Louis Pickens, owner of Black Betty’s Bistro catering and kitchen, was outside his Spring Street home last Saturday, reflecting on a week of demonstrations and protests in response to the deaths of George Floyd and other black Americans at the hands of police.
“Here’s the thing in this country,” Pickens said as he worked in his garden. “The racism is so prevalent, it begins to be the norm. And when people don’t speak to it, it manifests. It truly does. And that’s why we are where we are. It’s not normal. We can’t accept it as such, because if we do, it’s going to morph into this thing that’s going to consume all of us.”
Pickens said he had been too emotional over the last few weeks to get involved. “I could hardly string together a conversation with my family without just tears falling,” he said.
But he brought his family to the protest the day before, the largest yet in Portland in which 2,000 people marched through the city and rallied for eight hours to signify the more than eight minutes that Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck.
“It was really amazing,” Pickens said. “There were people passing out water (and) pizza. There were people playing James Brown, ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.’ There were people stopping in their cars chanting along with us, ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
Witnessing all that helped Pickens understand he is not alone. He said he was inspired to work harder and to reach out more, protest more, and get more involved in city government.
“I’m going to really get in the mix because, you know, it needs to happen,” he said. “I know I have a voice and, I have a right and I’m going to utilize it from this day forward.”
He’s one of several black business owners in Portland who said they are encouraged by the protests and believe the time has come to make changes in Maine.
At Portland Trading Co. on Market Street, owner Kazeem Lawal was back in the store on the first day it could reopen under the state’s coronavirus recovery plan.
“I think it’s fantastic,” he said of the protests. “I feel the young people that dominate that march is fantastic. I feel optimistic about everything they’re pushing for. It’s a start.”
While he hasn’t followed the full scope of the local Black Lives Matter group’s demands, he said he agrees that some funding should be shifted from the Police Department to things like education.
“There’s a lot of other things that could be invested in rather than the continuous funding of law enforcement,” he said.
When a few stores were vandalized after protests earlier in the week, Lawal said he was concerned because his store is his livelihood, but he was confident there were people in the community who would try to stop the violence or would call him if anything happened.
But, he said, he understands the impulse for looting and vandalism.
“The feeling of not being heard pushes out this outlet to vent,” Lawal said. “It’s almost like society is venting, in terms of ‘now you hear me because I’m destroying what you cherish, so now you hear my pain.’ … It’s a complicated thing in terms of do you agree with it? Of course I don’t agree with violence, but I can understand where it’s coming from.”
At the store Saturday he said he attended his first of the current wave of protests the day before in Portland. He called it an “an absolutely powerful night.”
“I’m going back to feeling optimistic,” he said, “because it’s a different generation that is leading this movement.”
Jocelyne Kamikazi is the owner of Burundi Star Cafe on St. John Street. The new cafe was open for only one week in March before having to shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The shop was open again Saturday, and is offering free coffee for health-care workers until June 12.
Kamikazi said she thinks the protests are the right thing to do, especially if done peacefully like it was last Friday night.
“I’d like to keep it that way, no violence,” she said. “We cannot change things by violence.”
Across town at Safari Grocery on Washington Street, owner Jamal Mukhtar agreed.
“They’re good,” he said about the protests. “I want them to do peacefully like not break something or looting, that’s not good.”
He said he was never worried that his store would be vandalized or broken into.
Mukhtar said he agrees with some of the demands of the protesters, such as taking some funding away from police and putting more money into schools and social programs, and said he was happy the protests were happening.
“I hope they continue until they change something,” he said.
At GWani Styles Barber Shop on Brighton Avenue, Geoffrey Wani was cutting the hair of Portland comedian Mohamed Awale.
He said he hasn’t been a part of the recent protests and does not know how he feels about them.
“I mean, I’m sure we all experience the same thing, all of the stuff that people are protesting about,” Wani said, “but as far as being happy about it, it’s too early to draw some kind of conclusion.”
While the Portland protests have been peaceful for the most part, he said he believes people in other parts of the country have used protests to “go out there and loot and get stuff they want. It’s hard to say who is out there looting, you know, they could be people that don’t even support the movement.”
“They’re sabotaging the message,” Awale interjected.
Pickens, meanwhile, said he thought more people need to be involved in organizations that are bringing about change, particularly in Maine.
He moved to Maine about 10 years ago from Texas and previously lived in California. He recognized that Portland was diverse and food-progressive, and thought he would be able to make a mark, but quickly experienced a culture shock.
“I’ve lived around this country and I have to tell you, Maine needs to change. People need to come with it,” he said. “I got here and I thought, ‘What are these people mad about? This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. What are they mad about?’”
He worked as a chef at the Portland Harbor Hotel and at Mercy Hospital. At least twice a month, he said, someone would shout the N-word at him on his short 4 a.m. walks to the hospital.
“So I’m then left with going to feed 600 people at the hospital who look just like these people who took my energy that morning by screaming out their car the N-word,” Pickens said.
Eventually, he got involved with organizations like Community Squash and Bomb Diggity, offering free workshops and programs for kids. He thought that having the children get to know him as a nurturing, caring adult would help counteract the racist beliefs they might be exposed to later in life.
“Plant the seed early on, so they don’t have to fall victim to what they see on TV or what great-grandpappy is saying about people who don’t look like you, because it’s a learned behavior,” Pickens said.
Now he teaches cooking classes for adults, and believes people really want to know people who are different from themselves.
“The civil rights bill was only passed, say 60 years ago,” he said. “It’s still a lot for Americans to get to. People are still trying to get used to that, that we all share the same rights. It’s still new to them even though 60 years is a long time. … But it has to happen rapidly. People, white people, really have to get to work. Because, you know, black people can’t do it by themselves.”