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Fear and Clothing in North Smithfield


Mitchell Johnson Alina Kulman Lauren Black

Illustration: Claribel Wu,

A small Rhode Island town, a massive corporation, and the cost of free speech.


Fear and Clothing in North Smithfield

Mitchell Johnson, Alina Kulman, and Lauren Black

Here’s a story you probably know about. In 2016, at a football game, Colin Kaepernick – the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers – decided to kneel during the national anthem. Afterward, he had a impromptu press conference in the locker room, completely surrounded by reporters.

CK: I can’t look in the mirror and see other people dying on the street that should have the same opportunities that I’ve had, and say, you know what? I can live with myself, because I can’t if I just watch.

He explained that by kneeling for the anthem, he was calling attention to police brutality against black people and people of color. This immediately set off a nationwide controversy.

Anchor 1: Colin Kaepernick is speaking out about his protest, and he’s not backing down. With fans by the thousands attacking him online for refusing to stand. As you mentioned, some even burning his jersey, now the quarterback… Anchor 2: Now the quarterback is sparking new controversy, for wearing these socks showing police officers as pigs.
Anchor 3: Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police injustice seems to be gaining tractions.
Trump: wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘somebody get that son of a bitch off the field right now!’

His protest soon caught on, and football players–not just on his team, but other NFL teams, high school teams– all started kneeling in protest. But Kaepernick faced consequences for it: he was essentially blacklisted by the NFL, unable to find a team that would hire him. He’s still not signed to a team. Even as he continued to speak out, the media had largely moved on.

Until this September. When Nike, the athletics company, released a huge ad campaign, big billboard in times square, with his face. It’s in black and white, and it’s incredibly intimate. You can see the lines on his face, each individual eyelash. And across his face, in white letters, it says “Believe in something, even if that means sacrificing everything.” This put Kaepernick back in the news, and back at the center of

conservative vitriol across the country. And it prompted a series of protests, from conservatives. If Kaepernick kneeled, they seemed to say, we could also make a stand.

[montage of conservatives burning their Nike gear].
That’s the national story. The one pundits argued about on TV. But it didn’t stay there.

[clip from initial meeting and fade under]:

This is a recording from the town council meeting of North Smithfield, RI, on Sept 17th. North Smithfield is a town of 12 thousand people, in the northwest corner of the state, about a 25 minute drive from Providence. It’s a conservative town in a blue state–it went for Trump by over 10 points in 2016. It’s 95% white.

On the first and third Monday of each month, N. Smithfield’s town council meets in the local middle school. In a typical meeting, it’s what you would expect– they discuss taxes, potholes, normal town council stuff. But this meeting was different–people were upset.

John Flaherty: this is an embarrassment on this town!

That’s John Flaherty, a N.Smithfield resident. He’s referring to a resolution, proposed at the meeting by town council president John Beauregard.

The resolution begins:

“Whereas, Colin Kaepernick has been selected as a representative of the Nike Sporting Goods and Clothing Company,

Whereas, Colin Kaepernick has compared police to modern day slave patrols,

Whereas, Colin Kaepernick has shown such disdain for the police officers who have truly sacrificed everything when (in reality) he has sacrificed nothing,”

The list goes through several more points, arguing that Nike’s ad campaign was quote “a slap in the face” to law enforcement, before arriving at the final sentence:

“Now, therefore, be it resolved that the Town Council of the Town of North Smithfield hereby requests that the School Department as well as other

departments of the town refrain from purchasing products from the “Nike” sporting goods and clothing company.”

The resolution would pretty much only apply to the local school district, who might buy Nike gear for student sports teams. But the larger purpose was symbolic–Beauregard wanted the city council to take a stand, to echo, in law, a common conservative response to Kaepernick: Blue Lives Matter.

By the meeting on Sept 17th, the agenda was set. Five people elected by a town of 12,000 were going to consider boycotting Nike, the largest sports company in the world, valued at almost $30 billion dollars.

