Q: Where was the first shot fired in the American Revolution?
A: Not at Lexington and Concord— but in the waters of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island.
On June 9, 1772, H.M.S. Gaspee, a British schooner enforcing tariffs, ran aground during low tide. Before a rising tide could lift the vessel, a group of Rhode Islanders rowed out and boarded it. They easily defeated the crew, shot and wounded an officer, and set the Gaspee ablaze.
The American Revolution had begun.
To this day in Rhode Island, the village of Pawtuxet celebrates "Gaspee Days" with great fanfare every June. And the charming seaside town of Bristol holds the oldest continuous Fourth of July celebration in America.
Maybe history will repeat itself. From its birth, Rhode Island has always been among the most independent of states—and among the most eccentric. It was the first state to declare independence from Great Britain, but the very last to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, Anti-Federalism was red hot in colonial Rhode Island and it refused to send a single representative to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Instead, Rhode Islanders formed the "Country Party" to oppose ratification of the new federal government.
They held out as long as they could, and only after much political arm-twisting did they reluctantly vote for ratification—in May, 1790, more than a year after George Washington was inaugurated President of the United States. The vote was 34-32 in favor of joining the Union.
Rhode Island's independent streak endured for a long time. For example, it was one of only two states to reject the 18th Amendment (Prohibition). Today, however, Rhode Island has lost much of that independence as they have come under the thumb of the federal government—just as the Anti-Federalists had warned. But the eccentricity remains, and so too does the endearing insularity that makes Rhode Island different from any other place in the country.
Given the size of Rhode Island, how could it be otherwise? At 1,231 square miles, the state is only slightly larger than Yosemite National Park. At its shortest points, it is only 48 miles long north to south and only 37 miles long east to west. They call it the "Ocean State" not just because of its beautiful coastline, but because virtually every Rhode Islander lives within an hour's drive of the beach.
If any state in the union can be considered a city-state, it is Rhode Island. Colonial Rhode Islanders thought of the state as their "country" and their modern day counterparts are not all that different. Rhode Islanders are defiantly proud of their state and jealously retain their local nomenclature, customs and delicacies. At many restaurants, patrons just might order a "Coffee Milk" (milk mixed with coffee syrup) or a "Cabinet" (milkshake) or an "Awful Awful" (a really thick milkshake that's "awfully big, awfully good"). And to eat, one might order "johnnycakes" (cornbread pancakes) or a "gagger" (hotdog) or some "quahogs" (hard shell clams).
It is hard to imagine how anyone could grow up in Rhode Island and consider himself a "citizen of the world".
The downside of this Ocean State insularity: an incestuous political culture. In a state where everybody knows everybody, nepotism is rampant; hence, so is political corruption.
In the last twenty years, two chief justices of the Rhode Island Supreme Court have been forced to resign, one over his alleged ties to organized crime. In 1998, former Governor Edward DiPrete went to prison for bribery after he was discovered rummaging through the trash behind a restaurant looking for an envelope filled with $10,000 that he had mistakenly thrown out. In 1984, Providence Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci was forced to resign after assaulting a man in his home with an ashtray and a fireplace log. But Cianci successfully ran again in 1990 and became the most popular mayor in the city's history until he was convicted of racketeering in 2002. His successor, David Cicilline, is the son of a well-known Mafia attorney.
"What is intriguing about Rhode Island", wrote Maria Flook in her Newport-set novel Open Water, "is this undercurrent of petty crime, and what makes it delicious is that it's set against this incredible beauty." The Ocean State has some of the prettiest towns, beaches and harbors in the country. Perhaps that is why Rhode Islanders have long been so forgiving of their culture of graft. The place is just so beautiful, you could never hold a grudge against it.
In the last decade, however, a growing number of legal and illegal immigrants began to stamp their cultural footprint onto this tiny state of just over one million people. Cities like Providence and Pawtucket began to suffer the usual sudden increase in graffiti, gang activity, and emergency rooms clogged with uninsured Spanish-speakers.
