Public Health Voices of Protest

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University School of Public Health] — A massive peaceful protest, reportedly the largest in Providence history, drew 10,000 marchers on June 5th in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and to protest the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died while a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. The crowd gathered downtown at Kennedy Plaza, marching past the Providence Place Mall, chanting as they headed to the Rhode Island State House. Despite a 9:00 pm curfew, protesters stayed much later, however only a handful of arrests were reported.

The following images and public health voices from the protest include thoughts on the importance of demonstrating that racism is a public health crisis, as well as on the risks of attending large gatherings in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Public Health community members who attended the 6/5 or subsequent protests may send their reflections and images to [email protected].

WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO ATTEND THE PROVIDENCE BLACK LIVES MATTER PROTEST?

“We were motivated to attend the protest because systemic racism is a long-standing public health crisis, one that you cannot take a pill or develop a vaccine for and, one that has been passed on from generations to generations in our country. It is a crisis that requires massive social change—so we feel a deep sense of personal responsibility to be out there, in particular for those BLM5.jpgthat cannot be out there, given their risks of COVID-19.”—Behavioral and Social Health Sciences doctoral students Karina Santamara, Arjee Restar, Alberto Edeza, and Teresa DeAtley

“We attended the march in solidarity with the families of the victims of policy brutality and racism, including George Floyd, and to bring attention to the issues of discrimination, racial profiling, and police violence against minorities as a public health emergency.”—Professor Omar Galarraga, Health Services, Policy & Practice

“We attended the rally in solidarity with the Black community, to draw attention to the issues of structural racism and police brutality as public health issues, and to begin to demonstrate much needed greater involvement and commitment to addressing these issues by both the white community and the public health community.”—Professor Angie Bengtson, Epidemiology

“My wife and I attended to help RI Pride support the protesters by providing water and food and information about protester rights and what to do in case of a tear gas/pepper spray attack. Given the images we had been seeing all over the world and recently here in Providence, we were concerned about violence, but thought it critical to be present and in support of a peaceful protest.”—Professor Nancy Barnett, Behavioral and Social Sciences

WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE AT THE PROTEST LIKE?

The protest gave us a kind of hope, the kind that comes when you see ALL lives for Black lives, it lifts your spirit. We saw professors from our School, other students, doctors and nurses in their white coats or scrubs, many across all ages, races and ethnicities and, we hardly saw anyone without a face mask! As public health professionals, this was such an incredible experience and, in our opinion, speaks to the commitment that has been amplified to stand against anti-Black racism.”—Behavioral and Social Health Sciences doctoral students Karina Santamara, Arjee Restar, Alberto Edeza, and Teresa DeAtleyBLM4.jpg

“The march was very inspiring. It was awesome to see so many young people protest for a novel cause, under such difficult circumstances. It was very well coordinated by young people, most of whom wore black clothes in solidarity with the BLM movement.”—Professor Omar Galarraga, Health Services, Policy & Practice

“On Friday, Providence looked like a military zone, with all the boarded up windows.  The plan we made as a family revolved around what to do if things became violent, and if we were separated. It was AMAZING that the protest then turned out to be a sea of people, peacefully walking in support of the same goal.  An incredible experience, similar in feeling to the Women's March.  The turnout from all sectors of Providence was amazing.”—Professor Abigail Harrison, Behavioral and Social Sciences

"It was really well-organized, speeches were extremely moving, and we kneeled for 8min 46sec. It made me confront and reflect on the police brutality that ultimately killed George Floyd and so many other Black lives."—Professor Jennifer Nazareno, Behavioral and Social Sciences

“Our experience at the protest was powerful and overwhelmingly positive. The protest was well-organized, non-violent, and it was inspiring to see so many of various ages, races, and walks of life gathered to protest 400 years of systematic oppression. I attended with my husband, and this was his first protest. He left feeling humbled to have taken part and motivated to do more.”—Professor Angie Bengtson, Epidemiology

“I was really proud to be there. There was passion, anger, and creativity. I witnessed the police acting appropriately and even friendly. My emotions are all over the place; deep sorrow about the state of our country with regard to racism, discrimination, police brutality and the pandemic, but a growing sense of hope and confidence that we can make a difference.”—Professor Nancy Barnett, Behavioral and Social Sciences

WHAT ARE THE PUBLIC HEALTH IMPLICATIONS OF MEETING IN SUCH A LARGE GROUP? HOW DO YOU BALANCE THE HEALTH RISKS OF PROTESTING?

“We are well aware that going to the protest put us at risk of COVID-19 and we know that mass gatherings have and will contribute to this virus spreading. But we take a firm stand with Black lives, to let the world know that Black race just has to stop being a risk factor for poor outcomes of all types. This is so big that over a thousand public health professionals have signed letters supporting the protests, again bringing attention to systemic racism as a public health crisis. As hard as it may be, we simply have to balance both, so as we find answersBLM2.jpg for COVID-19 we cannot go to sleep on the systemic racism crisis that has been brewing in this nation.”—Behavioral and Social Health Sciences doctoral students Karina Santamara, Arjee Restar, Alberto Edeza, and Teresa DeAtley

“It is not an easy balance. On the one hand, I believe that we probably exposed ourselves to more risk of infection during the few hours of the protest than we did during the entire cumulation of the past two months. We wore masks, kept out of the thick of the crowd, and did all we could to remain safe but honestly, I still felt a very certain unease. On the other hand, eliminating systemic racism—if we could do that—would be a major structural change that would save thousands if not tens of thousands of lives annually in the US. And if we don't stand up to be heard, who will?”—Professor Mark Lurie, Epidemiology

“We took a calculated risk. We felt that this was very important and historic. By my (informal) estimations, 99% of participants wore masks to prevent community transmission of the novel coronavirus. Volunteers were giving out masks to those who may need them (as well as water, and other first aid). At a personal level, it was the first time we were in a public place as a family since March 15, and because we were potentially exposed, we were all tested today.”—Professor Omar Galarraga, Health Services, Policy & Practice

“For the first Providence rally the previous weekend, we stayed home on the basis of Covid-19. The next day, that decision felt wrong. We started planning how to attend the 6/5 protest safely. As a public health issue, fighting systemic racism needs to have its time, and we need to remain cognizant of the enormous health and social disparities that link the pandemic, systemic racism, and the mass protests.”—Professor Abigail Harrison, Behavioral and Social SciencesBLM1.jpg

“In terms of weighing the risks related to COVID-19, nearly everyone in the crowd was wearing a mask and DOH volunteers were on hand to give out masks, hand sanitizer, water and other first aid. While not 6 feet apart in the large crowd, people were very good about giving way when you passed and not touching people unnecessarily. Clearly attending a large gathering right now carries a risk. But, as with many things in life, those risks need to be weighed against the consequences of not doing something. For us, not standing up to support Black Lives and allowing systematic racism and police brutality to remain the status quo is a much greater risk.”—Professor Angie Bengtson, Epidemiology

“We thought a lot about the risk of being in a crowd, particularly because we have focused in our family on protecting other people by wearing masks and physically isolating.  So we took great care, as did the other protesters. I can count on one hand how many people I saw without masks.”—Professor Nancy Barnett, Behavioral and Social Sciences

All images were taken and shared by Public Health community members.