The meeting was packed. Before the council voted, it began with open forum, where citizens are each allowed to speak for 2 minutes. Person after person came up to voice their opposition to the resolution:

Person1: I think this is despicable. This is not good governance. This is not transparent government
Person 2: I’m here to tell you tonight that this resolution is not who we are as a town. (applause)

Person 3: Colin Kaepernick is using his first amendment right to free speech, to bring attention to the injustices faced by people of color.
Person 4: I would like to take a few minutes of your time to defend Nike and their use of Colin Kaepernick as a spokesperson, but more importantly as a role model for freedom of speech.

Person 3: It’s that simple!

They spoke out against the resolution, arguing that it was racist, that it sent a hostile message to people of color. Many people argued that the resolution was evidence that places like North Smithfield– even though it’s in New England, even though it’s in a blue state– were racist. Julia Gordon-Zachary, from North Providence, gave a long, impassioned speech.

JGZ: Honestly, I could care less as a black woman whether or not people support Kaepernick or not, but what really concerns me is the language. Because the larger purpose of this based on the rhetoric, the analysis of the rhetoric, is not necessarily about Nike, okay? It’s not really about policing. It’s about sending a message about who can be involved in this town.

At this point, something sort of shocking happened. Claire O’Hara, a member of the city council, stood up and interrupted.

CO: I don’t believe it, I am sorry, I cannot sit here. Many of you know me–
JGZ: No, I’m not, this is not personal!
Crowd: Give her her two minutes!
JGZ: Ma’am, this is not personal. As I stated when I stood here, I don’t know any of you. This is honestly not personal. What I’m suggesting to you is that there is power in words.

It’s hard not to feel cynical watching this moment on video. Everyone’s been talking about free speech all night–both the council members and the townspeople. Whether it’s the right to boycott Nike, or the right to protest police brutality, they’re all arguing that free speech is a fundamental right, that everyone has it and it shouldn’t be taken away. And in the middle of all this, a white town council member is literally speaking over a black woman, one of only two black people who spoke at the meeting. During O’Hara’s turn to speak, later in the meeting, she will address Gordon-Zachary again, who she will refer to as the “young girl in the Black Lives Matter shirt.” O’Hara will then insist: “All Lives Matter.”

By the end of open forum, over 20 people had spoken out against the resolution, and only one spoke in favor.

Finally, it’s time for the council to vote:

JB: Roll call please
Clerk: Mrs. Bartomioli? Bartomioli: No
Clerk: Mr. McGee?
McGee: No
Clerk: Mrs. O’Hara?
O’Hara: (long pause) Yes
Clerk: Mr. Zwolenski? Zwolenski: Yes.
Clerk: Mr. Beauregard? Beauregard: Yes. Motion passes [groan from the audience]

The resolution passes, 3 to 2. The audience lets out a groan, and the meeting’s over.

[music in and fade under]

Over the next week, the resolution gets a lot of attention. The story is featured in news outlets throughout Rhode Island. The Associated Press story about it is published in newspapers around the country – Tampa, San Antonio, D.C. And the public response, like in the meeting, was overwhelmingly negative.

Of course, there are a whole host of ​other ​reasons why a town might want to boycott Nike– the company has some of the worst labor practices of any in its factories overseas, and countless workers in the US have filed complaints about sexual harassment. That’s what’s so strange about this story– one can imagine a situation in which a more left-leaning town council does the same thing: boycotts Nike, in solidarity with the workers in Nike factories making 60 cents an hour. But instead, the resolution was in support of police officers, and civil rights organizations like the ACLU denounced it as soon as it went public. According to Steven Brown, the director of the RI ACLU, it was a clear case of a free speech violation:

Brown: The ACLU was very concerned about the 1st Amendment implications of the resolution. What it was essentially doing was telling uh town officials that they should not purchase products from a company solely because of a political position

Mitchell Johnson: And who, uh, who’s first amendment rights exactly, uh, do you think would have been violated by the resolution?

Brown: Uh, it would’ve been the first amendment rights of Nike. Um, they were the ones who were essentially being punished because of their ad campaign with Colin Kaepernick.

