Providence city councilwoman, Kat Kerwin, came out this morning and publicly said that she supports the recent vandalism of the Christopher Columbus statue in the city that she represents. She sees the destruction of public property as a form of civil disobedience—but only when it aligns with her world view or her opinion of what is and is not oppressive and unjust.
When presented with some hypotheticals by Gene Valicenti on his radio show, she quickly exposed herself as someone who believes that she gets to decide which opinions are worthy of property destruction and which ones are not. For example, when Valicente asked her if she would support people, who oppose their tax dollars continuing to flow into her city’s failing school system, throwing paint on school buildings, she said no. (Though she went on to qualify it and say she especially wouldn’t support it if the person didn’t live in Providence. This is a bit hard to square since since so much money flows into Providence from other RI communities.) When asked if she would endorse throwing paint on the speed cams hidden throughout Providence, she said no.
Oppression seems to be how she distinguishes what public property should and should not be destroyed. But what she fails to realize—or at least acknowledge— is that countless parents and students would describe their experiences in school, including in Providence, as oppressive. In fact, it is a word that is frequently used in conversations about chronically underperforming schools. Uninhabitable conditions—which describes at least some Providence school buildings—are clear examples of oppression. Perhaps she has a blind spot on the issue because she exited her zoned school system to attend private school.
Teen Vogue featured Kerwin in May of 2018 in an article about young activists running for office—in the piece, Kerwin is quoted as saying that “running for office means making Providence a national example of what progressive policy-making can achieve.” But can she really call herself progressive when she sees herself as the arbiter of what constitutes oppression and what qualifies as justifiable destruction of public property? Does Kat Kerwin, who is white, realize that 90 percent of 8th grade black boys in the United States do not read on grade level? Or that only 14 percent of Providence students read on grade level? Or that only 10 percent of Providence students do math on grade level?
Twice during the radio show she describes the vandalism of the Columbus as an act of civil disobedience. She said that the vandalism had started an important dialogue. But based on that standard, how then can she oppose parents and community members who have been ignored for decades deciding that the only way to bring attention to an issue is to destroy public property? The 2019 Johns Hopkins report looks an awful lot like the 1993 report — let’s imagine the heartache and desperation Providence residents feel over that. But if they were to break windows and throw paint on a school building that has oppressed their family for generations, Kerwin would not support them—or maybe she would, but only if they still live in Providence now.
This is arrogant and dangerous talk from an elected official. First of all, she does not get to have the final word for other people on what does and does not oppress them. And secondly, vandalism and destruction of public property are not only against the law but can escalate quickly and turn dangerous. Taken to its logical conclusion, her argument could be used to justify vandalizing and destroying private property, including hers.
It is irresponsible for a sitting city councilor, or any elected official, to endorse and defend what happened to the Columbus statue over the week. Kat Kerwin will rue the day she defended it if and when folks who vehemently disagree with her use the same argument to destroy something else.
If you want to hear the conversation for yourself, it is available at WPRO here.
Feature photo by Steve Klamkin of WPRO news.