[Sidebar] April 13 - 20, 2000

[Features]

Stand and deliver

Community activism has brought results on the issues raised by Cornel Young Jr.'s death

by Ian Donnis

Cornel Young Jr.

A little more than a week after Providence police Officer Cornel Young Jr. was fatally shot by two fellow officers on January 28, the Rhode Island State Council of Churches forcefully endorsed the call for an independent prosecutor to investigate Young's death. It was a pivotal moment -- the council's support showed that the concerns raised by the shooting resonated far beyond a core of activist black ministers, and the protesters who had shouted down Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. a few days earlier during a raucous protest at City Hall.

In the ensuing weeks, a diverse array of other groups and individuals united behind the same cause, from the Rhode Island Minority Police Association and the leadership of the New England conference of the NAACP, to a multi-racial host of local religious organizations, community groups and a majority of the Providence City Council.

Members of minority groups in Rhode Island have long complained, often in relative isolation and to little effect, about police harassment, racial profiling, double standards and the like. But Young's death, like no event in recent memory, transformed the landscape and raised the prospects for meaningful progress.

As highlighted by Governor Lincoln Almond's use of an executive order on Thursday, April 6, to create a 15-member commission on race and police-community relations, recognition has spread through the state's political leadership that these concerns transcend race and can no longer be easily dismissed or ignored. As put by state Senator J. Clement Cicilline (D-Newport), one of the legislators who met with minority leaders, Almond and Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse to plan the commission, "We need to recognize that we have a serious problem with racism, and we're not addressing it."

The State House signing ceremony was characterized by palpable goodwill: enthusiastic handshakes, optimistic statements, and a distribution by Almond of the pens he used to sign the executive order. "This commission is exciting, and this is the new civil rights for the year 2000," said Clifford Montiero, president of the Providence chapter of the NAACP. Noting the anniversary two days later of the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Montiero added, "Dr. King would be very happy with the togetherness of our state."

The unfinished business of race in Rhode Island had come front and center with considerable speed. Ten days earlier, US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy delivered an impassioned speech at Congdon Street Baptist Church in which he described legislative efforts in Congress to improve police-community relations and pledged comprehensive federal oversight of the investigation into Young's death. Perhaps most importantly, in a nation with a serious case of historical amnesia, Kennedy

validated the concerns of aggrieved minorities.

All this marked a sharp contrast to the sense of conflict and polarization that had prevailed in the preceding six weeks as coalition members fiercely demanded -- and Whitehouse adamantly refused -- the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Young's death. Although that demand was once the focus of protests and a march to Whitehouse's office, it had effectively faded as an issue.

Regardless of the imminent outcome of the grand jury review of Young's death (and few observers expect indictments to be issued against Carlos Saraiva and Michael Solitro III, the officers who fatally shot him, because of a lack of criminal culpability), the sense was that the Coalition for Justice and Community Reconciliation -- formed in the aftermath of tragedy -- had driven its concerns onto the state's political agenda and would, to borrow a phrase from the civil rights movement, keep its eyes on the prize.

"There's a saying in the military," the Rev. Theodore Wilson II, a Navy veteran and pastor of Congdon Street Baptist Church, told the Phoenix after Almond signed his executive order. "There's the battle and there's the war." And then, moving away from the military reference for fear of mistakenly creating an impression of bellicosity, Wilson, who had been among those making the most aggressive calls for an independent prosecutor, substituted the word, "campaign," for "war."

Every few years, an incident involving Providence police has provoked outrage and prompted calls for a greater degree of public accountability. In 1992, it was the police beating of a student at Mount Pleasant High School. In 1995, a controversy erupted after an officer was videotaped kicking a man on the ground outside the former Strand club on Washington Street. And all along, there have been persistent complaints that minority residents routinely face harassment and excessive force from police. Sometimes a new community group is created and, in rare instances, an officer is sanctioned. For the most part, though, complaints about police misconduct have had little impact, other than contributing to an accumulating sense of frustration and anger in some quarters.

But when word spread that Cornel Young Jr., the son of Maj. Cornel Young Sr., the highest ranking minority officer in the Providence department, had been shot dead by two colleagues while intervening in a late-night fight at the Fidas diner, it struck home as a tragedy, not just for minorities and civil libertarians, but for all Rhode Islanders. The violent and premature death of Young, 29, who had volunteered with young people and followed in his father's footsteps to serve the community, was bewildering and incredibly sad for police and civilians alike. Police described the shooting as a terrible accident in which Young, who was off-duty, was mistaken for a suspect. Many people, though, questioned what it meant for other minorities if the son of the highest-ranking minority officer in Providence could get killed like this.

