“Keep your tiny hands off our rights,” a sign declared. Its owner, a young blonde woman wearing bright blue lipstick, was one of the many students who walked out of her Providence high school classes to protest on the day of President Donald Trump’s Inauguration.
“Trump’s elected, we can’t change that. But what we can change is the way he treats people,” she said. “He needs to know that we know what’s wrong and we feel we didn’t have a voice, so we’re going to express our voice.”
It was hard to get an official count, but there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, rallying on the steps of the State House the day of the Presidential Inauguration. They waved banners, held signs and chanted, making themselves a demanding yet nonviolent presence.
The presence also wasn’t focused on negatives – at times, students broke out into dance parties as a band played.
It wasn’t just students on those steps – adults showed up, too. Educator Dulari Tahbildar of Breakthrough Providence said she attended because both she and her organization feel it is important to support young people and the efforts they lead. Trump’s Secretary of Education pick Betsy DeVos particularly bothered her.
“I think that she is among the worst possible people that could be in that role. She showed through her confirmation hearing that she knows not even very little, she knows nothing,” she said. “She should not be our Secretary of Education.”
At Tahbildar’s side was Federico Martinez, who said he helped organize the walkout.
“I thought it was necessary that in these upcoming times that are going to be hard for everyone to show unity and that we’re in this together,” he said.
Togetherness was a popular sense at the State House on Friday – students who spoke with the Beacon (they are not named as their advisor preferred their identities be kept private) said they felt empowered and less alone after participating.
“Now walking away, I feel a sense of I’m not alone in this. It’s really easy to feel alone when you’re going through this stuff and it’s such a powerful thing when everyone comes together,” one said through tears. “This stuff directly affects us.”
Though Providence Superintendent Christopher Maher did not approve of the walkout (numerous reports said the Superintendent did not support the walkout, sent robocalls to families before it happened, and that students who participated would have an unexcused absence), students said they still felt their First Amendment right to protest was respected. A few also noted that they felt protected by the police presence, saying it was not aggressive.
Some students additionally said they felt safe under the leadership of Governor Gina Raimondo. “She can’t protect our hurt and our emotions,” but she believes in the youth, one said.
Reporters had asked Raimondo about the walkout at an event two days before it occurred. Though she only said that to punish or not punish the students was Maher’s call, she does appear to understand the fears these students and so many others have.
“This is our founding covenant here in Rhode Island; we were founded as a state on the principle of inclusivity, particularly religious tolerance. Having said that, in recent months, I’ve heard from a lot of people who have high anxiety. We’re living in an uncertain time, particularly after Trump’s election, I’m hearing from women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, people in the LGBT community,” she told the Beacon a few days later at a different event. “They’re scared. They just don’t know what this is going to mean for them. And I want to reassure them that they are welcome in the state of Rhode Island, that we want them here, they’re part of our community and that’s not going to change.”