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R.I. Governor Activates National Guard As Providence Residents Assess Damage

Providence city workers and citizens cleaned up businesses on Westminster Street Tuesday morning. (Sofia Rudin/The Public's Radio)
Providence city workers and citizens cleaned up businesses on Westminster Street Tuesday morning. (Sofia Rudin/The Public's Radio)

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo is activating the National Guard after downtown Providence was struck by vandalism early Tuesday. Demonstrators spread across downtown, looting stores, smashing windows and setting fires, and 65 people were arrested. Law enforcement officials say they’re prepared for more potential disruptions.

Raimondo said the demonstrators were armed with gasoline, flares and crowbars, and that damage would have been far worse without an effective police response.

“To that end, I’ve directed the activation of the Rhode Island National Guard to assist our state and local police today and in the days now. We currently now have hundreds of members of the Guard ready to mobilize to protect our critical infrastructure, to support the Rhode Island State Police and Providence Police and all local police,” Raimondo said.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has not ruled out a curfew for the city following a night of looting and vandalism during a gathering linked to protests over the death of Minnesota man George Floyd.

“We have to consider everything including a curfew,” Elorza said during a press conference Tuesday morning. “But we’re going to do an assessment with our police department, with the state police and make a decision on that together.”

Elorza says he is meeting with authorities to determine what practical steps will keep more riots at bay. When asked whether he would welcome military intervention amid the protests, as President Donald Trump has suggested, Elorza offered a curt “no.”

Last weekend, more than 1,000 people gathered in Providence in solidarity and anger over the killing of George Floyd after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. That assembly remained peaceful through its duration.

That was not the case on Monday. Elorza said the city was aware of social media posts, encouraging the gathering. In one post shared with the Public’s Radio, the graphic explicitly calls for looting. The origin of the social media campaign is unknown.

“Last night was a difficult night for our city, but it’s also not a reflection of our city," Elorza added.

Over the course of several hours, the group looted stores, smashed windows and set small fires across downtown Providence. Elorza said while storefronts were hard hit, public safety officers spent much of their time trying to keep people from setting buildings ablaze.

“It could have been so much worse,” Elorza said. “Thankfully no large structures and no large buildings that went up in smoke.”

Of the 65 people arrested, 35 were Providence residents, according to Elorza. Five were Massachusetts residents, and the rest live elsewhere in Rhode Island he said.

“The chaos that ensued last night was not promulgated by our community,” said Providence City Council President Sabina Matos. “These weren’t our usual neighborhood organizers who descended onto our streets.”

Shop owners this morning were working to assess the damage to their businesses.

Jerry Ehrlich said he woke up around 2 a.m. to a call from his alarm company. His business, Eno Fine Wines, was being robbed.

“People knew exactly what they were coming into my store for. They went to specific shelves. They came prepared with packs.”

Watching the security footage of the break-in with store manager Aubrie Talarico, she remarked on how calm the people on camera seem.

“You just see them go up and down the street really calmly. I haven’t gotten to the end of the tape. It must have been like an hour that they’re spending doing this.”

Twenty minutes after the front door was smashed, a group of six people came into the store and cleared off some of the high-priced shelves. Then, on their way out, they smashed several bottles on the floor.

“Oh man! That’s just malicious!” said store owner Ehrlich. “The last person went and cleared some shelves after they very carefully took what they wanted.”

Ehrlich estimated the damage will cost him about $10,000, between the stolen product and broken door. But he’s more worried about some of his neighbors. He’s been able to stay open through the coronavirus pandemic, and is doing a good business in online sales.

“But know many of my neighbors suffering. This is gonna hurt a couple of my neighbors really badly because they were already under the gun,” Ehrlich added

Some of these stores were just beginning to reopen after shuttering for months during the coronavirus pandemic.

Raimondo weighed in Tuesday morning, condemning the destruction.

“Our actions today can set the course for a more just and equal society tomorrow,” Raimondo said in a statement. “But if we let violence give rise to more violence, then that opportunity will be lost. What happened in Providence last night was unacceptable.”

In the aftermath, some residents came downtown to help with the cleanup.

Providence resident Aaliyah Jones says she started seeing videos of the vandalism last night on social media.

“And I felt like, this is just a riot,” Jones explained. “This is disrespectful. It’s criminal activity. This isn’t for the protests. They just took a touchy situation, and made it about whatever this is.”

Around 5 a.m., she and a couple friends decided to bring their brooms downtown, joining city crews and business owners in the clean up effort.

David Longo was up late on Twitter when he noticed Providence was trending.

“And if your city is trending on social media these days it’s not a good thing usually, so I started watching live streams of people trashing the city,” said Longo, an assistant director of facilities at Providence College.”

“I knew there would be a cleanup needed,” Longo continued. “So I went to my work, and got a bunch of supplies. And I got there probably like 4:30, and they were arresting people while I got here. And then I started sweeping, another guy came, another person came, and we all had brooms and we’ve been doing it for 3 hours now.

More volunteers were organizing online to continue cleaning up the city through the day. There are two more protests related to the killing of George Floyd planned for the coming days in Providence.

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