This story by Amanda Milkovits of the Globe staff was reported with Lynn Arditi and Antonia Ayres-Brown of The Public’s Radio. You can hear the broadcast report here:



PROVIDENCE -- He was a recent college graduate and the son of Colombian immigrants who’d been watching the news about protests sweeping the nation after George Floyd’s death. When people drove by his downtown apartment chanting “Black Lives Matter!”, he thought they were heading to a protest outside the State House and called a friend to join him.

There was the young biracial woman from Warwick working as a caretaker for disabled adults who had never been to a protest before. But when she heard that one was happening late that night, she decided to go.

Another was a young Hispanic man from Olneyville who police would end up connecting to break-ins and looting at a convenience store, a shoe store, and a skateboard shop after he allegedly posted some stolen clothing for sale on social media under the screen name $lookitsminedummy.

And there was the Black couple in East Providence who’d heard talk about a “gathering.” When they saw on social media livestreams that the crowd and police were clashing, they decided to go to document what they saw.

They were all there late that first night in June, as outside the Providence Place mall a line of police officers and state troopers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, between the crowd and the entrances, as the gathering grew by the hundreds in the street.

The beat of an anti-police anthem by N.W.A. rattled off the store windows as the increasingly hostile crowd swore at the officers. According to multiple videos taken at the scene and posted on social media, as some shouted about looting and cheered as rocks pelted the police, who weren’t wearing riot gear, one woman -- nonviolence streetworker Tarah Dorsey -- tried to stop them, begging the unruly crowd to “protect your city!”

But her words had no effect. One woman, who led the chants and repeatedly faced off with police, told Dorsey that people were looting because police won’t leave them alone. She’d gone to jail for something she hadn’t done, she said. She’d had enough. She strode through the crowd, taunting and swearing at the police.

As some held back, watching, others urged them on. Two white men from Warwick, part of a rap group called Waraq that mainly films videos in the suburbs, were frustrated by the passivity of some in the crowd. Just the day before, one had posted a photo on his Facebook page of a woman holding a protest sign in front of a burning car in another city, with the comment, “if only rhode island had this energy.”

The rappers stood in the middle of Francis Street and screamed at the young men who were standing back, exhorting them to join in.

“Get in the street!” they shouted in a video posted online. “This is [expletive] revolution!”

(NOTE: The following video contains obscene language and gestures.)



This “revolution” wasn’t televised, it was livestreamed, and those who watched or heard about it on social media showed up to see what was going to happen. Spurred on by streaming videos, the crowd grew to the hundreds, the cacophony grew louder, and demonstrators became more brazen.

The woman from Warwick who’d never protested before jumped on the hood of a Providence police cruiser, parked just a few feet away from the line of officers. She smiled, flipped her middle fingers at them and stomped on the cruiser as the crowd roared.

When a police captain lunged for her, she slipped away, and the tense standoff between police and the people became a melee. As the police fought to hold back the crowd, some people turned to another cruiser blocking traffic on Finance Way, smashing and burning it and taking selfies like they’d lit a bonfire, as the police stayed by the mall.

More storefronts were smashed in the mall, as police and K-9 units tried to chase down thieves. As police used tear gas on the crowd, looting spread from the mall to nearby downtown streets and at scattered businesses across the city.

People threw bricks at police officers, tossed a firebomb into the Department of Administration that caused extensive damage to the Division of Taxation, and vandalized a dozen vehicles used by the Department of Children, Youth and Families.

For hours, city streets rang with alarms, car horns, and the sound of breaking glass.

By the end of the night, 65 people ended up in handcuffs, including a teen from Johnston and a 35-year-old man from Lynn, Mass., charged with breaking into Swarovski jewelers at the mall; a homeless man found in the mall’s Apple store; and two men from Providence and a friend from East Providence who were charged together with receiving stolen sneakers from Eblens.

Over the next month, more people were arrested or warrants were issued, as Providence police and state police figured out who they were from investigations and scores of cell phone videos posted during the violence. They include the Waraq rappers who urged the crowd into the streets, two young Providence men who filmed themselves stealing expensive cars, a Warwick man who tossed a baseball bat to a 17-year-old Providence guy and then filmed him as he smashed vehicles in the DCYF parking lot. That teen has since been connected to vandalism elsewhere in the city and receiving stolen goods that night, filming himself in the act, according to Providence Police Major David Lapatin.

