On January 21, 2017 many of us followed the Extraordinary Rendition Band and their spirited version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” onto the Rhode Island State Capitol grounds. Friendships were evident in groups arriving, or in spontaneous meetings. I met Justine Brown and 2 year old Felicity on arrival, and saw later on social media post Kathryn Dunkelman’s daughter holding a compelling “girl power” sign. These friendship networks were an obvious social foundation for this huge (7,500 person) assembly for the smallest state in the union. As Norwegian social anthropologist Marte Knudsen remarked, Mother Nature also seemed to be our friend, appreciating the spirit of the gathering. It was an unseasonably warm and sunny day.
The event itself was led by longtime organizer Shanna Wells working both backstage and as emcee for speakers. Governor Gina Raimondo was the first speaker of the 2.5 hour series, in which she declared that she was fired up to defend “our core values” against any assault by the new president. She was followed by Nellie Gorbea, the first Latina to be elected to a state-wide office in New England. Other elected figures followed, including Aaron Regunberg, a founder of Resist Hate RI and Marcia Ranglin-Vassel, a Jamaican immigrant and school teacher whose victory in the 2016 election was evidence of the Bernie Sanders-inspired movement in Rhode Island.
The presence of so many elected officials marks the difference from the anti-political Occupy Movement. While both are expressions of resistance, today’s movement in Rhode Island seeks political power, and for some, political revolution. But the Women’s March in Rhode Island was also about civil society. Young women from high school also spoke on stage; a sophomore from Classical High School, Ida Jimenez, spoke of her empowerment through Young Voices. Shirley Lomba Correia, a union member with SEIU, spoke of unions’ importance now. LGBTQ activist Kate Monteiro declared that we, inferring those present on the capitol grounds but also among the millions marching across the nation and the world, were the majority.
The spirit of this gathering was joyful and loving. When the Extraordinary Rendition Band offered their musical chant “We don’t want your tiny hands anywhere near our underpants”, spirits were uplifted, but not with meanness. When a young woman fell ill on stage, several came to the stage to help, and the crowd cleared the way for her mother to come. When a young disturbed man ambled through the crowd shouting “Trump Pence,” elder escorts followed him to be sure that his angry affect would not diminish with a violent confrontation the love so evident in the crowd.
The solidarity of this gathering was not based on homogeneity by any means. The diversity of backgrounds, of priorities, of political views, was clear among speakers and in the public, and so apparent in in the poetic rallying cry of the event itself. But that diversity did not diminish solidarity.
Rhode Island was clearly part of the global wave signaling an embrace of truthfulness, love, and solidarity in the now, and for the future. Hope, Rhode Island’s motto, was felt in our bones.
Michael D. Kennedy isProfessor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs at the Watson Institute, Brown University.