2016-11-17 / Around Town

‘There Is an Overall Cloud of Fear’

By Olga Enger

A recent swell of racist crimes reported across the country hit home last week when an 11-year-old black boy was punched and called a “nigger” by a neighborhood friend.

“My son was robbed of a piece of his innocence,” said the boy’s mother, Christina Fisher, speaking to a group who congregated in Newport at Gather, a tea shop on Broadway, to discuss concerns related to the rhetoric used during the presidential campaign. “We didn’t experience these racial tensions before the election. We feel like we are at the center of this,” she said, fighting back tears.

The impromptu meeting was called after Niko Merritt and Jessica Patrice Dorsey Coulter expanded a mother’s group to address the impact the election has had on children.

“If adults can’t figure out how to talk to each other, the least we can do is figure out how to talk to our kids,” said Coulter after the meeting. “We had no idea it would be so big.” The topic drew a standing-room-only crowd of concerned parents, city councilors, police, educators and neighbors.

Fisher shared her son’s incident to demonstrate that Newport is not immune to racism and children are impacted by public discourse. “It hurts because he’s such an awesome kid,” said the mother.

The boy’s football coach, Seneca Pender, told the group he was disheartened by the incident.

“The next day was the playoff game. His eyes were really red. He got hurt during the game. I just kept thinking, man, this kid had his innocence taken away,” said Pender.

Since the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center has reported a spike in hate crimes across the country, including attacks on students wearing hijabs, racist posts on social media and xenophobic graffiti, and that suicide prevention hotlines were receiving a high number of calls.

Although Trump received less support in Newport (27 percent) than from statewide voters (39 percent), Pender stressed the need for families to speak to their children about the hate language that dominated headlines during the election. Trump called for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the country, threatened to build a wall to block out Mexicans, referred to undocumented immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals” and threatened widespread deportation. A Ku Klux Klan newspaper endorsed Trump, and former KKK leader David Duke was one of the first to celebrate Trump’s win on social media.

“We are preaching to the choir in this room,” said Pender. “I don’t think people who voted for Trump understood they were opening this Pandora’s box.”

In a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday, Trump was asked about the increased reports of hate crimes since Election Day.

“I am so saddened to hear that,” Trump responded. “And I say, ‘Stop it.’” He told Americans not to be afraid as thousands of protesters hit the streets in the days following the election.

Speaking to the group, Jordan Miller, an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, proposed that officials declare Newport a “sanctuary city” by adopting policies to protect illegal immigrants from prosecution solely for violating immigration laws.

“Newport is full of undocumented immigrants. They work in our restaurants; they are the hardest workers in our community. Their children are in our schools. What is going through their minds right now?” Coulter asked.

“In my day job, I’m an immigration lawyer, so this hits close to home,” said Susan Taylor, who was elected to the Newport City Council last week. “We should go straight to the top, so this stuff is not on a little guy’s shoulders,” she said, recommending opening a dialogue with local superintendents.

Although some schools across the country have sent home letters and even offered counseling after the election, local schools have not reacted to the results.

“In Middletown we haven’t done anything in that regard,” Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger, who was not previously aware of the incident, told Newport This Week. “We have always had the values of respecting diversity. We didn’t want to take anything out of context because of a political result. We are continuing to do what we do every day.”

“Schools are the ones who should be leading this. I want to live in a community where educators are proactive,” Coulter refuted.

Newly elected Newport City Councilor Jamie Bova asked the group if the city should host workshops for parents and children. Kate Dutton recommended a nonviolence training program at the University of Rhode Island, which was developed by civil rights activist Bernard LaFayette.

“During this election, one thing I’ve learned from my Facebook feed is there is a lot of racism, but no racists,” said Tom Perrotti of Middletown.

Rhode Island’s top political leaders are also concerned about xenophobic rhetoric during the Trump years.

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline circulated a letter among colleagues, demanding Trump rescind his appointment of Steve Bannon as Chief White House Strategist, saying he aggressively promoted anti-Semitism and racism.

“Bigotry, discrimination, and malice have no place in our government nor in our public discourse. When they arise, every American, elected or otherwise, has an obligation to speak out and demand better,” agreed U.S. Sen. Jack Reed.

Merritt, who is the founder of the local advocacy group Sankofa Community Connection, said the meeting was just the beginning.

“It is not just the hate crime. It is about what brought us to this point and how we can stop it. We are working behind the scenes to get stuff done, and I want to invite others to come together,” she said.

A follow-up meeting is planned for Monday, Nov. 28, at 6:15 p.m. at Gather Herb Shop, located at 312 Broadway.

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