2016-12-01 / Front Page

Organizers Working to Defuse Racial Tensions

By Olga Enger

Just this summer, black leaders described Newport as a “tight-knit community that is almost free of blatant racism,” but recently there has been an alarming trend of racial tensions and hate crimes.

Last week, Newport resident Jackie Mertzig encountered a delay at the self-checkout at the Stop & Shop on JT Connell Highway.

“Oh, you [expletive] niggers,” said an older white man, growing impatient in line. Shocked, she ignored the comment and tried to find an employee to help with the transaction.

“Get your Puerto Rican spic ass back to your country,” he yelled at Mertzig, who is not Hispanic. When a nearby black female asked if there was a problem, he spat back at her, “All you niggers stick together.”

The man left his groceries and went out the door, continuing to mumble racial slurs as he went outside. The mother of four became fearful for her safety.

“I walk home and I didn’t know if he was outside waiting for me,” said Mertzig. “I asked for a ride, and we circled around the parking lot to make sure he wasn’t there.”

Mertzig had never experienced such explicit racism on the island in the past, so she has no doubt the presidential campaign has emboldened such behavior.

“It’s absolutely the Trump campaign. We never heard of this happening before in Newport, but all of a sudden it’s everywhere,” Mertzig said.

Unfortunately, her story is not an isolated event.

A week after the election, an 11-year-old black boy from Middletown was punched and called a “nigger” by another child in the neighborhood. Last week, a young black child was the victim of racial hate language at school, after a student taunted her about “white power” and mocked her features.

“When I was seven, a girl came up to me on the swing set and asked, ‘Why don’t you just take a shower to wash away your black skin?’” said Niko Merritt, the founder of Sankofa Community Connection. “I never forgot it. And these kids won’t forget what happened to them.”

Although local officials have not addressed the reports publicly, a grass-roots effort led by Merritt and Jessica Coulter is working to meet the disturbing trend head on. When the women, both single mothers, heard of the first incident, they organized a community meeting at Gather, a tea shop on Broadway (See “There Is an Overall Cloud of Fear,” NTW Nov. 17, 2016).

The second meeting was held two weeks later on Nov. 28 and drew another standing-room-only crowd, including many new faces. The purpose of the meetings is to move toward action, said the women.

“How many times do people come together to make change, create steps, but they don’t follow through with those steps?” asked Coulter. “Then we will see these stories cycle over and over and we won’t have the change that we really want to see.”

As a single mother, she doesn’t have time to spare.

“This is only our second meeting and we are coming up with plans and action,” said Coulter. The organizers divided the room into smaller groups to document plans for three main areas: the creation of an interface to report hate crimes; the education of children about racism through parents and schools; and the protection of immigrants.

Although they are eager to get started with action, Coulter warned about moving too quickly without a clearly defined proposal.

“If we march to the superintendents and demand a massive, two-day workshop to educate students on race issues, that is not attainable. They will say no,” she said.

In the meantime, Seneca Pender, the 11-year-old boy’s football coach, has facilitated neighborhood meetings to talk to families about what happened. In July, Pender led hundreds in a peaceful march to protest the killings of unarmed black men by police (See “Rallies Break Silence,” NTW July 14, 2016).

“I think making a jump from the neighborhoods to the schools is a natural transition,” Coulter added.

As people shared stories on Nov. 28, some shed tears, but at least one man expressed anger.

Lifelong resident Ernest Simmons was called a “nigger” at the Newport Public Library, an incident which he said has forever marked him. Beyond an apology issued by the library, there were no consequences for the individual.

“That 11-year-old boy is a documented nigger,” said 45-year-old Simmons in a fervent speech. “I will be a nigger at the library for the rest of my life. For all our progress, this is the perfect society to be white on this island.”

The next meeting will be held at Gather, located at 312 Broadway in Newport, on Monday, Dec. 12, at 6:15 p.m.

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