The protesters scaled a fence in front of the Public Safety Complex overlooking the interstate, joined hands and stopped southbound traffic across four lanes for a half hour, said Providence police Capt. George Stamatakos.
Dozens of Providence and state police then moved in and forcibly removed the protesters who had sat down on the highway, Stamatakos said.
State police said five protesters were arrested.
The protest against the decision in Ferguson not to indict a white police officer who fatally shot a black teenager in August began earlier Tuesday when at least 300 people assembled at Central High School and marched through the streets, beating on drums and yelling chants such as: “No justice. No peace. No racist police.”
Protesters then burned an American flag in front of the Public Safety Complex overlooking Route 95.
In unison, the protesters also yelled, “Hands up. Don’t shoot,” and “The People. United. Will never be defeated.”
Lisha Johnson, 46, of Providence, held one of the largest protest signs in the group.
“The system cannot fail those it was never intended to protect,” read the sign.
At 10:30 Tuesday night about 150 protesters were still gathered in front of the Public Safety Complex. About 20 state police vehicles were seen on the highway below. The police reported that traffic was moving.
Stamatakos said the protest in Providence appeared to be part of a nationwide action to block roadways. In Boston, protesters marched from Dudley Square in the Roxbury neighborhood down Massachusetts Avenue to the South Bay area. State police blocked a ramp leading to Interstate 93 to prevent the group from entering the highway.
University of Rhode Island students from campus multicultural organizations held a nonviolent protest in front of the student union, with more than 100 young men and women either lying or sitting on the ground, blocking a cordoned off segment of Lower College Road on Tuesday.
“Everyone realizes that violence doesn’t get us anywhere. We know that our voices together create a louder noise on our campus and in our communities,” said one of the organizers, Kenia Vasquez, in a phone interview.
The nighttime protest in Providence was the product of announcements that had circulated via social media for weeks before Monday’s developments. The announcements called for a demonstration no matter the outcome.
Some of the planning, if not most of it, appeared on a Twitter feed that refers to itself as “End Police Brutality PVD.”
One post on the feed mentioned that fliers for the event had been distributed at high schools. A few minutes before 7 p.m., some people arrived at Central High School with cardboard signs. Some brought drums and megaphones.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. quote on the sign carried by 33-year-old Kristina Brown, of Providence.
Brown, a mother who brought two small children to the event, said the decision in Ferguson just made her “feel very strongly” about the need to act.
Jerome R. Thompson, a 30-year-old algebra teacher from Central Falls, said he was disturbed by the decision in Ferguson because, in his opinion, the police officer had unnecessarily “lethalized” the situation involving Brown.
This was why he attended the demonstration.
“You have to come out and send a message,” said Thompson. “I think it’s our civic duty.”
Some protesters were vocal about keeping the tone peaceful and free of vulgarities.
At one point, one protester, Jesus Holguin, 21, of Providence, proposed the following chant: “Killer cops in the Ground. Rest in peace Michael Brown.”
The crowd overwhelmingly rejected the chant and opted for “Rest in peace Michael Brown.”
Providence police, whose leaders were in close contact with some prominent marchers, including James Vincent, the president of the NAACP-Providence branch, kept a respectful distance from the protesters.
Officers on motorcycles dealt with traffic once the marchers took to the streets, often blocking traffic as they walked in a northerly direction on a path that had no discernible direction. Vincent said it was the largest march he has been a part of in Providence.
Providence Police Chief Hugh T. Clements said Tuesday that the police would take “a soft approach.”
“We’ll certainly allow people to exercise their constitutional rights,” he said. “We hope for peaceful protests.”
After violent protests erupted in Ferguson on Monday night, Clements and Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré contacted local community leaders to offer help in peaceful protests or open discussions with residents.
“We called just to say, Look, we’re available if the community wants to have a discussion, rather than get frustrated and have it escalate to violence,” said Paré. “We’re trying to manage whatever protest is being planned, so it’s peaceful, so it’s safe, so no one goes into the roads.”