"I think the big change here is the issue of a young man who did all the right things, who by all accounts was an outstanding individual, and who ends up being tragically killed in the line of duty," said Anthony Maione, executive director of the southern New England chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice. "People feel very highly motivated to have their voices heard around this. I think people have an understanding of that; that the lights are coming up in a new way because of who Cornel Young Jr. was."

Although Cianci and some other observers initially dismissed the possibility that race was a factor in Young's death, minorities were, with good reason, far more skeptical. In the aftermath of the shooting, no one knew for sure what happened, but mourning turned into vociferous protest a week later precisely because Young's death meshed emotionally with a collection of slights. And while some were relying on little more than suspicion, there were facts to support the larger fears: the Boston Globe, for example, was able to find 12 instances since 1992, in the largest US cities, in which undercover or off-duty police officers were shot by other police after being mistaken as criminals. In 10 of the cases, the victims were black. The scenario of Young's death, in which he was out of uniform and mistaken for a suspect by white officers, was most typical of the 12 shootings uncovered by the Globe.

From the start, it was clear that Young's death had the potential to foster improved police-community relations in Providence and elsewhere in Rhode Island (see "Crisis and opportunity," News, February 10). It helped that racial profiling, long reviled by those who have been victimized by it, had come of age as a national issue. And it was difficult to remain unaware of serious problems in New York City, where several unarmed black men have been killed by police in the last 14 months, and Los Angeles, where misconduct in a major corruption scandal is expected to cost taxpayers $200 million in lawsuits by people who were wrongly prosecuted.

The kind of community activism sparked by Young's death has also been reflected in a resurgent national wave of grassroots protest, whether the target was the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle; a summit on genetically altered crops in Boston; the police shootings in New York; the flying of the confederate flag in South Carolina; or a recent meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C.

As a result of this outpouring of grassroots organizing, Almond's executive order contains language that would have been difficult to imagine even three months ago: "A crisis of confidence, raising serious questions about unfair treatment of certain groups of individuals, oppression and the combination of growing fear and anger within our communities

. . . State government leaders understand that racial injustice is a problem for all Rhode Islanders."

Asked about future of the campaign that brought this about, Maione said, "I don't think we're going to go away. If it takes demonstrations, if it takes public activities to say the problem isn't solved a year from now, I think that's what will happen. I think we have to understand and use this as a wake-up call, so we move forward forever, and get out of this paradigm," where someone has to die for improvements to occur.

As grieving gave way to anger after Young was eulogized and posthumously promoted to sergeant, it was the Ministers' Alliance of Rhode Island that maintained a full-court press, rallying calls for an independent investigation and finding common cause with other faith-based organizations and community groups. The efforts emanated from Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in the West End since it's the congregation of Young's parents. And the role of the Ministers' Alliance was a natural because black clergymen have been in the forefront of social activism since the days of slavery.

In leading community-based efforts, the ministers were heeding the wishes of Leisa and Cornel Young Sr., who made it clear that their son's primary desire would be for healing and community reconciliation. As Leisa Young said during a February 7 news conference at the Urban League, "He was a peaceful person. He wanted to enact change in a way that would last. I'm about, what can we do to make things better?"

The alliance, a mix of pastors like the Rev. Virgil Wood, a longtime civil rights stalwart who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. (and had earlier sparked an ongoing discussion by calling for the elimination of the phrase "Providence Plantations" from the state name), and younger newcomers, like Wilson of Congdon Street Baptist Church and the Rev. Marlowe V.N. Wilson of Allen AME Church, proved to be a formidable force.

From the pulpit, in meetings with Whitehouse and during weekly prayer vigils around the state, the ministers pressed their demand for an outside prosecutor, arguing that Rhode Island's small and insular nature precluded an impartial investigation by local law enforcement. Although Whitehouse assembled a racially diverse team of nine investigators, critics weren't mollified since six of the members are Providence police officers. Other demands included the suspension or dismissal of felony murder charges against Aldrin Diaz, who was charged in Young's death, even though he didn't fire the shots that killed him, on the theory that he precipitated the outcome as a participant in the preceding fight.

The ministers' call for an independent prosecutor quickly gathered support across racial and religious lines. Jewish, Catholic and Korean religious leaders weighed in, as did Progreso Latino and the Center for Hispanic Policy and Advocacy; the Rhode Island Council of Churches, which represents more than 250 Protestant churches; a dozen of Providence's 17 state legislators; and the groups, like Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) and the Martin Luther King Jr. Coalition Against Racism, that have long been pressing for reforms within the Providence Police Department. In a significant break in the blue wall of silence, the Rhode Island Minority Police Association took a strong stand, calling on the Providence department to investigate individual racist officers and, when necessary, remove them.

