Black Lives Matter flag flies above Bristol Town Hall

After long and emotional testimony from residents, Bristol Town Council says yes to the flag

By Scott Pickering
Posted 6/17/20

A Black Lives Matter flag flies over Bristol Town Hall this week, a week after the Bristol Town Council voted unanimously to approve a citizen’s request to take that unprecedented step. Though …

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Black Lives Matter flag flies above Bristol Town Hall

After long and emotional testimony from residents, Bristol Town Council says yes to the flag

Posted

A Black Lives Matter flag flies over Bristol Town Hall this week, a week after the Bristol Town Council voted unanimously to approve a citizen’s request to take that unprecedented step. Though the formal request came from Keelin Philippe, her husband Roberto and a long line of other Bristol residents spent more than an hour telling town councilors why flying that flag would be a strong, symbolic gesture that Bristol does not tolerate racism and welcomes people of all races and nationalities.

In a town council meeting held via Zoom last Wednesday night, June 10, a few dozen residents spoke in favor of the gesture, some telling powerful stories of racism in their own lives. Mr. Philippe, who is black, said he has felt uncomfortable with glances and looks he receives while going around town on a regular basis.

“I haven’t had anything egregious happen, but it’s in the small instances, the day to day, that I haven’t actually felt the most welcome, the most accepted, in the community — in just the small little glances or looks as I’ve walked in stores, whether it be in Stop ’n Shop or Ace or Ocean State Job Lot,” Mr. Philippe said. “The glances on a day to day basis can become a little overwhelming … Putting up a Black Lives Matter flag would be transformationally affirming to the children of color who reside in town as well as visit our town.”

Called the ‘N’ word in Bristol

Jamie Brooks, who is white, talked about raising three bi-racial children and their experiences with racism in Bristol. She said a white father once pulled his children from the Town Common playground and called their black father the “N” word, telling him to leave town. She also said her son, a Mt. Hope High School football player, was repeatedly called the “N” word by an opponent during a football game, and that no one did anything to address or stop it.

“I have three black children,” Ms. Brooks said. “Racism is alive in Bristol, and as much as I’d think it’s not, and I’d like to think when I made the decision to have bi-racial children 21 years ago, that times would have changed by now, they haven’t.”

Of the Black Lives Matter request, she said, “This isn’t a political movement, it’s a lifetime movement. It’s not a holiday or a celebration or a recognition. It’s a way for us to tell people who are black that we respect you, we hear you, and we want to make change.”

At the inception of the discussion, council President Nathan Calouro raised a couple of issues with the Philippes’ request. First, he questioned some of the tenets advocated on the Black Lives Matter website, including “de-funding” police departments. “I vehemently oppose that,” Mr. Calouro said. “How do you differentiate between hanging the flag and some of the things Black Lives Matter represents,” he asked the Philippes.

Mrs. Philippe responded, “We are so lucky to live in Bristol. We have been amazed by the community policing here. There are no calls to defund the police here … However, there are systems around the country that are set up to keep black people from realizing true justice. And while the hot issue on Black Lives Matter right now is about defunding the police, it’s really about schools and curriculums and housing. It’s about equity in getting jobs. They’re fighting for justice for black people across all those things. The most important thing is that they’re saying, ‘black lives matter.’ For 400 years, we have not taken that stance. We say all lives matter, but all lives can’t matter until black lives matter. So it’s breaking down the historic systems, that began right here in Bristol, where people were brought to this country without wanting to be coming here, and they were used for capital gain.”

Flags usually fly for one day

The second issue Mr. Calouro raised is that Bristol has no policy for how and when to raise flags other than its own or the American flag. They have a standard procedure — which is to fly a flag for visiting dignitaries or special celebrations for one day only. The Philippes were asking for the whole month of June.