MJ: Does Nike have protections under the first amendment?

Brown: Oh, absolutely. Uh, the first amendment applies to individuals, it applies to organizations, it applies to, um, corporations and businesses. All of them are protected by the first amendment.

But if a government body boycotting a corporation for political reasons violates that corporation’s free speech, it opens up a whole host of questions about what counts as a “political reason”. Could a town ban Nike for unfair working conditions? Could a town

divest from fossil fuels? Brown says that the answers to these questions are still being decided, in courts around the country:

Brown: So this is an issue that courts are grappling with as we speak, and I think it’ll be a little while I think before definitive court decisions are made on those issues.

But the North Smithfield case did not end up in court. Not even a week after the resolution passed, Beauregard called for a special meeting. At the meeting, the resolution would be rescinded. In a press release, he said that this wasn’t because he changed his mind– he just wanted the controversy to end.

[fade in meeting sound]

As the sun sets on the evening of September 24th, about a hundred people and a dozen or so journalists once again gather in the cafeteria of North Smithfield Middle School. Excited energy fills the room. Many people–and one entire family–are wearing full outfits of Nike gear. Once you started looking for it, you can see the symbol everywhere, splashed across sweatshirts, baseball caps, and athletic shorts. One sign reads: “Abuse: Just Don’t Do It” underlined with a Nike swoosh.

Beauregard stands behind the council table as everyone files in. He mingles with various men in suits–city employees–laughing and shaking hands. He’s confident, more relaxed than you’d expect given the criticism he’s received.

Beauregard: (mic feedback) Am I on? Special meeting of North Smithfield Town Council September 24th, 2018. Madame Clerk will you lead us in the prayer, and the pledge please.

After the last council members take their seats, everyone stands for the pledge of allegiance.

[pledge of allegiance begins]
Toward the back of the room, one man pointedly emphasizes the pledge’s final words:

for all.

And then the meeting begins. A hush falls over the room, and all of a sudden the place feels tense.

Beauregard: I will now make the motion to withdraw the resolution. Clearly I made a mistake in having the town take a formal position on this issue. But states and municipalities have a history of choosing not to do business with corporations for moral reasons. If my position offended some of the minority community, I assure you it was not my intention, and I apologize for that. There is clearly a large gap in the way that we perceive things. This is something that has to be worked on by both sides. I also apologize to the people of North Smithfield for the unwanted attention this has brought. Some groups have actually called for protests at our children’s sporting events. Makes me wonder what kind of people make threats against innocent children, just to make a political point?

[audience starts yelling, one man says “shut the fuck up!”] Beauregard: who said that? Get out.

In case you couldn’t hear, a man told Beauregard to shut the f– up, and was then asked to leave.

[audience claps, one woman in the back yells: “freedom of speech!”]

Beauregard: See, now I lost my spot.
[yell from audience: “good!”]
Unknown woman: you were apologizing. To the people of the town.

Beauregard: Okay now we have a motion to withdraw, and we have a second. Anyone else wish for comment? (pause) Roll call.

[roll call, they all vote yes]

Beauregard: Meeting adjourned. (gavel)

And then, after fewer than 5 minutes, it’s over. The resolution has been rescinded. As of about 7pm on September 24th, the taxpayer dollars of North Smithfield residents are once again free to go toward the Nike corporation. Some protestors are chanting “vote them out!”

And the entire council ​is​ up for re-election in November. But there are 6 people running for 5 seats, so at most, only one of the three council members who supported the resolution could be replaced.

After the meeting, and later over email, John Beauregard declined a one-on-one interview. Terri Bartomioli and John McGee, the two people who voted against the resolution, both also declined interviews.

Outside the meeting, people are hanging around. Chatting, catching up–the tension is gone and it feels like any other small-town community event. We asked residents about how they were making sense of this ordeal, what they thought it meant for their community. In these clips, you’ll hear my voice as well as Now Here This producer Lauren Black, who was also there asking questions.

Lauren: Excuse me? I’m working with a student podcast, could I..

DA: sure
This is David Andrews, who grew up in North Smithfield.