But many others who stole and destroyed stores that night got away. Some people, including bystanders and several police officers, were injured in the clashes. Providence police placed a 13-year veteran on paid leave while they investigate his alleged use of a less lethal weapon that injured a man, but have not released details. A 29-year-old man told WPRI.com that he was driving by as police chased someone downtown, and an officer shot him in the eye. His lawyer did not return calls to confirm his account.

Many wondered how things ended up going so far.

* * * * *

It would be easy to dismiss the agitators and looters who destroyed so much in Providence that night as outsiders; provocateurs hellbent on using the Black Lives Matter movement as cover for vandalism and burglary.

"Make no mistake about it,” Governor Gina Raimondo said at a news conference outside Providence Place the next day. “What we saw last night was not a protest.”

Colonel James M. Manni, superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police, said there was “no question” the violence and destruction were instigated by “outside agitators, people with ideology that’s anti-law enforcement, anti-government, and anti-capitalism.”

But it actually was more homegrown and local.

The Globe and The Public’s Radio spent the past couple of weeks examining the events of that night. Reporters conducted interviews, attended arraignments, examined court documents, and scoured social media posts and videos in order to get a fuller picture of those arrested, the origins of the mass gathering, and the aftermath.

Out of the hundreds of people who were downtown that night, police have arrested or issued warrants for more than 70 adults and teenagers. Law enforcement officials now concede that most of those arrested -- and observed by reporters or caught by security cameras looting that night -- were locals: Mostly men, mostly young, mostly from Providence and surrounding communities. Most had no criminal records; none was found to have clear ties to any radical groups.

Yet even that portrait is overly simplified. Some of those arrested were angry about the death of George Floyd and wanted to lash out against police brutality. Others thought they were attending a Black Lives Matter demonstration, and got caught up in the moment. (BLM organizers disavowed any knowledge of the gathering, pointing out that they don’t start their protests at midnight.) Some were caught looting and destroying property.

And then there were the sparks: Fliers and social media posts shared across the political spectrum, urging people to show up for a night of looting. Police are still trying to figure out who planted the notion, but it had the intended effect. The estimate of damage is still unknown.

Many more who looted -- even livestreaming themselves as they broke into stores and stole cars -- have not been charged. FBI and the police have appealed to the public for help finding them. A spokeswoman for the FBI’s Boston bureau said last week that the bureau is working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to determine if any federal violations occurred.

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré now says that the demonstration and violence don’t appear to have roots in an organized or national group. “It’s just going on across the country, and I think it was just replicated here,” he said.

* * * * *

The killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes despite his gasping pleas that he couldn’t breathe, has ignited protests and fury across the country about systemic racism and police brutality.

While most of the demonstrations -- including four so far in Providence -- have been overwhelmingly peaceful, in some cities violence has erupted in clashes between police and protesters.

According to Lecia Brooks, chief workplace transformation officer at the Southern Poverty Law Center, when violence and looting erupts, it’s often an expression of frustration, not just over systemic racism itself, but also its effects, including inequities in education and income.

“The fact that people engage in violence tells us that there’s something wrong,” she said. “And so if we could look, if we could look past the violent act itself, and try to understand what it is, what message are people trying to give, to deliver?”

There is an enormous amount of built-up frustration and anger over racism and the callousness with which some officers have treated Black men, said Brown University professor Juliet Hooker, who focuses on Black political thought. When people attack police stations and burn police cars, the message is clear, she said: “People are attacking the symbols of the institutions that they see as perpetrating violence against them.”

* * * * *

It’s still not clear how the Providence melee started. Even as people were peacefully marching for Black Lives Matter two days earlier, teenagers were already on Facebook talking about looting at Providence Place. Some even brazenly placed orders for stolen goods. Others chastised them and urged them to stay home.

Then a screenshot of a badly copied flier calling for “looting” at midnight in Providence in the name of George Floyd circulated on social media that Monday, among people on both the left and the right politically. No one seems to know where it originated.

That same day, the FBI said it was seeking information about people who were instigating violence at protests nationwide. Paré, the public safety commissioner, said he learned about possible problems at the mall that afternoon. Providence Place decided to close early, and the police kept on some officers after their shifts ended and posted them outside the mall. The State Police joined them, and other departments had officers on standby.

They weren’t ready for what was to come.

