Pitts-Wiley: I don’t feel safe in my own country

Pitts-Wiley: I don’t feel safe in my own country

PAWTUCKET – Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, co-founder of Mixed Magic Theatre, says the protests seen across the U.S. over the past few days after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis are not a reaction to an isolated event.

“This did not start with the murder of George Floyd,” he said. “This is just the latest in a long line of historical events and tragedies that have to be dealt with.”

The majority of protesters are peaceful and are “trying to point out serious inequities,” he said. While he doesn’t think the violence and looting represents the concerns and interests of most people, he added that he doesn’t understand why anyone is surprised by the violence.

“Why do we have to get to this place in order to be heard?” he asked.

Mixed Magic, when running performances at 560 Mineral Spring Ave., regularly tackles issues of race relations in its productions.

Pitts-Wiley said people of color in the U.S. are dealing with systemic and historic racism, the COVID-19 pandemic killing them disproportionately, and they’re also under siege by the police.

“What do you expect people to do?” he said. “I don’t feel safe in this country, in my own country.”

Black parents are “sick and tired” of having to have conversations with their children about what to do to stay alive if they have an encounter with the police, and “we’re sick and tired of seeing our children slaughtered in the streets,” he said.

For change to come about, he said, people have to take action.

“Change in this country does not come by people sitting complacently,” he said.

If police officers across the country agree with the views of the protesters, they need to prove it, Pitts-Wiley said.

“Don’t put on your riot gear,” he said. “Put on your hat of understanding.”

He said change won’t come from the leadership at top, adding that local leadership needs to be proactive and local officials need to be held accountable for their actions, not just what they say.

“Talking the talk does not mean you walk the walk,” he said. “Talk is cheap. Life is not cheap. Life is valuable.”

As co-owner of a nonprofit arts organization, Pitts-Wiley said artists have a greater responsibility now more than ever to “give voice to people who feel they aren’t being heard and to expose the truth.”

His message for people of color, especially black people, he said, is to be aware and take care of yourself first. White people, he said, need to be accountable for themselves and to respond to what’s right.

“I’m not your teacher,” he said.

In Woonsocket, the Rev. Jeffrey C. Thomas, pastor of Saint James Baptist Church, addressed George Floyd’s death during a regular virtual service held last Sunday, May 31. Speaking to the congregation, he questioned how many black men must die before the country holds law enforcement officers accountable for those in their ranks who “perpetuate extreme recklessness often resulting in murder.”

“There’s a copy and paste function on our computer keyboard,” he said. “You highlight a particular phrase like ‘black man killed by white police,’ you hit the copy function, and then hit shift and the phrase is duplicated. In the United States, you would have to hit shift over and over and over and over and over again until you’re back to slave history to show the number of murders.”

Noting the day was set aside to celebrate Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit was thought to descend on the disciples of Jesus, Thomas said he prays that the Holy Spirit will inhabit those charged to serve and protect.

“I pray that more of the people of the population of the United States would be united in demanding that living while black would no longer be a crime,” he said.

As a black man, 21-year-old Scituate resident Terrell Parker said he felt compelled to support the Black Lives Matter movement and attended Saturday’s protests at the Rhode Island Statehouse.

“Riots grow out of the voices of the unheard,” Parker said.

“I can’t completely denounce the actions of those rioting,” he said, adding that he also does not condone destroying property.

Material things can be replaced, he said, but people are dying, and people can’t be replaced.

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The University of Rhode Island graduate, who will begin master’s degree studies in international relations and global peace studies at URI in the fall said the whole situation, including the death of Floyd and subsequent riots, is tragic. Parker said he believes all four officers involved in Floyd’s death should be charged with murder.

“I think folks have the right to be angry,” he said.

The black community is not being heard, he said, adding that harsh criticism of police brutality is justified.

“We can’t stay silent in the face of injustice,” he said.

Parker said he wants to see policy changes and new training to combat systemic racism.

“The greatest thing I’ve seen come out of this is the police officers coming out in solidarity for us,” he said.

Parker said he has not experienced racism from Scituate police officers, but remains fearful for his younger siblings, who have darker skin than he does.

“There’s so much tension in the world right now. I think I would be crazy to think something like that would not happen to me or my brothers,” he said.

The best way for those who aren’t people of color is to become allies, he said. He said white people have more of a platform to speak out than people of color. He added that many people believe the protests and riots are an attempt to start a race war, but that is not the case.

“We want equity and equality,” he said.

Alicia Ann Kelley, president of the Scituate Democrats, said this is an important issue for all communities, including Scituate where such a small percentage of residents are minorities.

“This should be white people amplifying the voices of black people right now,” she said.

Kelley said she supports peaceful protest, noting the example of Martin Luther King Jr., saying she opposes the “weaponizing” of King’s quotes.

On the state level, she said, her biggest frustration has been the lack of comment or official statement from the R.I. Democratic Party.

“Their silence is significant,” she said.

Lisa Ranglin, president of the Rhode Island Black Business Association, said in a letter this week that the death of another black man in Floyd “sickens me as this inhumane behavior continues to plague my community.”

“Many of us watched in horror, disgust, and anger. People are sick and tired of witnessing the slayings of innocent black men, and it must stop,” she said. “This treatment of black Americans cannot continue.”

She added, “We are all seeing the devastating consequences throughout American cites, from riots to looting, and the destruction of buildings and businesses. This is wrong. We cannot tolerate this behavior. We are angry about the lives of black men being cut down in our streets. It is up to all of us to use our voices and influence to bring about change.”