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Rhode Island invasion images leave lasting impression

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. - July 14 brought conflict to the Narragansett Indian reservation in Charlestown. At issue, a tribally run smoke shop where cigarettes could be purchased without the collection of state and federal taxes. The smoke shop had only been open for two days and apparently was doing brisk business. A group of State Police officers descended on the smoke shop and when the conflict ended eight people had been hospitalized and seven tribal members arrested, including Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas.

Thomas, speaking on radio station, 920 WHJJ, said, "We stood our ground and politely asked them to leave." The police did not withdraw and a melee ensued. The images that many Rhode Islanders saw on their television screens were disturbing. Police forced their way past tribal members and tribal police. A woman was pinned to the ground by a State Trooper. Viewers also saw Chief Thomas, known by many as a kind and gentle man, with his arm around the throat of an officer. Later that day, Chief Thomas said, "We did what we have always done, we defended our land."

On July 16, Governor Don Carcieri held a news conference and issued an apology to those injured during the raid. He said there were "explicit" instructions from him for the police to withdraw in the face of a conflict. He further added, "The discussion was that if they met resistance they would withdraw." He promised an investigation into the incident. This was in stark contrast to his statements following the raid on July 14 when he blamed the Narragansetts for the violence. Chief Thomas responded to the Governor's comments by saying, "We certainly respect the fact that he apologized to the people who were hurt and to the people of Rhode Island in general, however, we'd also like an apology to the Narragansett Indian tribe for the actions that were taken." Thomas added that while he believes that the Governor told the troopers to back off in the event of conflict, he doesn't believe the troopers themselves had any intention of backing off.

At press time, the tribe was holding a "unity gathering" in Charlestown. Chief Thomas said representatives from other tribes from throughout the country would be attending in a show of support.