Portland police maintain they acted appropriately in response to a June 1 protest in the Old Port, and that “splinter groups” of protesters instigated a clash where officers used force and pepper spray.
Police Chief Frank Clark, Cmdr. James Sweatt and Maj. Heath Gorham told the City Council Monday that the protest started as a peaceful event, but individuals who were not part of the larger group became agitated, eventually surrounding police cars and trying to smash their windows.
They said these demonstrators continuously confronted police and threw rocks, bricks, cans, and bottles – including some filled with urine – at the officers.
Clark said the protest stemmed from the murder of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was “senselessly murdered” by police in May.
He said police learned about the protest from a Facebook post about it around 1 p.m. that suggested there would be a small protest in Monument Square. Throughout the afternoon, he said there was minimal online activity. Later in the afternoon, police were alerted to a Snapchat message asking people to bring fireworks to the protest. Around that time, they started receiving 9-1-1 calls from residents about threats of violence.
The event started around 7 p.m. with about 500 people gathered at the intersection of India and Commercial streets. Clark said the crowd would later swell to some 2,500 protesters.
He said mutual aid was requested when the crowd grew too large and began to split off. Officers from South Portland, Westbrook, and Falmouth arrived, as did officers from the Maine State Police and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.
Councilor Belinda Ray asked if seeing officers in riot gear could have agitated the protesters. Clark said Portland police didn’t have that gear until much later in the night, although mutual aid officers did come with such gear.
Throughout the presentation, Clark played audio from 9-1-1 calls or videos from various officers’ body cameras. In one video outside the police station on Middle Street, protesters can be heard screaming obscenities at officers, demanding them to “take a knee.”
During one call from the police, three loud bangs can be heard. Clark said this was from an individual trying to slam the side of the vehicle.
One protester in this video compared Portland police to the Ku Klux Klan, calling for them to take off their badges and put on white robes. Another individual screamed if they weren’t going to take a knee, then they should take off their badges. During another video, a protester is seen stopping a police car and demanding to know if the officer inside is a racist.
At one point in the evening, some officers did take a knee in solidarity with protesters and participated in a group hug. However, Clark said the crowd remained agitated and later resumed threatening officers.
The protest broke into three different groups, with two marching away from the police station; those two later reconvened near City Hall. By 8 p.m., Clark said, the bulk of protesters were at City Hall, with a “small, vocal group” still on Middle Street at the police station.
In another video, police at the station can be heard telling protesters “we’re willing to work with you” while yelling for them not to remove the barricades in front of the station.
It was around this time, according to Sweatt, who was on the scene, that police began to become concerned things were not happening “organically.” He said it seemed more like people were being directed to do things, such as block police movements on Congress Street. Sweatt also said there were reports of people in the crowd instructing others not to talk to police.
“None of this was consistent with what we saw in the past,” Sweatt said. “We saw there was some direction at some point, somewhere. It wasn’t just spontaneous.”
Around this time, protesters began throwing bottles and cans at police, he said.
Sweatt said he started pulling back from Congress Street, at which point it became clear there were “splinter groups” different from those trying to peacefully protest.
Around 9 p.m. the three groups began to reconvene near the police station. Clark said the organizers of the peaceful protest had been urging people to go home. Shortly thereafter, police began receiving calls of vandalism, burglary, looting, and people setting fires. Urban Outfitters on Middle Street was looted twice. And Clark showed a video of protesters throwing rocks through the windows of a store on Commercial Street, climbing in, stealing bottles of wine, and apparently attempted to open a cash register.
In total, 33 businesses were burglarized, damaged, or looted, according to police.
Shortly after 9:30 p.m. is when the first arrest occurred, although it wasn’t a protester: It was an individual who drove a large semi-truck through the protest. The truck eventually came to stop near Hugo’s and Eventide on Middle Street, and protesters began attacking the truck. The driver was arrested for reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon for driving the truck into the crowd.
By 10 p.m. the organized protest was over, but the group that remained was increasingly agitated, throwing items and shouting obscenities. Around this time police issued the first of several orders to disperse.