DA: I suppose that if council voted to ban nike for bad business practices, I wouldn’t have minded quite so much. But when they specifically named Colin Kaepernick it became about race

DA: Growing up, uh the n-word, racial epithets thrown about pretty freely and with impunity. It exists. It’s still here

Joe Birgeo agrees. He says that racism is also a big problem in Warwick, where he’s from.

JB: Oh my god, Warwick’s even w–Warwick’s pretty bad. Like almost half of Warwick voted for Trump. We’re supposed to be a fucking–we’re supposed to be a blue state, but we’ve got so many racists and bigots it’s just insane.

Some residents are trying to address this. Cynthia Roberts grew up in N. Smithfield, CR: I work against racism, as like an aspiring white ally in my work

Most of her family and friends live there. She recently decided to raise kids in the town.

CR: so I would like to contribute in positive ways to the community that I’m living in, and it’s like I can’t..

Stranger: Are you coming tomorrow night?

CR: I’m gonna try to, I have work until later but I’m gonna try to catch like the last half hour!

…So I’m just trying to kind of apply the things that really matter to me, in my life, in my big life, and apply it to where I live.

She says she’s hopeful the Nike resolution started a productive debate about racism in North Smithfield, but also worries that it might make things even more polarized

CR: It might create a further divide in our community, like an us and them divide. Which I feel like has been happening ever since the 2016 presidential election. So I feel like it’s a reflection of that dynamic, sadly.

Talking to resident, that divide is made clear. Not everyone thinks that things need to change, or that racism exists in the town at all. Here’s Al Vallier, who grew up there

MJ: Do you live in N. Smithfield?

AV: Yes. All my life. 72 years. Minus a day, when I was in Woonsocket. He doesn’t see a problem.

AV: Structural racism in this town ? Is that what you said? MJ: Yeah I think a lot of people were arguing that..

AV: Well I don’t see any structural.. I don’t see that here. I’m hoping that the news realizes that no one here is a racist, no one here is homophobic, no one here is gonna make that kind of language. Basically, we’re farm people most of the time. We take care of one another.

For the people of North Smithfield, that’s what this debate boils down to. Some people pointing out that racism is a real issue in the town, and other people saying no, in my opinion, that doesn’t exist.

[music in and fade under]

The town council isn’t unique: the mayor of a town called Kenner, Louisiana, recently banned city departments from buying Nike, before undoing the measure later. A Christian college in Cleveland banned Nike, and another college in Georgia.

There’s a lot of discussion right now about how politically polarized this country is. After the 2016 election, news outlets have published countless op-eds about how social media is pushing us apart, or how we need to listen to each other and remember how to compromise. And there’s a way of thinking about North Smithfield like that, too. About how the resolution points to either the deepening partisan divisions in the town, or the

possibility that a conversation– about police brutality, and structural racism in New England– could lead to real change.

What gets left out of this are the ways that the terms of the debate itself are deeply flawed. It’s worth noting that the resolution was never legally binding– Beauregard – the town council president – was just using the government to express his personal opinion that Colin Kaepernick shouldn’t speak his mind or disrespect the flag. Then, on the other side, you have protestors flocking to the meeting, covered in Nike swooshes to represent their progressive values. But Nike was never anti-police, or anti-racist for that matter. They’re a corporation, focused on profits. Since the Kaepernick ad, Nike’s shares have gone way up– adding about 6 billion dollars to the company’s market value.

All of the talk about polarization, and bridging divides between individuals with different opinions, assumes that everyone speaking in this debate has equal power. But in reality, claims to free speech–that everyone has it, even companies, even governments, and we can all just talk to each other–these claims can feel a lot like being shouted down in a meeting with the words “All Lives Matter.” It’s telling that this whole ordeal started with a black football player peacefully protesting and then being silenced by his employer.

At the end of the day in North Smithfield, the resolution was rescinded, and for the people who opposed it, who thought it was racist, that feels like a victory. If politics is a sport, their team won. But maybe the whole game is rigged.

[music up and out]