The new immigrants also brought with them a strange kind of diversity that Rhode Islanders found difficult to celebrate. It began in small ways, like the planting of a "Cesar Chavez Garden" in Providence. But the culture clash eventually became more obvious and more bizarre, for example when Bolivians began holding an ethnic celebration in Providence every summer. At the annual Urkupina Festival, participants parade a statue of the "Virgin of Urkupina" and dance the "Diablada" (Devil Dance) through the streets of downtown Providence.
Apparently, in Bolivia the miners believe that the devil rules the underworld and therefore they must placate and honor him. One participant told the Providence Journal: "The miners love the devil because he gives them money from the mines and he guards the mines." [Devils, angels abound at Bolivians' joyous, colorful Urkupina Festival, By Tatiana Pina, | The Providence Journal, August 17, 2008]
The fact that there is no mining industry in Rhode Island did not seem to faze them.
More obviously, unlike previous generations of immigrants, there newcomers seem to have almost no desire to assimilate into American culture.
For example, Tolman High School in Pawtucket was once a respectable middle class school, but it is now mostly populated by immigrants. The school has an on-site day care center for its many teenage mothers and a dropout rate of over 50 percent. Tolman's principal told the Providence Journal that many Caribbean students leave at Christmas time and do not return for months primarily because their parents do not want them to assimilate into American ways. Other students from the Dominican Republic only enroll at Tolman High long enough to learn basic English for the purposes of working in the tourist industry. Once they achieve English competency, they return home to the Dominican Republic to put their skills to work.
In the last few years, Ocean State immigrants also began to flex their political muscle, such as during the "Immigrant Boycott" in May, 2006 when immigrant advocates tried to pressure businesses to close for the day in a sign of immigrant solidarity. Thousands of immigrants marched through downtown Providence shouting "Si, se puede" and demanding their "rights." One of their principal leaders was the "charismatic" Dolores Rodriguez-Laflamme.
A purported "model minority," Ms. Laflamme worked as a Latino "community organizer" for the Democratic Party. She was visible in a number of political campaigns, including those of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Providence Mayor David Cicilline. She even ran herself to be head of a Providence ward, under the slogan "A New Beginning."
The only problem: Laflamme was an illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic. Her single attempt to gain legal status was a sham marriage to a convicted heroin dealer.
Worse, Laflamme worked at the Department of Motor Vehicles where she and several other illegal aliens had cooked up a scheme to sell Rhode Island drivers licenses for as much as $3,000 a piece. After selling hundreds of phony licenses to illegal aliens, she was finally arrested last year.
Laflamme's successor as Latino community leader is Juan Garcia of the "Comité de Inmigrantes en Acción," headquartered in the basement of a Catholic church in Providence. The main reason Garcia is reluctant to translate his organization's name into English is because he cannot speak it. He eagerly appears at press conferences and public forums, but must rely on an interpreter each time he warns immigration reformers against "racial profiling" ("perfilado racial")).
In March, 2008, Governor Don Carcieri issued an Executive Order that requires state agencies and contractors to verify the legal status of all their employees. It also directs the state police and the Department of Corrections to work with the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to ensure that federal immigration law is enforced. The order suggests—but does not require—that local law enforcement do likewise.
Governor Carcieri's Executive Order set off a predictable controversy among much of the political class. Eight members of the Governor's Hispanic Advisory Commission resigned in protest and held a press conference outside the state house. Juan Garcia, his interpreter by his side, called the Executive Order an act of "social genocide" ("genocidio social"). [Ex-Hispanic Commission members blast Carcieri, By Vinaya Saksena, Pawtucket Times, August 16, 2008]]
Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Archdiocese of Providence also condemned the Governor's Executive Order, repeating many well-refuted bromides about how immigration enforcement has "separated family members, innocent of any crime, from one another." Tobin has also asked the federal government to allow Catholic ICE agents to claim "conscientious objector status." [Bishop Tobin, Catholic Pastors Urge ICE to Cease Raids, Allow Agents to Exercise 'Conscientious Objection', Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, Press Release](It apparently has not occurred to Bishop Tobin that if Catholic ICE agents found arresting illegal aliens morally objectionable, then they would never have applied for the job.)
