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While unfortunate, the recent experience of an artist whose utility box painting was partially covered over at the direction of the town — and who accused the town of censorship and racism in its wake — does not paint an accurate picture of Warren's stance on racism, inequality and the plight of marginalized members of society, Native Americans and African Americans. It certainly could have been avoided.
In May, the town directed The Avenue Concept, its partner in its successful utility box program, to cover over the phrase "Land of the Pokanoket" on a box painted by Warwick artist Jessica Brown at the corner of Main and Campbell streets.
Though the town's action left Ms. Brown bitter and angry, Warren appears to have been within its rights to order that it be removed. Under the terms of the contract she signed, Ms. Brown was authorized to paint the majority of what went on the box, but not that phrase. Unlike some other public art programs, which give artists wide discretion on what they can and can't paint on public property, her contract with the town and the Avenue Concept did not allow for that discretion. As Warren Town Planner Bob Rulli said afterwards, if Ms. Brown had included the phrase in her initial application to the town, "we would have dealt with it."
Mr. Rulli requested that the phrase be removed because he did not Warren to open itself to the perception of favoritism of the Pokanokets over other Native American groups. Unfortunately, the manner in which it was done — by altering an artist’s personal creation — was ugly.
It has been a difficult year for Warren in matters of social justice and equality. The discovery of racist and Nazi stickers in downtown Warren this spring prompted an outpouring of rage, but also brought the community together in many ways. Residents held vigils on the Warren Town Common. A rally in front of Warren Town Hall drew hundreds, including most of the town's elected and appointed leadership. And the Warren Town Council passed an anti-hate resolution, saying “Hate has no home here.”
Concurrently, before the painting controversy arose, Warren established a Native American study group to try to forge even closer ties with members of the Pokanoket Tribe, with whom they have had a long and positive relationship.
Are there racists in Warren? Yes, they reside in every town in the United States. But is Warren a racist town? No.