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Bigger Than a Parade: Pronk Aims to Connect Art and Activism

The annual street performance festival returns in support of the Community Safety Act

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For nearly a decade, the second Monday of October has belonged to Pronk. Anyone who’s been can tell you why: it’s a wild day of high energy street music, but just calling it a marching band festival misses the point. Pronk (short for Providence Honk Fest) is a platform where performance and social activism can come together.

If you’ve never been – clear your schedule now – the day starts in Burnside Park with performances. The parade, which staggers bands and community organizations, marches from downtown to the hurricane barrier by way of South Water Street. The festival continues on into the night, ending with a powerful, can’t-miss performance by Providence’s own What Cheer? Brigade underneath the 195 overpass.

For spectators, it may all seem like effortlessly organized chaos, but this kind of spectacle doesn’t just happen overnight. For the volunteers who make it all happen, Pronk is an all-consuming endeavor that starts in earnest in March, kicks into high gear in August and doesn’t actually wind down until weeks after the crowds have dispersed. This year, performers are coming from as far as the West Coast and France. There’s art to make for the community and activist groups that march in the parade. Sure, Pronk is a hell of a party, but it’s also about standing up for what’s right for the community. With a great party comes great responsibility.

The Crossroads of Art and Activism
“I’m interested in finding ways to weave visual art, theater and music into current social movements, and have those struggles steer what we're creating,” says Beth Nixon, who has been a part of the Pronk planning committee for the last several years. Specifically, she helps different activist and community groups create visually dynamic pieces of art to use in the parade and in their own demonstrations. “Artists and activists need to be in conversation with each other. Some of us are both, and this is an opportunity to join forces.”

On the one hand, having activists and community groups demonstrate serves the logistic purpose of spacing out the bands so that their performances don’t bleed into one another. On the other, advocating for justice and social change has long been a part of Pronk’s DNA – hence its annual declaration that it is not a Columbus Day parade – and the parade has always been open to groups looking to raise awareness for their causes.

Those groups have included but are certainly not limited to Providence Student Union, RI Latino Arts and Sojourner House. They have taken Pronk up on its commitment to support groups advocating for social change, but Pronk has never rallied behind any one specific cause, until this year.

A Defining Issue of The Times

“We’ve always wanted it to be more than just a street party and about entertainment. We’ve wanted it to be more connected to social activism and shining the light on different people and communities in the city, but we haven’t always known the best way to do that,” says Avi David, who volunteers as a member of the Pronk planning committee.

“For a long time, one of the things that was both celebrated by some and criticized by others is that it wasn’t really about any one thing,” Beth says. “It’s time to put some of that parade energy and people-power behind grassroots organizing that affects all of us. [It’s] necessary, especially given the current political landscape.”

That something is the Community Safety Act (CSA). According to its website, the CSA is a “comprehensive city ordinance to ban racial profiling and change the way that police interact with members of our community, especially young people, immigrants and people of color.” Spearheaded by the Step Up Coalition – composed of the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM), Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), American Friends Service Committee and the Olneyville Neighborhood Association – the CSA is the local response to the actions of police officers nationally and right here in Providence towards members of minority communities.

The CSA calls for what its supporters firmly believe are common sense measures, including the use of standardized encounter forms, recording of encounters by police and a public list of criteria for placing a person on a gang list.

“Pronk will enable us to reach a wider audience that we wouldn’t normally reach. Obviously there’s support on the South Side and West End and areas where you have police brutality and harassment, but we don’t really have that kind of [support on the East Side],” explains Vanessa Flores-Maldonado, campaign coordinator for the CSA. “We’re pushing for this bill because police and community relations in Providence need to be fixed, and until there’s accountability for police that isn’t going to happen.

Pronk’s support of the CSA shouldn’t be too surprising given that the symbiotic relationship between street music and social justice have been a part of its foundation from its earliest iterations. Not to mention that most of the bands that have participated over the years are, according to Avi, “community based bands that are often involved in community organizing and education, partnering with nonprofit organizations and using music for some sort of social good.” What makes this year different is the extent to which Pronk is throwing its collective weight behind one of the defining issues of our time.

In addition to advocating for the CSA during the festival, Pronk is working with the Step Up Coalition before and after the festival to promote the bill through teach-ins and community outreach. “We want to be able to show how things that you think are just a part of everyday life are actually a form of harassment,” explains Vanessa. “We want to reach a wider audience that normally doesn’t engage or chooses not to engage with this type of work and make them engage with it.”

Educational programs are being implemented at Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts (TAPA), such as studying the bill’s language in English classes and examining the symbiotic history of music, parades and social movements in dance and music classes. TAPA students will also be hands-on with several aspects of the festival as performers, organizers and parade marshalls.

Pronk has also thrown its support behind the Safer Rhodes campaign, which advocates for immigrants rights and drivers licenses for people regardless of their immigration status. In mid-September, Pronk worked with Safer Rhodes for a teach-in and art-build to get the word out and assemble pieces for a march on September 25. Safer Rhodes will also be joining Pronk on October 10.

If Pronk is to ever expand it won’t be into a multi-day festival like the Honk events in Boston or New York. But the idea of lending their knowledge and resources to activist groups all year long is one possible future Avi sees for the organization.

“We do constantly think about what it would mean if Pronk shifted into a year-long project and organization that really works to build bridges between the arts and activist communities,” says Avi.

At the time this issue went to press, the Step Up Coalition had submitted a second petition to have a public hearing for the CSA. It is their hope that a public show of support at the hearing could bring it to a vote, which would require the support of eight City Council members to be approved. “[The CSA] is about race, definitely, but it’s about much more than that,” says Vanessa. “It’s about race, our youth. It’s about lack of resources in our community. This bill is our way of trying to fix things in our community. It’s a step.”

“I’m hopeful that Pronk’s affirmation that this work is important to us is not polarizing, but is instead uniting and educational for people who don’t know about it yet,” says Beth. “It’s not a protest, it’s an affirmation.” Regardless of how any vote on the CSA turns out, Pronk will be a celebration of our city’s creative energy – five of this year’s bands, What Cheer? Brigade, Extraordinary Rendition Band, Kickin’ Brass, Blackout Drum Squad and The Steel Pan Ensemble from the Rhody Center for World Music are from Providence – and of its students, citizens, artists and change makers coming together. Everyone involved hopes that the passing of the CSA can be a part of that celebration, but if not they’re ready to continue fighting for something bigger than a parade.