The night began with dozens, then hundreds of people, showing up on Francis Street outside Providence Place before midnight.

Some people breezed up the stairs into the mall, as protesters overwhelmed the police outside. Others were already inside, and cell phone videos outside captured their silhouettes and flashes of light in darkened stores.

About a hundred people broke into the mall, and hundreds more were outside, pushing against the police. When the crowd turned to a cruiser parked across Finance Way, they descended upon it with metal chairs, slashed its tires, threw fireworks inside, and poured gasoline to light it on fire.



Police dispersed them with tear gas, but people moved into the street and for hours, tore into storefronts, damaged vehicles and buildings, and looted without interference as police scattered to catch them. People used a rope to drag an ATM out of one business, smashed glass doors and windows to get inside others, and pried open metal gates with wrenches, crowbars, and even a blow torch.

Young women grabbed armloads of clothes from a boutique and laughed as they jumped through broken glass. Young men raided a convenience store for hookahs and cigarettes. One stole an expensive car from the Providence G garage, filming himself and wondering where “Gina’s crib is at?” -- referring to Raimondo -- as commenters heckled him and his buddies on the livestream. Some filmed themselves breaking into stores inside the mall as they grabbed whatever they could.

They seemed unconcerned about the onlookers with cell phones, recording their crimes. This night, the city was theirs, and the police couldn’t keep up with the flood of calls and alarms.

Shevon Young and her boyfriend Darryl K. Jordan, the East Providence couple who’d seen the clash on Facebook, stood and watched the scene. They stopped a young woman in Kennedy Plaza to ask why she was demonstrating.

“I got two kids and I damn sure don’t want them to grow up in this kind of society, so now we gonna speak up,” the woman told them. “We standing up. It’s about time our world take over what’s ours.”

As they stayed, a man darted toward them, running from police. The video Young recorded shows police in riot gear charging down the sidewalk toward Jordan. Seconds later, he is face down on the sidewalk; the police cuffed him as Young screamed.

Michael Tuberquia, the recent college graduate who’d followed the shouts to the protest, walked around the city livestreaming the chaos over Snapchat. His friend had long since left, stepping away when he saw how things were escalating.

People had smashed the windows of a little Korean restaurant where Tuberquia had been a waiter until COVID-19 forced it to close. They’d looted the stores on the street where he had just moved.

Tuberquia was alone, still filming the destruction just a block from his apartment, when he saw the police coming toward him. They ordered him to leave. He stepped back, but didn’t move. They put him on the ground, and cuffed him.

“I wasn’t in the act of doing anything that they would arrest me for,” Tuberquia said later. “I guess what I didn’t do was, I guess, listen to the cops when they said, ‘you gotta get it, you gotta move.‘ ”

* * * * *

The dozens of people arrested that night could be a snapshot of any crowd. There are college students, former school athletes, high school dropouts, a teen mommy vlogger, some out of work and school because of COVID-19 shutdowns. Some had criminal records, but most had never been in trouble before.

At age 43, Jordan was one of the oldest people arrested, charged with disorderly conduct. He said he’d gone out because he needed to be present. It wasn’t just about George Floyd. “I have dealt with a lot of racism in my life,” he said later. “This isn’t my first go round with the police dealing with me in a certain way, and I’ve had friends that passed away due to brutality.”

He was diagnosed with a concussion, which he said he sustained when the police knocked him down and arrested him.

That next day at the Adult Correctional Institutions, waiting for court with others who’d been arrested, Jordan noticed how young the others who had been arrested were. One told him that his father had died from police brutality. “He wasn’t there to loot or riot. He was down here to protest and have a voice,” Jordan said. “And he told me he didn’t know it was gonna go the way it did.”

Others, he said, were there to make a “come up,” to grab an opportunity. He heard some of the young people locked up with him talking about what they grabbed, what they burned.

“I was trying to get to talk to them,” Jordan said. “This is not about that. Do you know what this is? What have you dealt with in your life?”

One mother found out her 20-year-old son had been charged with breaking into a 7-Eleven in downtown Providence when his friends called her the next day. Maria Diaz said her son Martin wasn’t politically involved, and she couldn’t understand why he’d gone.

“I was upset. He has no business down there,” Diaz said. “I mean, I understand he wants to support, but do it in other ways.”

Sarah Taylor, the woman who jumped on the cruiser, had gone home. Her parents said they found out the next day what happened.