Governor Carcieri, a Catholic, has thus far resisted Bishop Tobin's machinations. So have the vast majority of Rhode Islanders. This is no small victory given that Rhode Island is 63% Roman Catholic, making it the most Catholic state in the union. Indeed, Bishop Tobin has characterized the public response to his calls for de facto amnesty as "vile." [Bishop says mail response to immigration letter has been 'vile', By Karen Lee Ziner, Providence Journal, September 11, 2008] But he should expect no less given that the Archdiocese of Providence has been notoriously hard-nosed when negotiating settlements with its many victims of clerical sex abuse.
Most local police departments have thus far been willing to cooperate with Governor Carcieri's order. Only the state capital of Providence has resisted. Carcieri has called Providence a "sanctuary city," but Mayor David Cicilline adamantly denies it. Cicilline also claims that the Providence Police already report all arrests to ICE. But in reality, the police only fax ICE a handwritten list of all suspects being arraigned each day—a weak attempt to avoid the label of "sanctuary city." Tellingly, ICE even offered to place one of its agents at the Providence Police headquarters but the department turned them down.
A few months after Carcieri's Executive Order, the danger of such politically-correct police work would become all too obvious. On June 8th, 27 year-old Marco Riz, an illegal alien from Guatemala, was fired from his job as a cook at the Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Warwick when he showed up for work intoxicated. Drunk and angry, Riz then left the restaurant and walked down the street toward a Stop & Shop supermarket. In the parking lot, a thirty year old woman waited in the passenger seat of an idling SUV while her mother ran a quick errand. Brandishing a twelve inch-long knife, Riz jumped into the driver's seat and demanded the woman's money and credit cards. He then put the car in drive and drove off with the terrified woman, speeding along the highway at over 100 mph until he reached Providence. Riz then drove the woman to a secluded section of a public park, dragged her into the woods, and raped her twice.
Marco Riz was arrested within days after his image, caught on a mall security camera, was broadcast across the state. It turns out that Riz was a wanted fugitive who had been ordered deported in 2004. [Fox News, YouTube] Moreover, the Providence Police had arrested Riz twice in the past year, once for assault, and once for drunk driving. In the latter arrest, Riz did not even provide a drivers license and the officer had to administer the sobriety test in Spanish. [Suspect charged in Warwick robbery, rape, By Amanda Milkovits, The Providence Journal, June 14, 2008]
Had the Providence Police notified ICE of Riz's arrest, this woman could have been spared such a nightmarish ordeal.
The highly-publicized Riz incident was a huge blow to the already reeling open borders lobby in Rhode Island. They suffered another significant defeat last week. On September 15th, a state Superior Court Judge rejected the American Civil Liberties Union's attempt to have Governor Carcieri's Executive Order overturned. Local immigrant advocates now appear to have few cards left to play.
Recently, Governor Carcieri has also formed an arrangement with ICE where illegal aliens now serving time for non-violent crimes can gain an early release from prison if they agree to immediate deportation with no possibility of returning to the U.S. This saves the state money and gives the immigrant his freedom.
Governor Don Carcieri's heroic leadership on immigration is already having a positive impact across the state. Illegals are self-deporting in high numbers. Overcrowded urban schools have seen a significant drop in enrollment this fall. The day laborers are no longer loitering on the street corners. And it appears that even the Providence Police have quietly begun to back away from their former obstinate refusal to work with ICE.
Despite these victories, however, patriotic Rhode Islanders are not resting on their laurels. There are several tough enforcement bills now moving through the state legislature. A bill that would make E-Verify mandatory for all state employers stands a very good chance of passing in the next year.
"To love the little platoon we belong to in society," said Edmund Burke, "is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections." The Ocean State is made up of little platoons where public affection runs high. The average Rhode Islander loves his state, his hometown and, it should be no surprise, his country. Local pride and national pride usually go together.
There have been more dark days than sunny ones in the long struggle for patriotic immigration reform. But things are definitely looking brighter in Rhode Island..
In this, the birthplace of the American Revolution, the Country Party is making a comeback.
Matthew Richer (email him) is a writer living in Massachusetts. He is the former American Editor of Right NOW magazine.