newport This Week. “Maybe it hasn’t reached the level where someone has been killed, but there is explicit and implicit racism. Tensions are high. It could happen anywhere.”

She pointed to an example with her fiancé a few years ago.


Pastor Paul Hoffman with Evangelical Friends Church organized a prayer rally in front of the Newport City Hall on Friday, July 8. Residents across dominations, race and ages held hands in prayer, calling for an end to violence and racism. “We emphasize the uniting factors are faith and Christ,” said Hoffman. (Photos by Olga Enger) Pastor Paul Hoffman with Evangelical Friends Church organized a prayer rally in front of the Newport City Hall on Friday, July 8. Residents across dominations, race and ages held hands in prayer, calling for an end to violence and racism. “We emphasize the uniting factors are faith and Christ,” said Hoffman. (Photos by Olga Enger) “We got in the car and I realized we were both wearing hoodies. I predicted we were going to get pulled over. We looked too ethnic,” Monteiro recalled. Minutes into their drive, the couple was pulled over by Middletown police and the car was searched, she said.

“In order to bridge this gap, police have to be part of the conversation. I wish I had seen more police at the rally, just to be there, not in uniform,” Monteiro said.

Newport Police Chief Gary Silva agreed building relationships between community members and officers are a critical piece to police work.

“We believe policing is a grass roots effort, it’s keeping the conversation going, including events like these,” said Chief Silva at Saturday’s rally. “It’s about connecting on a personal level, putting a face to a name.”

In 1989, Newport police were the first in the state to implement a community police department, which has received national acclaim for its approach to problem solving and serves as a model for other police departments. The unit has four officers, each assigned to a specific area in the city.

Yet, race problems have become complex and generational in Newport, said Monteiro.

“African-Americans are in working class positions in Newport. They are the housemaids, the chefs,” Monteiro said. “I don't see anyone in a leadership position here in Newport. Our children see this too. Who are they supposed to look up to?”

Demographical data supports Monteiro’s concerns.

Four percent of Newport’s population is black and 10 percent is nonwhite, according to the most recent census data. However, just under two percent of Newport’s teachers are black and four percent are nonwhite, according to the district. Two percent of Newport’s uniformed police officers are black and seven percent are non-white, according to data provided by the city's Human Resources department.

Monteiro’s son, who attends Roger High School, does not have any black teachers.

“What kind of message does that send to our kids?” Monteiro asked.

Newport resident Niko Merritt argued Newport teachers have become disconnected with the community.

“Teachers look nothing like the community. Kids need to see someone like them sometimes. At Pell Elementary School, the only black men in charge are disciplinarians.”

Merritt has recently launched a non-profit organization to help local children build a more positive image. The group will host walking tours for middle school students on African American history in August.

“I sit on a lot of community boards, and I’m the only person of color. They talk about how horrible the children are in Newport and how the low-income population is awful for the town,” said Merritt.

Keith Stokes, who has served in leadership positions at the local and state level and most recently has documented stories of Newport’s African-American history, said the greatest equalizer is public education.

“What Newport had for the first 300 years was a large dynamic, working class population,” said Stokes. “That’s what unified people. Since then, Newport gentrified and lost that middle class.”

The racial consequence is demographic segregation.

“People are less likely to live, work, workshop together,” said Stokes.

Recognizing that racial division, a local pastor called an impromptu peace prayer rally at the steps of Newport City Hall on Friday. A blend of colors, ages, and religious dominations held hands in prayer circle for over an hour, calling for an end to the violence and racism.

“We don’t live well together, that’s one reason I called the meeting,” said Pastor Paul Hoffman with the Evangelical Friends Church. “We believe praying together, studying the bible together, worshiping, in song. That’s what unites us.”

“Outside of public schools, where else do you see that level of diversity?” Stokes asked. “We should be setting a standard that Newport Public Schools are the best in the nation. What would it be like if we rallied around and behind our public schools? It could be historic.”

Building on Newport’s already strong community policing department would benefit the community, Stokes added.

“Providence has a midnight basketball league that is successful. Another way to bring the community back together would be through heritage festivals,” Stokes added. “There are many things we could do. It is wonderful that people came together. My concern is what happens next? Does everyone fall back into their isolated divides?”

Since Saturday’s march, Pender said many people have asked the same question.

“We are working on next steps. We are putting together a focus group to define the problems within our community, prioritize them and create an action plan,” said the rally organizer.

He took to social media to kick around ideas including a community survey, rally at Miantonomi Park and a presentation to Newport City Council. Offers to participate flooded through the comment section.

“This is happening. It’s happening,” said Pender.

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