“She came directly home afterward because she was scared. She did something stupid,” said her father, Gary Taylor. “Me being a Black man, I understand why she was there. But that was wrong. She is a 21-year-old kid who was caught up in the moment.”

Taylor and his wife, Mary Bruzzi, said their daughter had no desire to steal or break windows. They thought the looting and burning of the cruiser was “horrible.” That wasn’t what their daughter was about.

Sarah had gone on her own to the demonstration and didn’t know anybody there, her parents said. They said she did jump on the cruiser, but didn’t mean to kick Providence Captain Luis San Lucas as she was scrambling off the hood.

Days after the destruction, a slew of police officers came to their tidy home in Warwick to arrest her for simple assault, vandalism, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. She apologized in person to the police officers and wrote an apology to Providence Police Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr.

As her mugshot was publicized, she became the face of the chaos. She had been working one-on-one as a caretaker for disabled people in Cranston and had bought a car. After her arrest, she lost her job.

She listened from a second-floor window as her worried parents talked about her in their yard.

“It was just the excitement of people doing something for a cause,” her mother said, “and other people turned it into a tragedy.”

* * * * *

In the aftermath, a few voices characterized the actions as more Malcolm X than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., likening the demonstration to fire meeting years of suppressed fury.

Others condemned the violence. From the leaders of Black Lives Matter and the Nonviolence Institute, to the friends of people who bragged about being there, many said this is not the way to achieve justice.

But Jim Vincent, president of the Providence NAACP, said that focusing on violent protests is missing the point.

“Talk about rioting is code for ‘I don’t want to talk about institutional racism,' ” he said.

He has the long view. He was 16 when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. He’ll be 70 next year. He formed the Black Student Union at Boston Technical High School when he was a senior. Now he’s president of the local NAACP, and the issues are the same. “It amazes me that the things we talk about 50 years later are the same things we talked about in high school,” he said.

There simply has not been fundamental change, Vincent said.

“Riots are the voices of the unheard,” he said, paraphrasing King. “What angers me are the conditions that bring about the rioting, when people feel they have to riot. I’m more concerned about the institutional racism that causes conditions to be so bad that people feel they have to riot.”

It’s easy to blame the teenagers caught up in that night outside the mall, Vincent said. It’s harder to face the reasons for their anger and frustration.

“It’s a hard truth and that’s why the country goes through this cycle, because we refuse to deal with it,” Vincent said. “It’s not the kids -- it’s the conditions they live in … We’re talking about lives being taken by police brutality. You can replace property, but can you replace a life?”

Recent events fueled the anger, he said. How COVID-19 is hitting people of color the hardest because of longstanding inequality in access to health care, education, and jobs. The recent slayings of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. How a Black birder, Christian Cooper, was threatened by a white woman in Central Park because he asked her to leash her dog.

“We need to stop being in denial,” Vincent said. “We want to believe in an America that doesn’t exist, where everyone has an opportunity. But that’s not true.”

What’s different now, he said, is that white people appear to have had an “epiphany.”

“They now can see there’s racism in America, and they’re appalled, they’re saddened, maybe some are outraged, and now they want to do something,” Vincent said.

* * * * *

Volunteers came out to help sweep up the broken glass of shattered storefronts. Murals about Black Lives Matter and Black people killed during encounters with white officers were painted on the plywood boards that sealed the gaping holes.

After he was released from custody on a disorderly conduct charge, Tuberquia returned to his apartment and joined others to paint a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. on the boarded-up storefront of Craftland on Westminster Street.

Days later, Young and her boyfriend, Jordan, went back downtown again. This time, for a peaceful protest at the State House.

“It ended up beautiful,” Jordan said. “It was actually like, healing to see everybody come together.”

This would become the largest protest that Rhode Island had ever seen, a gathering of 10,000 people who filled the streets and the State House lawn, chanting and holding signs demanding justice. They marched by the places where people had clashed and burned only days earlier. They marched past boarded-up buildings, which now had signs and murals supporting Black Lives Matter. They marched beyond the city-imposed curfew. Governor Raimondo came from her home to pray with them on the State House steps.

Vincent thought that protest, organized by local teenagers, was the “most powerful and effective” thing he’d seen, and a stand against racism.

Yes, there were tense moments and some face-offs with the police. But this time, those calling for calm and peace were heard.

By the end of the night, the protesters and the police were walking together.