The town’s legal counsel, Michael Ursillo, recommended that Bristol stay consistent with past decisions and fly the flag for just one day. But Councilor Timothy Sweeney made the motion to fly the flag for the rest of June and Councilor Aaron Ley seconded his motion. Mr. Sweeney declined Mr. Calouro’s suggestion that they follow protocol and approve the flag for just one day, and ultimately the council voted unanimously in favor of that motion.

Mr. Calouro added that he stands by his expressed concerns about some of the Black Lives Matter platform, but he was definitely in favor of the decision to fly the flag, especially in light of the powerful testimony from residents.

In their own words ... Residents talk about what the Black Lives Matter flag means to them

Following are some of the comments from Bristol residents, both pro and con, during more than an hour of testimony about flying the Black Lives Matter flag above Bristol Town Hall.

Madeline Lessing

“I think flying this flag is the beginning of the healing and the very least we can do to acknowledge our town’s wide history of anti-blackness. When I say that, I mean systemically. I don’t necessarily mean blatantly. Our schools and parks are named in honor of people who opposed the abolition of slavery, or owned and enslaved people themselves … The patriotism we celebrate here in Bristol, and that I was taught about in my history classes, is a limited perspective. It’s one of often white superiority, and the omissions of black narratives.  Slavery has a huge legacy in both our state and our town.”

Keelin Philippe

“We have yet to hear anything from the Town of Bristol, and by staying silent, our town can be seen as complicit in the continuation of systemic racism that has pervaded our country for too long. Our town, unfortunately, has a sordid history with racism, as it was founded on the slave trade. I’m wondering what we have done as a town to denounce this history and stand with our black citizens.”

Roberto Philippe

“This flag is not anti-police. I want to really stress that … Bristol stands out as a shining star of what community policing means. So I mean no disrespect by asking for this flag. I just hope that we take this opportunity to stand as a model community for other communities on how to be inclusive and to embrace all members of this community.”

Rob Hancock

“We can send a clear and compelling statement to our black residents here, and to those who might look to join us here in Bristol, that you are valued, that you are important, that you are loved, and we welcome you here in our community.”

Linette Lessing

“I have children here who have witnessed many incidents of racism in the school system toward students of color … We have to face facts that racism does exist in our beautiful little town … I appeal to you to recognize the historic importance of these times, to recognize Bristol’s horrific past in importing slaves. So much of the wealth of this town was built on slave trade money. And to understand that black people have been waiting 400 years to fully recognize that their lives matter, too.”

Michael Byrnes

“I’m opposed to raising the flag … It’s a slippery slope to raise flags for political movements. I think it becomes very divisive. It’s a feel-good action. While there are many concrete actions that we should be taking to help all our brothers and sisters … You cannot separate the flag from the movement, and I think the movement has some policies that many Bristolians would be very opposed to. Defunding the police has been mentioned. Somebody has tried to talk through that, but it’s very clear [on the Black Lives Matter website] that that’s a major program. And if that’s the message that we want to send to our police department, to the men and women who serve us so well, I think that’s a significant mistake.”

Town Councilor Timothy Sweeney

“This sends a really strong message that Bristol is a compassionate community. It also reminds us to stand up for liberty and justice. And what’s more patriotic than that? Our town is so patriotic. This says, we validate those African Americans, and we want them in our town, they are welcome, and we support them.”

Town Councilor Aaron Ley

“Now is really our critical time to act. We have an opportunity here to send a powerful signal of what should have been obvious to us 400 years ago, and that’s that black lives matter, and justice in our nation should be administered equally and without regard for skin color.”

Town Councilor Mary Parella

“I want to be sure that we don’t do this and we feel like we’ve accomplished something. It’s more important how people are treated by their landlords, by shopkeepers, by restauranteurs, by everybody they come in contact with, and the police and all government officials. That’s really key … This is one small step, but this is certainly not all the steps that need to be taken.”

Nick Puniello

“I agree with a number of the tenets of the Black Lives movement … I just don’t feel it’s appropriate for the town to pick and choose which movements to support.”

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Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.