Two years after a mob of angry citizens stormed the U.S. Capitol and temporarily prevented Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election results, The League of Women Voters of Newport County decided to organize a vigil to commemorate the date, pay respect to the Capitol police officers who took their own lives in the days and weeks following the events of January 6, 2021, and encourage civic involvement to safeguard democracy in Rhode Island.
Christine Keyser Stenning, one of the organization’s co-presidents, told The Daily News she proposed the idea for a vigil after watching “No Time to Fail,” a documentary film about the state of Rhode Island and its election workers’ efforts to safeguard access to the ballot and ensure election integrity.
“As we focused on voting, because that’s what we’re about – the League of Women Voters is about voting, and it’s about preservation of democracy – this just felt like the right thing to do,” said Keyser Stenning.
Although the vigil was originally planned as an outdoor event, the League decided to move it indoors in the face of a damp, chilly forecast. Thanks to Newport’s well-preserved history and the generosity of the Newport Historical Society, they were able to move to an incredibly well-suited venue: the Old Colony House, a National Historic Landmark built in 1741 to serve as the original meeting place for Rhode Island’s colonial legislature.
“(The Colony House) is where the General Assembly met until 1901 before the Statehouse was built in Providence,” explained Rebecca Bertrand, executive director of the Newport Historical Society, “so for years this is where democracy was happening in this state.”
“It makes a whole lot of sense for this event to be here,” she continued. “It’s an appropriate space to be talking about democracy and the right to vote.”
U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, R.I. Secretary of State Gregg Amore, Newport Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong and other officials from across Rhode Island sat to either side of the august old building’s dais as the public audience, composed mainly of Aquidneck Islanders, crowded around the carved wooden columns holding up the country’s fourth-oldest extant statehouse. Many members of the public held plastic candles as they listened attentively to Newport native Tavia Baker’s beautiful a cappella rendition of the National Anthem, which set the mood for a series of short speeches by the public servants in attendance.
In the course of no more than 90 minutes in Newport, the complex interrelations between local, national and international politics and between the past, present and future of American democracy were on full display.
Whitehouse, who was in the U.S. Capitol on the day it was stormed by protestors, thanked many state and local officials in attendance by name before calling for a moment of silence for the Capitol police officers who lost their lives in relation to the events of January 6, 2020. He concluded his remarks by promising to continue fighting against “enormous gobs of filthy and anonymous ‘dark money’ pouring into our elections.”
After delivering his own remarks, Newport’s newly elected Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong read a speech on behalf of Sen. Jack Reed, who had to refuse the League of Women Voters of Newport County’s invitation because he was on an official visit to Ukraine in his capacity as chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee.
Mayor Xay, as he is quickly coming to be known, stood framed at the podium as he delivered Reed’s remarks by an original Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. Washington attended a grand banquet on the first floor of the Colony House in 1781 while visiting Newport to meet French General Rochambeau at the beginning of the American Revolution’s decisive Yorktown campaign.
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline was represented by a nametag on an empty chair; while he had originally planned to attend the vigil, he had to remain in Washington, D.C., to cast his 14th and 15th votes for Speaker of the House. Keyser Stenning of the League of Women Voters read a prepared statement on his behalf.
Cicilline’s new colleague in District 2, Representative-elect Seth Magaziner, sent a personal representative because he was also tied up in Washington, D.C. He and his fellow newly elected members of Congress had to wait for a speaker of the house to be elected before they could officially be sworn in.
All of the public officials present condemned the events of January 6, 2021, in strong and unequivocal terms, with R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha comparing it to 9/11 and saying the peaceful transfer of electoral power most Americans have long taken for granted was “hijacked,” and Secretary of State Amore saying the violence he witnessed on television shook him so profoundly to his core that he decided in that moment to run for the office he now holds.
Amore, a former history teacher who used to bring his AP classes on field trips to Colony House and helped pass a bill requiring proficiency in civics to be included in Rhode Island’s public high school curriculum while serving as a state representative, couldn’t resist giving the crowd homework: he referenced an Abraham Lincoln speech given to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, in 1838 entitled “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions,” and encouraged the audience to look up and read what he called “a warning against mobocracy.”
After giving an overview of Rhode Island’s electoral policies and process and stating his commitment to preserving and expanding access to the ballot, Amore reminded the crowd, “Our elections are run by American patriots: these are not deep state plants…they are your friends and neighbors, your fellow Rhode Islanders, your fellow Americans.”
R.I. Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, who grew up in the Dominican Republic before becoming an American citizen, cited in her remarks her formative experiences as a child listening to radio reports of Latin American countries losing access to democratic modes of governance. She said she wanted to attend the January 6 anniversary vigil for two reasons: because it was the local league of women voters organizing the event, and because “democracy is very precious, and if we don’t work at it, we might lose it.”
As the late congressman John Lewis once said, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
When asked why she thought it was important to commemorate the anniversary of such a dark day in the history of American democracy, League of Women Voters of Newport County member Jean Quinn echoed Lewis, and in a straightforward and simple manner encapsulated what seemed to be a prevailing attitude among the women of Newport County who organized the event and the people who accepted their invitation to attend.
Quinn told The Daily News, “I think it’s important to remember this day and what happened at the Capitol, and to do our part to make sure that it never happens again.”
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