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Montiero: NAACP mulling litigation on public safety jobs

Cliff Montiero, president of the Providence chapter of the NAACP, says he may seek support from his national organization to bring legal action challenging the paucity of minorities in municipal public safety positions in some Rhode Island communities.

Montiero, who made the statement during a taping this morning of WPRI/WNAC-TV's Newsmakers, would not identify specific communities. He said the Providence chapter would need the support of the national NAACP to go forward, and that he may look to help for AG-designate Eric Holder, who Montiero had met when Holder served in the Clinton administration.

A veteran of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Montiero was in DC for Obama's inaugural, an emotional experience, he says, that brought him to tears.

The recent high point of racial polarization in Rhode Island came with the friendly-fire shooting death of Providence police Officer Cornel Young Jr. in 2000. At the time, when some criticized the involvement in the case of Johnnie Cochran, I wrote:

"I don't think anyone has taken organizations like the civil rights organizations seriously," Montiero said. "The NAACP has a massive boycott in South Carolina over the Confederate flag, and they're still negotiating after a 15-year fight. If Johnnie Cochran goes in there and sues them, guess what? It won't be a 15-year fight."

Nine years later, minorities continue to face discrimination in Rhode Island, Montiero says.

With the ascent of a new generation of black political leaders, including Obama and Newark mayor Corey Booker, I asked Montiero, why more African-Americans aren't unning for office in Rhode Island? His answer was off-topic, so let's go to a piece I did in 2006 looking at efforts to organize among blacks in the Ocean State.

A small core of activists has the potential to make an impact, and it’s worth remembering that it took Rhode Island’s Latinos at least four election cycles, building on earlier efforts, to gain a wider sense of credibility. Still, in a reflection of the broader American disinterest in politics, Dash acknowledges the difficulty of attracting young peers and getting them to participate.

Considering this, it’s no wonder that civil rights veterans like Cliff Montiero, president of the Providence chapter of the NAACP, look at the current level of black political activity with consternation, noting ignorance among young people about how lives were sacrificed to “give us our right to vote.” ....

It’s proven easier for Rhode Island’s black community to muster that higher energy level in response to periodic crises, rather than for the day-in, day-out slogging required for successful political organizing.

In 2000, for example, black ministers played a key role in the response to the racially charged death of Cornel Young Jr., a promising young black Providence police officer who, in civilian clothes and while holding a gun at a crime scene, was fatally shot by two white officers who said they didn’t recognize him. Resonating as a statewide tragedy, Young’s death brought to the surface suppressed anger about perceived racial grievances, and in the aftermath of protests and activism by a broad coalition, then-Governor Lincoln Almond assembled a credible panel on police and community relations.

Similarly, in 2001, those on the short end of the stick didn’t take it lying down when legislative leaders produced a legislative redistricting plan that gave short shrift to minority communities by combining upper and lower South Providence in one Senate district, a move that produced the chamber’s first Latino senator, Juan Pichardo, although only at the cost of Charles Walton, the only black senator. A lawsuit filed in federal court by Harold Metts, the Providence branch of the NAACP, and the Urban League of Rhode Island, among others, ultimately led to a settlement that effectively doubled minority representation in the Senate, with Metts winning the subsequent special election.

In some ways, this cycle of crisis and response characterizes race relations in America; the frustrations of aggrieved minorities build until they burst, bringing a welter of mainstream attention before gradually fading from view again.

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