Column in Providence Journal: The Colonial (or Colonizing) Parade

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

Once again, I've gotten another piece published in the Providence Journal (I had this one published in February).  I don't know if that's a reflection of my ability to write or lower journalistic standards these days and newspapers lacking a lot of folks doing this kind of thing.  A little bit of both, mayhaps. 

This one came to me in a flurry last week--that's not entirely true.  I've been writing this piece in my head for over a year--ever since I first encountered it last year and continued to mull about the elements that colluded to make something like this possible.  On Tuesday, June 6, I was cycling along Narragansett Parkway in Cranston, and sure enough, the chairs were back.  As I continued on my bike ride, the urge to write consumed me and as soon as I was at my desk, the words flew.  So, here you have it.  

They titled it "Parade delivers another lesson on colonizing" but I preferred my title below. After sharing it with my good friend and colleague, Sage, she highlighted that it would have been further useful to highlight that a lot of the work of the customs agents and the ships in the harbor in Rhode Island were also participating in the slave trade as well--something that Rhode Island and other New England colonies profited from as well.
A screenshot of the newspaper that includes the title "Parade delivers another lesson on colonizing" and a photo of people dressed in Revolutionary garb and playing musical instruments.
Parade delivers another
lesson on colonizing

The Colonial (or Colonizing) Parade

Mark Twain’s quote, "History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes” can be seen alive and well on Narragansett Parkway this week. On Saturday, Paxtuxet Village will hold its annual Gaspee Days parade to celebrate British colonists torching a British ship because a British customs officer was overly aggressive in claiming illicit property.  

In the following years, those colonists, too, would aggressively claim property that wasn’t theirs in one of history’s greatest land grabs, the American Revolution.  After all, what else would you call it when tenants claim they own the land they had been renting?  And, of course, that ignores that much of these lands were acquired through the theft or murder of indigenous peoples.  In the following century, just for good measure, the descendants of those torching-ship colonists in their quest for more “freedom” would strip lands and rights from the Narragansett people, the very people for whom this parkway is named.  

Beyond the evident connection of an annual celebration of one’s freedom that proves integral to the oppression of others, there is one other fascinating element that connects Twain’s quote to the Gaspee Days Parade.  

Last week, chairs slowly appeared along the parkway’s sidewalks.  First, a few, and by the middle of this week, nearly a hundred (mostly plastic) chairs sat unoccupied.  Many chairs were tied or chained down as if they were going to up and run away while others were wrapped in caution tape; lingering evidence in a  crime scene.  In other spots, rope or caution tape was just looped around trees and posts, closing off a section.  It’s quite the sight to see all these empty chairs at night–it’s as if spirits are attending some spectral parade to which we aren’t privy.  

So what’s happening here?  Well, the local residents are claiming property that is not theirs (i.e. the green patch of sidewalks both in front of their house and other spots are public property) so they can enjoy front-row seats to the parade and doing so in a way to preclude people whom they see do not belong there. These others that don’t live there, at best, deserve the back-row seats. 

It’s strange to think but those chairs represent an assertion of power–the right to claim space that doesn’t belong to you.  After all, what would happen if someone came along and occupied those abandoned chairs, destroyed them, or replaced them with their own chairs?  It’s hard not to imagine that the next course of action would entail confrontation, some pseudo-legal claim of property (though abandoned on public property), or force (individually or through enlisting the police).  Ultimately, these folks’ rationalization of their right to claim public property would boil down to a mixture of “because it’s there” and “because I can.”  

To watch this scene play out year after year, one cannot help but think that even in rituals such as parades, our legacy of colonialism and right by assertion or force looms large in our psyche. As a microcosm of the US American legacy, it raises lots of questions about when some people’s freedom comes at the cost or threat to other people’s freedom.

Did you enjoy this read? Let me know your thoughts down below or feel free to browse around and check out some of my other posts!. You might also want to keep up to date with my blog by signing up for them via email.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.