OP-ED

The abrupt end of the 'vacation from history'

Posted 9/15/21

Sept. 11, 2001, dawned as a beautiful late summer day in Providence. I took a few seconds to savor the blue sky and welcoming temperature before pulling open the big door at 150 Chestnut St. in the Jewelry District, the home at the time of The Providence

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OP-ED

The abrupt end of the 'vacation from history'

Posted

Sept. 11, 2001, dawned as a beautiful late summer day in Providence. I took a few seconds to savor the blue sky and welcoming temperature before pulling open the big door at 150 Chestnut St. in the Jewelry District, the home at the time of The Providence Phoenix, where I worked at the time.

A little later, news of the awful events of the day started seeping in, and people gathered in a conference room to watch, aghast, what was happening on television.

This marked the abrupt end of the “vacation from history” – the relatively placid years since the end of the Cold War. It signaled the launch of the Global War on Terror (with a huge toll in blood and treasure), a transformation in airport security, a new proliferation of conspiracy theories, and the shifting polarities of unity and polarization that remain with us.

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, state officials gathered on the Statehouse lawn, the same place where many of us sought solace during a vigil after the attack, to honor those who lost their lives and the sacrifices made by members of the armed services.

***

Ana Gonzalez of our Mosaic podcast talks with Sher Singh, a network engineer, who was pulled off a train in Providence the day after Sept. 11 because he was wearing a kirpan, a ceremonial Sikh dagger. He said the experience “gave me maybe a lifelong desire to push myself even more than I used to to be an outreach kind of a person. Because it really struck me somewhere that this, my identity has to stand for itself.”

Asked if he ever gets angry about what happened that Sept. 12, Singh said, “No, I don’t. Whatever I can make a positive change, whatever thought can improve life for me and life for people around me and others, that’s where I’ll think about, and that’s where I want to focus on.”

***

Rhode Island Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor was the first employee hired by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation – the group charged with plotting the redevelopment of the area after 9/11. Pryor was working for a different agency whose office was near the World Trade Center when the attack occurred. After the initial evacuation, he signed on with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Pryor recalls that public opinion about what to do with the site of the attack was all over the place.

“You had people who thought that the site was sacred and as a result should not be rebuilt,” he said. “We had people who thought that the Twin Towers should be reconstructed verbatim exactly as they were and then there was an array of opinion in between.”

While the sense of unity in the aftermath of 9/11 has seemed less evident in recent years, Pryor says he holds fast to his memories of how Americans worked together with common purpose in the time after the attack, and how New York City bounced back. He planed to be in New York for a 9/11 remembrance ceremony.

***

WPRI reported last week on how a brand new consulting firm won a state contract worth more than $5 million to work on Rhode Island’s back to school policies, despite charging millions more than another outfit with a longer track record. The leadership at ILO Group LLC are former execs with an education nonprofit whose CEO is Mike McGee, an ally and adviser to Gov. Dan McKee.

The governor said he wasn’t concerned, saying in part, “I just want good people who can figure out how to help the state of Rhode Island and education, and that’s what we got.”

However, following on the heels of the Tony Silva controversy, stories like this could threaten McKee’s political appeal, which is based on a persona as an everyday Rhode Islander distanced from know-a-guy politics.

***

After five terms as a state rep from East Providence, Rep. Gregg Amore is making a move, announcing his Democratic run for secretary of state Wednesday in front of the new East Providence High School.

Amore, 54, has been a history teacher and athletic director for years, so he describes his campaign as a logical step.

“My primary focus would be civic engagement,” he said on Political Roundtable last week. “I think it’s tremendously important to celebrate the idea of voting and we should celebrate voting like we do other holidays, Cinco de Mayo, whatever it might be. There should be the celebratory nature about voting because it’s the most fundamental right of our democracy. I would like to get into the schools, onto the university campuses, get into neighborhoods, and engage people about what their vote means and how important it is.”

