Public Health Voices of Protest

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, a massive peaceful protest, reportedly the largest in Providence history, drew 10,000 marchers downtown on June 5th. Among the crowd that gathered at Kennedy Plaza and marched to the Rhode Island State House were many members of the Brown community.

What motivated you to attend the protest?

“Systemic racism is a long-standing public health crisis, one that you cannot take a pill or develop a vaccine for, and one that has been passed on from generations to generations in our country. It is a crisis that requires massive social change—so we feel a deep sense of personal responsibility to be out there, in particular for those who cannot be out there, given their risks of COVID-19.” Karina Santamara, Arjee Restar, Alberto Edeza, and Teresa DeAtley, Doctoral Students, Behavioral and Social Health Sciences

“My wife and I attended to help RI Pride support the protesters by providing water and food and information about protester rights and what to do in case of a tear gas/pepper spray attack. Given the images we had been seeing all over the world and recently here in Providence, we were concerned about violence, but thought it critical to be present and in support of a peaceful protest.” Nancy Barnett, Professor, Behavioral and Social Sciences

What was your experience at the protest like?

“The protest gave us a kind of hope, the kind that comes when you see ALL lives for Black lives, it lifts your spirit. We saw professors from our school, other students, doctors and nurses in their white coats or scrubs, many across all ages, races, and ethnicities and we hardly saw anyone without a face mask!” Karina Santamara, Arjee Restar, Alberto Edeza, and Teresa DeAtley, Doctoral Students, Behavioral and Social Health Sciences

“It was really well-organized, speeches were extremely moving, and we kneeled for 8min 46sec. It made me confront and reflect on the police brutality that ultimately killed George Floyd and so many other Black lives.” Jennifer Nazareno, Assistant Professor, Behavioral and Social Sciences

“My emotions were all over the place; deep sorrow about the state of our country with regard to racism, discrimination, police brutality and the pandemic, but a growing sense of hope and confidence that we can make a difference.” Nancy Barnett, Professor, Behavioral and Social Sciences

How do you balance the health risks of protesting?

“We probably exposed ourselves to more risk of infection during the few hours of the protest than we did during the entire acumulation of the past two months. We wore masks, kept out of the thick of the crowd, and did all we could to remain safe but honestly, I still felt a very certain unease. On the other hand, eliminating systemic racism—if we could do that—would be a major structural change that would save thousands if not tens of thousands of lives annually in the US. And if we don’t stand up to be heard, who will?” Mark Lurie, Professor, Epidemiology

“We took a calculated risk. We felt that this was very important and historic. By my (informal) estimations, 99% of participants wore masks to prevent community transmission of the coronavirus. Volunteers were giving out masks to those who may need them, as well as water and other first aid.” Omar Galárraga, Associate Professor, Health Services, Policy & Practice

“Nearly everyone in the crowd was wearing a mask and Department of Health volunteers were on hand to give out masks, hand sanitizer, water, and other first aid. While not 6 feet apart in the large crowd, people were very good about giving way when you passed and not touching people unnecessarily. Clearly attending a large gathering carries a risk, but, as with many things in life, those risks need to be weighed against the consequences of not doing something. For us, not standing up to support Black Lives and allowing systematic racism and police brutality to remain the status quo is a much greater risk.” Angie Bengtson, Assistant Professor, Epidemiology