Organizing efforts also built on the creation of the Civil Rights Roundtable, a collection of civil rights, community and church groups, that became an ongoing effort -- with more political clout than its organizers ever thought possible -- after initially forming three years ago as an ad hoc response to a wave of arson fires at Southern churches.

Asked about the impact of this broad coalition, Bill Fischer, a Whitehouse spokesman, said, "Some of our most outspoken opponents have been able to elevate the discussion related to race in this state, and that's a good thing for all the concerned parties. You've got the governor, members of the Senate, members of the House talking about racial profiling, and minority community-police relations. Those things just weren't bantered about in the State House last year or in recent years."

Critics described Whitehouse's decision against the appointment of an independent prosecutor as a lose-lose since if, as anticipated, Saraiva and Solitro, are not indicted, some will believe the fix was in and confidence in the judicial system will be diminished. (Saraiva was also involved in a September 1999 incident outside the 30-30 Club on Westminster Street, in which he shot Jose Nunez in the legs; Saraiva, who was cleared by Whitehouse's office, said he was being attacked and feared the loss of his gun.)

Whitehouse stiffened his stance in response to the protests. A potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2002, Whitehouse said it would be wrong to make prosecutorial decisions based on the passions of public opinion, and he described local police as the best-qualified investigators for the case. He noted that an independent investigation into the death of mob witness Peter Gilbert was costly and failed to produce convictions. Whitehouse also called for a commission to examine the issues raised by Young's death, and it was this concept that became Almond's commission on race and police-community relations.

"Would it have been politically expedient to appoint an independent prosecutor -- the easy way -- the answer is yes," said Fischer. "In our mind, the right answer is no. We have an obligation to protect the integrity of any criminal investigation, and part of that is buffering the investigation from political variables, no matter how well intentioned."

Meanwhile, as the investigation into Young's death was being readied for presentation to the grand jury, the Ministers' Alliance extended its reach, seeking to put Young's death under a national spotlight. They found a willing ally in Patrick Kennedy, who took the lectern at Congdon Street Baptist Church four days after Almond announced the formation of his commission. As Kennedy noted, the location was appropriate since the church rose in the 1870s as the successor to a black church on nearby Meeting Street that was destroyed during race riots in the 1820s.

Focusing his address on unfinished business of racial equality, Kennedy quoted from a 1963 speech by his late uncle, John F. Kennedy: "If an American because his skin is dark . . . cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?"

The fifth-ranking House Democrat praised the daily heroic efforts of the vast majority of police officers. And giving credence to his predominantly black audience, Kennedy delivered the equivalent of manna by citing "your own experiences of being harassed, stopped and questioned or pulled over for nothing more than the color of your skin . . . I don't know what it's like to have cabs refuse to pick me up at night. I don't know what it's like to walk in my neighborhood at night and be stopped by the police and questioned about where I'm going. But I do know this: no one in America today should have to endure that kind of embarrassment or humiliation or fear -- or America isn't America."

Col. Urbano Prignano Jr., chief of the Providence police, was standing around Kennedy Plaza, across from City Hall, waiting for the start of an April 3 news conference on the installation of video cameras in 50 cruisers, when I approached and mentioned that I wanted to talk about the aftermath of Cornel Young Jr.'s death. Referring to how the case was going before the grand jury, Prignano briskly walked away, even as I said that my questions were more specifically about police-community relations. The dismissive demeanor seemed typical of Prignano, who has resisted calls for a more thorough approach to community policing and other efforts to make police more responsive to the public (see "Whose force is it, anyway," News, September 17, 1999).

As usual, Public Safety Commissioner John J. Partington was more voluble, saying, "We hear the message. We have to be more accountable to the needs of the community, and we're going to be." Cianci, asked about the department's response to the concerns raised by Young's death, offered his stock response: sensitivity training at the police academy, additional training for officers in the non-violence techniques of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as new plans for creating an assistant commissioner for community affairs.

But given the track record in Providence, some are skeptical about the outlook for change from within, even with the formation by Cianci and the City Council of commissions on racial issues. Asata Tigrai, chairwoman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Coalition Against Racism, cites how the department fought a five-year losing battle to deny access to Direct Action for Rights and Equality of 295 files of citizen complaints against police. "Just the resistance alone sent a message that there's something terribly wrong in the Providence Police Department and that they had something to hide," she said.

Others are more hopeful. "There are many departments that need to look at their policies and their hiring and this is a good time to begin to address a lot of those issues," said Larry Berman, Kennedy's spokesman. "The timing is right to look at all of these issues."

In any case, those who remain concerned with the issues raised by Cornel Young Jr.'s death would do well to remember his encouraging legacy -- that real change starts not at the State House or the hierarchy of the police department, but with grassroots activism.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com.

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