Because of this, commanders authorized police to use pepper spray through a fogger. Later, Gorham said they would use pepper balls, foam impact rounds, batons, and shields. He said they did not use rubber bullets or tear gas.
Shortly before 10:30 p.m., the first protesters were arrested. All 22 protesters who were arrested were charged with failure to disperse. Clark said one of the protest organizers told the crowd “if you are truly here for the right reasons, go home.”
All told, Clark said no protesters were injured. Three officers were injured, including one who was struck in the face with a can. Two other officers were drenched with urine when protesters throw bottles at them.
Gorham said he deployed a pepper ball around 11:45 p.m., because objects were being thrown from the back of the line, and officers could not safely get through the crowd. A pepper ball is a round that creates a cloud of pepper spray, causing people to disperse. Police fired another pepper ball before midnight when protesters were seen filling bottles with “unidentified liquid” and digging rocks from the Police Department parking lot.
Gorham said pepper balls are available “24/7” to officers, but they have never been used in a crowd situation before. But, he said, they have been used to get uncooperative individuals into custody in the past.
Councilor Spencer Thibodeau also asked about the decision to use pepper spray and the fogger. Sweatt said this was used several times, and it’s not long-lasting. He said cold water will wash it off.
“It’s an effective way not to have a clash,” he said.
Around 12:30 a.m. June 2 was when Portland police began deploying more tactical gear, like helmets and shields. Another pepper ball was launched around 12:40 a.m. when reports of vandalism near Sebago Brewing Co. were reported.
After 1 a.m. the crowd had been reduced, but some agitators remained.
Clark said he was proud of how the officers handled the night because they had been out for six hours and still tried to be polite when dealing with protesters who were throwing objects at them.
Thibodeau said he also was encouraged by the videos of how police interacted with protesters, and what concerned him most was protesters breaking windows and throwing urine.
“We are all the product of our best and worst days,” he said.
Councilor Tae Chong said these are “obviously historic times, and it’s unprecedented and I’m glad no one really got hurt.” He then asked if the police report had involved the Portland Review Committee. Clark said the panel was not involved.
He said next month the department will have its monthly use-of-force review committee meeting and will look at all the tactics used during this protest.
Councilors lukewarm to outside probe
Portland city councilors on Monday expressed skepticism about conducting an additional, third-party investigation into a June 1 clash between police and protesters.
But they agreed to continue the discussion June 29 during another workshop.
The investigation was proposed by Councilor Pious Ali, who expressed concerns that councilors were not hearing all sides of the story that resulted in 23 people being arrested and dozens of stores vandalized or burglarized.
“I am not asking for this to prove the police did anything wrong,” Ali said.
Ali said he had heard from individuals who were at the protest who had very different experiences from the police. However, he said these individuals did not want to come forward.
“They don’t trust us,” he said.
Mayor Kate Snyder said the June 22 meeting was an opportunity to hear from police, and the June 29 meeting will be a chance to decide next steps regarding an independent investigation. This would likely result in a resolution, she said, calling for City Manager Jon Jennings to request a review.
Police Chief Frank Clark said there were no complaints filed against the Police Department stemming from June 1, and councilors were tepid about calling for another investigation.
Councilor Belinda Ray said absent complaints from citizens who were arrested, she didn’t see a need for the measure.
“I’m not feeling the need for an investigation and would not support that at this time,” she said.
Councilors Spencer Thibodeau and Jill Duson both expressed concerns about the scope of the proposal.
Duson said she wouldn’t support it until there was more clarification. She said if the discussion is framed to suggest the city doesn’t care, then they should do an investigation to prove that wrong. But she called for a broader review.
“I want us to move forward, I want us to be focusing on the big picture,” Duson said.
Thibodeau said he didn’t understand “the broad request” and then what the council would be expected to do with any information they received.
“For me if there is something narrowly tailored or a specific incident, I would definitely say let’s take another look,” he said.
But Ali and Councilors Tae Chong and Kim Cook convinced their colleagues to at least give general approval to continue. Since it was a workshop, there was no vote, but rather a general show of support.
