More than 100 anti-racist protesters gathered at Portland City Hall Saturday afternoon, Sept. 5, to protest police brutality, white-supremacist violence, and systemic racism.
Shortly after the protest began, demonstrators faced off with a small group of counter-protesters and supporters of President Donald Trump standing across Congress Street.
Some of the counter-protesters were wearing clothing affiliated with the Proud Boys, an organization defined as an extremist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the following hours, counter-protesters continuously antagonized the anti-racist protesters, who answered their verbal assaults with chants of, “Black Lives Matter,” or ignored them in silence while taking a knee and raising their fists in the air.
The protesters marched from City Hall to the Portland Police Department and later returned to City Hall before largely dispersing by 7 p.m.
The afternoon action was announced earlier that morning by the Maine People’s Housing Coalition, the organizers of an encampment that lasted more than two weeks on City Hall Plaza in July and August. It followed the cancellation of an anti-racist protest organized by Black Lives Matter Maine, which was expected to draw large numbers of supporters in response to the Aug. 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Blake, a Black resident of Kenosha, was reportedly breaking up a fight between two women before he was shot seven times in the back by police as he attempted to enter his car where his three sons sat inside. Blake was unarmed and is now paralyzed from the waist down.
His shooting has reinvigorated the nationwide anti-racist demonstrations that began after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, a Black resident of that city, in June. As the protests have continued, so have violent reactions from armed counter-protesters and white-supremacists in recent weeks.
BLM Maine, a Black youth-led chapter of the nationwide organization, canceled their protest Saturday morning citing a statement made Friday afternoon by Portland police and city officials, which the organizers said conflated anticipated acts of anti-racist civil disobedience with reactionary threats of violence from white supremacists.
“We are not postponing because ‘Maine doesn’t want us here.’ We are Maine,” BLM Maine Organizers said in a statement posted to social media. “(But) despite reaching out to city officials, despite educating many people online about our intentions, we were ignored, stereotyped, and threatened. The city officials and the police labeled us as ‘provoking violence.’ They said in their press conference that they will ‘protect their community,’ as if we ourselves are outside of that definition of community.”
The BLM Maine statement continued by asking police, city officials, and the public, “to contemplate why you think a group of youth planning to host a rally and read poetry warranted more negative attention and condemnation than the grown men who threatened to shoot and assault us tomorrow. We want you to think about your black community members, who saw you host a conference where you mentioned tourism and outdoor dining, but offered not a single word about racism and anti-Black violence.”
In Portland, according to the FBI Crime Data Explorer and the US Census Bureau, 17.8 percent of police arrests from 2008-2018 were of Black people, while Blacks account for only 8.3 percent of the city’s population. Statewide, Black Mainers are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white Mainers, according to a 2019 report by the Maine Center for Economic Policy.
Earlier this summer, Maine was widely reported to have the nation’s largest racial disparity in COVID-19 cases; today, Black Mainers still account for 23 percent of Maine’s COVID-19 cases, while making up only 1 percent of the population, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project and the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research.
In the Friday statement, Portland Police Chief Frank Clark condemned both anti-racist and counter-protesters considering unlawful actions and asked that all demonstrations remain peaceful. Clark also addressed concerns that a confrontation between anti-racist and counter-protesters could incite the kinds of violence seen in other cities across the country, potentially causing harm to protesters, citizens, tourists, and businesses.
“Unlike with the more restricted COVID situation during the June protests here in the city, our restaurants and business are now open, and we anticipate diners, and other vehicular, pedestrian, and visitor traffic downtown on a nice Saturday evening, on Labor Day weekend,” Clark said. “We do not want the conflicts seen elsewhere, here, to come to our community … to the protesters and counter-protesters, we respect your right to peacefully and lawfully protest, but leave your guns and bad intentions at home.”
The cancellation of the BLM Maine protest, and the anti-racist protest that occurred in its place, came as the Portland City Council Finance Committee reviews the city’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget. The budget proposal includes widespread cuts to social and infrastructure services and a 5.36 percent reduction in the Police Department budget.
Critics say the police reduction is insufficient, following months of calls from activists and organizations to defund the police and reinvest in community and social services.
“I have sat and been so disgusted with this state and the way in which the ideas of being juvenile are applied to white male adults but not to Black 13-year-old girls trying to organize a poetry reading,” said Caitrin Manahan, a white, Portland public school teacher, who addressed protesters at the Police Department Saturday.
“We have to do better, and I’m so happy people showed up instead of just saying, like the city did, let’s leave the kids to their own devices while we know the supremacists are coming, and we’ll lock the door,” she said. “… I see community members here, I don’t see a single city official; where are they? They knew what they were letting these kids walk into, they knew what was going to happen. They locked the door, and they went to their Labor day barbeque.”
Freelance writer Robert Lewis-Nash lives in Portland.