“They’re just protesters. They don’t have a message. They don’t have a complaint. They don’t have nothing to say except Black Lives Matter, and that’s a bumper sticker.”
Those are the words of Stephanie Anderson, Cumberland County District Attorney, when she discussed her decision to end efforts to revive a restorative justice process with the 17 Black Lives Matter protesters who were arrested at a July 2016 demonstration on Commercial St. in Portland.
In choosing to use those words, Anderson revealed her own bias. And, frankly, the bias of many white people locally and nationally when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the aftermath of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protest, which shut down a few blocks of one of Portland’s busiest streets at the height of tourist season, many white people have failed to understand why protesters were out on the streets in the first place. Given that Maine’s Black population is less than two percent, with much of that population being clustered in Southern Maine (especially in Portland, around seven percent), there is the mistaken belief that Maine has no racial issues. In the minds of many, it’s hardly as if there are enough people of color (or specifically Black people) to be affected by the issues that Black folks in larger areas face. Even in Portland, our bastion of liberalism in the state, white folks who grasp the idea of white supremacy too often perpetuate white supremacist thinking and actions towards people of color.
America was built on the foundation of white supremacy. This is a country that was founded on stolen land and built by the labor of stolen people. White people as a collective have never publicly acknowledged that. Instead, we offer down a watered-down version of history and pacify ourselves. White people refuse to understand that the sins of yesterday still impact the world today and that whiteness is a form of currency because the norms we have created, structural and otherwise, favor white people. Instead, people of color are often reduced to proving their worth and their humanity. In a state like Maine where our numbers are even fewer, that “proving of worth” is an almost daily gig.
However, as Maine’s demographics shift, we have a younger generation that is refusing to play that game. Building on the foundation of the national Black Lives Matter movement created in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death (shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., for the crime of walking down the street to his father’s house with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea), it's a movement to affirm Black humanity — to say that the lives of Black people matter and do have value in a country that has historically not valued them. What started as an affirmation has grown into a movement, with chapters throughout the country. As the BLM website states: “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”
In Portland, Black people are, as in most of the nation, overrepresented in the police logs. In 2013, Black people made up 18 percent of all arrests in the city. Our governor has made national headlines repeatedly with his assertions that Black and Brown people from away are responsible for Maine’s drug issues, despite the lack of data to support his claims. So, is it surprising that a younger generation of Black Mainers are standing up to declare that Black lives do indeed matter?
No. And District Attorney Stephanie Anderson revealed her own unwillingness to understand what many Black Mainers face on a daily basis. In characterizing the protestors as a group with nothing of substance to say, she proved the very point that they were making in their July 2016 demonstration.
Given that this case has been in the legal system for some time, Anderson has had ample opportunity to look at the data that point to the racial disparities and projections in the criminal justice system and gain further clarity around why the protestors were protesting in the first place. Instead, she chose to stay ensconced in the system of whiteness that requires non-white people to prove their humanity or, in this case, prove why they were upset with this system. This is why we say 'Black lives matter' and why we will continue to do so until they actually do to the larger society.
Read more from Shay Stewart-Bouley at www.blackgirlinmaine.com