KINGSTON, R.I. – July 14, 2016 – Naomi Thompson offered a simple, but challenging message yesterday to the more than 200 members of the University of the Rhode Island community.
“Treat people as you would like your most cherished loved one, your wife, husband, children or parent, to be treated,” said URI’s associate vice president for Community Equity and Diversity.
Flanked by other administrators and an officer of the URI Police Department, Thompson was one of seven speakers at a vigil and rally organized in response to the violence that occurred last week across the United States.
“I want to thank each and every one of you for coming out in the this hot, sunny afternoon and standing in solidarity. Every one of you here on campus has a life that is valued, that is cherished, not one any more than the other,” Thompson said.
As she introduced herself, she told the group that her oldest and longest running job is that of a mother and that she, like the millions around the country, saw with her own eyes, the killing of two black men at the hands of police in Minnesota and Louisiana.
“These men may have children, they have wives, they have mothers just like we do, and just like I have,” Thompson said. “This became deeply personal, because I always feared whenever my son walked out of the house. But when five police officers were killed in Dallas, Texas, I feared for retaliation on my son, that someone whose thinking was not entirely right, would say, ‘Hey you, you look like the guy who engaged in that violence. I don’t care who you are, how many degrees you have, whether you are a president or a vice president, because all I see is the color of your skin, so I will eliminate you.’”
After the horror of last week, she talked with her “sisters,” African-American women police officers and her former colleagues in criminal justice about how they could continue. “They struggled and they struggled and they said a prayer, and put their uniforms on, and went off to work.”
She asked the audience to see each other as human beings.
“Don’t just be angry, and I have run the gamut of emotions from sadness anger and fear. Each one of you has the moral obligation to not just go to a vigil, light a candle, stand with a sign, but when you leave here, you must ask yourself, How are you going treat others? How are you going to treat people who upset you?”
Thompson opened the vigil by introducing the Rev. Dr. Vanessa Quainoo, associate professor and chair of Africana Studies, who offered an invocation based on this question in the Bible put to King David in the Book of Psalms, If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?
“More than 2000 years later, today’s challenge causes us to ponder that question again. While our hearts mourn with family members who have recently lost their loved ones, our posture is one of prayerfulness and practice, because faith without works is of no effect.”
Here is a portion of her prayer: “To our Father, Creator, Our God, we pray a simple prayer. Help us. Heal our nation. Heal and reconcile our hearts. Deliver us from oppression…the oppression of racism…the oppression of hatred. Heal us of our brokenness…We sorrow over the killing of 5 police officers, the wounding of many others. As we know you also weep, O Lord. We also sorrow that Black men are dying at the hands of law enforcement officers. But, Dear Lord, we ask you to arise and breathe upon us a fresh wind of Your Grace and Your wisdom.”
Following a brief moment of silence with members of the crowd holding signs saying, “My Life Matters,” President David M. Dooley thanked the crowd for gathering yet again as a community in the hope “that our presence can be a step toward healing and a step toward building the kind of society, the kind of community we want to have at the University of Rhode island and that we seek to share with all those everywhere.”
He said that not long ago, the campus community gathered for a similar vigil to share its thoughts, shock and our dismay at the massacre in Orlando.
“There are few words of comfort that I think can really make a difference when so much has battered us and our country and our community for so long. But I am encouraged that you are here and I hope you are, too. Your presence is a comfort, our presence collectively can be more of a comfort than any set of words,” Dooley said.
“By coming together today, and looking at each other’s faces, we see that there is nothing to be afraid of,” the president said.
URI Police Maj. Michael Jagoda, acknowledged the mixed emotions being felt among those at the vigil, particularly new students in URI’s Talent Development Program enrolled in summer classes.
“That’s all right. Twenty-five years ago, I stood where you are standing (as a student) and I had the same feelings. One of the reasons I came back was the spirit of community here at URI,” said the former Connecticut State Police commander. “I felt valued, understood and that this community really embraced me.”
He said officers have told him repeatedly over the past several days about the numerous expressions of gratitude and appreciation URI Police have received from community members about the positive impact they are having at URI.
“(Public Safety) Director (Stephen) Baker and I will ensure that the values associated with social justice will be practiced and displayed by our officers every day,” Jagoda said. “I promise you that. We have a lot more work to do, and it’s going to take a partnership to solve our problems. URI can be a role model. This community is unlike any other community I have been involved in.”
Marc D. Hardge, guaranteed admissions program coordinator for Talent Development and son of the late Rev. Arthur L. Hardge, one of the founders of the program at URI that serves Rhode Islanders from disadvantaged backgrounds, said he was honored to speak.
“No specific groups of individuals should be targeted for killing,” he said in the shadow of the statute of his father outside the Multicultural Students Services Center. “Black males who are taken into police custody should not be targeted for murder. The men and women who don police uniforms with the intent of serving their communities should not be targeted.
“Turning against one another is not the solution to problems, Hardge continued. The answer is “coming together and collaborating to solve these problems and ensuring justice and equity,” he said.
Paul Bueno de Mesquita, professor and director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies said everyone has seen firsthand the brutality of racism, the horrors of gun violence, the taking of innocent lives.
“If we are sitting on the sidelines and mourning and grieving only, then we become passive in the face of this kind of violence,” de Mesquita said.
“It was Dr. (Martin Luther) King who taught us that nonviolence is the antidote to violence. He told us it’s not just a choice between violence and nonviolence. Our choice now is between nonviolence and non-existence. He said we must learn to live as brothers or we will perish as fools,” de Mesquita said.
“Every day, approximately 90 of our citizens, our brothers, our sisters, including children, die at the hands of some form of gun violence. This tells us that our society is not well.”
Frank Forleo, assistant director of Talent Development, offered a greeting in the language of the Narragansett Tribe, “Asco Wequassin Netop, which is Narragansett for Good Day, Friend.”
“We recognize the historical legacy of genocide and slavery, and we must say clearly, Black Lives Matter.”
He added that the URI community is fortunate to have numerous structures that foster human understanding, all of which have been strengthened by URI’s two most recent presidents, Dooley and Robert L. Carothers.
“We have an improved URI Police Department under Chief Baker and it is up to us to ensure that the URI Police are never isolated or marginalized,” Forleo said.
After the event, Basilio Gonzalez, a Talent Development student taking summer classes in preparation for his freshman year as a nursing major, said, event’s like yesterday’s show that URI cares about difficult problems in modern society. His initial impressions of life at URI are positive.
“The campus is really friendly, and the students are great,” said the Providence resident. “The professors are really nice.”
Nicole Sarr, a fifth-year psychology and human development and family studies double-major from Pawtucket, said. “I really feel accepted here. This event was very personal and very emotional. We need more of these kinds of gatherings, but not just when there is violence or other problems. These events help us get comfortable with each other. This was very helpful because it reminds us of the important issues. Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you have to kill them.”