***

Amore short takes, via Roundtable: the rep, a deputy majority leader in the House, said he doesn’t know why lawmakers haven’t put back in place for 2022 early voting and other measures that proved very popular during the pandemic. In rejecting the possibility that the stasis may be due to a view among the state Senate leadership that early voting favors progressives, Amore said early voting doesn’t benefit a particular ideology … Amore said he agrees with critics that it’s an inherent conflict for lawmakers to be running the redistricting process that determines the shape of legislative districts. “I do believe that there should be a neutral agency that determines redistricting,” he said … Amore said he favors keeping the current division of power on running elections between the state BOE and the secretary of state’s office. He also backs keeping public records enforcement in the AG’s office, rather than moving it to the secretary of state’s office (which has authority for public records enforcement in Massachusetts).

***

To critics, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s selection of a civilian for a high-ranking police position is emblematic of his tenure, a bullheaded way to pull defeat from victory.

Sure, there’s a good case to be made (via the Boston Globe’s Dan McGowan) that Mike Stephens, with deep roots and heaps of credibility in Providence, is what the city needs right now.

Then again, it’s completely unsurprising that Elorza’s move to make someone with no police experience into a major has drawn flak from the FOP, City Council President John Igliozzi, and the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers.

This back and forth obscures the opportunity to update policing in Providence, with new approaches possibly leading to better outcomes and a more efficient use of resources.

***

Encompass Health, the big publicly held Alabama company that wants to build a rehab facility in Johnston for people with ailments like strokes and broken hips, has filed another salvo.

Encompass last week filed a Superior Court appeal of a decision in which a state hearing officer overturned Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott’s approval of the project. An independent consultant found the project isn’t needed, and operators of existing rehab facilities fear it will cut into their business.

In her appeal, lawyer Patricia Rocha of Adler Pollock and Sheehan argues in part that hearing officer Catherine R. Warren’s decision was based on unlawful procedure, affected by other error of law, and “clearly erroneous in view of … the whole record.” Stay tuned for more details.

***

It seems like it’s only a matter of time until Rhode Island legalizes marijuana. First, though, the House and Senate have to reconcile their competing proposals before then trying to work something out with Gov. McKee.

It remains unclear for now if the issue will be taken up this fall, although it’s increasingly doubtful. Legalization could be on track for early in the 2022 session, or perhaps later, given how cannabis is far less of a controversial issue than just a few years ago.

Regardless, the overarching question is whether the gold rush of legalization will benefit mostly connected individuals without seriously addressing the hangover of the war of drugs.

With that in mind, the progressive group Reclaim RI staged a presser to call for marijuana legislation “that would center racial and economic justice.”

The group is urging support for these five priorities: “Automatic expungement of prior marijuana-related offenses; Waiving of pending and outstanding penalties, fines, and court fees for marijuana-related charges; 50% allocation of new licenses for social equity applicants; 25% allocation of new licenses for worker-owned cooperatives; Require cannabis licensors to enter into a labor peace agreement so that workers can organize unions.”

***

Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Lanphear has found that the state Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) followed the law when it went into mediation with the owner of a Block Island marina. As my colleague Sofie Rudin reports, this comes after the marina dispute fractured trust in the CRMC and raised questions about the process. Add to that how powerful figures like leading lobbyist Robert Goldberg are part of the Champlin’s case and “It’s the nexus of power and money,” said John Marion of Common Cause of Rhode Island.

***

U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin used an op-ed in the ProJo last week to explain why he will now support abortion rights in federal law: “Today, it is clear that radicalism has overtaken nuance. Faced with the reality that Roe might no longer be the law of the land in a few months, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot support a reality where extremist state legislators can dictate women’s medical decisions. At the end of the day, we have to put our trust in women.”

Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin responded by excoriating Langevin, while groups backing reproductive rights applauded his move.

***

Dr. Javier Montañez, the acting school superintendent in Providence, spoke with my colleague John Bender about the start of the new school year. Excerpt, on the mental and social fallout from the pandemic: “It has taken a toll on the adults and students. It has touched each and every one of us in one way or another. But one of the things that we did, starting last year, was make sure that we had a program put in place for social-emotional learning where the teachers do lessons with the students, and just check in on them. As an administrator, in my building, we did it twice a day. Also making sure that we were having conversations with the adults as well because they also suffer from this.”

***

Rest in Peace, Michael K. Williams, a gifted actor gone way too soon and the man who breathed vivid life into one of the most indelible characters to ever cross the golden age of the small screen.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. You can follow him on Twitter (@IanDon). For a longer version of this column or to sign up for email delivery, visit www.thepublicsradio.org.

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