“I think it’s important to have transparency,” Chong said. “I think even if the outcome is the same, it’s important to go through the process. For me healing is more important than the cost itself.”
Councilor Justin Costa said while he didn’t strongly support Ali’s proposal, he was open to it because “it’s important we do a tremendous amount of work to heal the community.” He said his only hesitation was that they may lose sight of the bigger picture by focusing on just one day.
“We don’t have infinite oxygen for this conversation, that’s just the reality,” he said. “I don’t see us as a community being able to conduct multiple third-party investigations and intensive public processes. It’s no secret we’ll be facing a major financial crisis in our budget.”
Thibodeau eventually agreed that hearing feedback is important.
“I don’t have an objection at all in making an investment in this,” he said. “I just want us to be clear-eyed for this.”
Snyder summarized there was general consensus enough to move forward with the workshop on June 29.
“My sense is there is a much more willing council now,” she said. “I heard people ask for a refinement of scope.”
— Colin Ellis
Councilors express frustration about summons issued to journalist
Portland City Councilors on Monday night held a brief discussion about a highly publicized dispute between police and a local journalist.
This dispute occurred earlier this month when police issued former Portland Press Herald data journalist Christian MilNeil a summons at his home for criminal mischief and police threatened to take him away in handcuffs.
MilNeil suggested on Twitter that critical tweets he had written in the past about the Portland Police Department were the reason for the action.
“(I don’t know) if this is related to my recent tweets but #portlandme police are at my home now and threatening my arrest, they won’t say why,” MilNeil tweeted, posting a photo of the officers in his front yard.
The city has said MilNeil is suspected of writing graffiti on city buildings. The city and Police Department presented their side of the story on Twitter, while also retweeting MilNeil’s message. They said he refused to be served with the summons, and the case is being submitted to the district attorney’s office.
MilNeil is now the editor of a transit-focused blog in Boston.
City Manager Jon Jennings said he has spoken with Police Chief Frank Clark, and there is an investigation taking place into the circumstances of the summons.
“That doesn’t mean anything was done incorrectly, but we want to look at all the aspects of what happened that particular day and then report back to the (City) Council,” Jennings said.
Councilor Kim Cook said she has already asked for either a copy of the body camera footage or a transcript of the interaction between MilNeil and the police at his home. Clark said any document like that is sealed “until the case is adjudicated.”
Clark said this is an internal investigation, and not the result of a formal complaint.
The graffiti in question was on two Bayside community policing substations. One is on Portland Street across from the Preble Street Resource Center, and the other is at the Portland Housing Authority building on East Oxford Street.
MilNeil has served as a commissioner on the Portland Public Housing Authority board, and has advocated for public housing in the past.
Councilors Monday night said this is an example of white privilege, since MilNeil was almost immediately put in touch with lawyers to represent him. Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said he knows MilNeil well, but said he was “at a loss” and “frustrated” by the lack of understanding of what the council is supposed to do with this information.
“When we talk about what white privilege looks like, this council has never asked for information like this,” Thibodeau said. “For me, I want to understand what our authority is here. If that request is on the basis of understanding how our department operates, I’m not sure if that’s proper in how we deliver summonses.”
Thibodeau continued, saying unless the council was going to investigate how every summons is delivered in the city, he wasn’t sure what the goal was in this instance.
“What is it we’re hoping to accomplish here?” he said.
Councilor Belinda Ray also said she knows and has spoken to MilNeil, and said MilNeil is very aware he’s getting advantages that others, especially people of color, might not.
“He said here I am, a white man, and I have this interaction we find very troubling, and within a matter of minutes after I tweet, I’m hearing from people about lawyers,” Ray said. “I have all these people who have rushed to help me. He is very aware of how privileged he is in this situation.”
Councilors ultimately didn’t make any decision, since the meeting was a workshop. Police Cmdr. James Sweatt said any information from the investigation won’t be available until it’s completed, which could take up to 60 days.
— Colin Ellis