Portland police arrested 22 people June 1 for “failure to disperse” at the end of what had started as a peaceful protest in response to the death in Minneapolis, Minnesota, of George Floyd.
After a larger protest on Congress Street, a group of a couple hundred people remained and converged at the Police Department on Middle Street.
Some in the crowd began throwing bottles and rocks at the police, according to a department press release. People broke into Urban Outfitters at 9 p.m. then got into a confrontation with a delivery truck driver, who was arrested for reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon. Over the next hour, more bottles were thrown, fires were set in trash cans, and there were reports of burglary and vandalism in the area.
Police “used non-lethal use of force, oleoresin capsicum (pepper spray) in PepperBall and aerosol spray delivery systems on those protesters that were throwing projectiles at officers” the press release stated, and began making arrests shortly after 10:30 p.m.
City police were assisted by several other local departments and the Maine State Police.
At a press conference two days later Police Chief Frank Clark said police were ready to review their policies and best practices and to listen. “We are you; we stand with you,” he said.
“I could not be prouder of the men and women both of my department and the mutual aid agencies that came and assisted us over the past few days” he added, “and the way they have come together, collaborated, gelled and really been extremely disciplined and measured in their response has been nothing short of impressive.”
Three women arrested that night believe the response was anything but impressive.
Brinaya Gibbs, a 19-year-old from Saco, on June 4 said she was standing in the front of the crowd at the police station and that there was about a 6-foot gap between the line of protesters and a line of officers. She and other protesters were urging the officers to kneel with them.
“I was talking to one person, they just couldn’t do it. I talked to another person; they can’t do it. I even talked to a female officer, she couldn’t do it,” Gibbs said. “You would talk to them, and they just wouldn’t answer.”
She said there were bottles being thrown from the back, and the police were pushing the crowd back.
“And then they maced everybody,” she said. “I got maced for no reason. I dropped my glasses. … I got up and it was in my eyes. It was in my mouth …. I don’t think that they thought that I was moving because I was trying to find my glasses. I was trying to yell for help, and I couldn’t see.”
She said an EMT in the crowd of protesters was helping her and others. Then she said the police asked for 5 feet. She was shouting into a megaphone: “Step back!”, “Give space!”, and “Peaceful protest!”
Police officers with shields formed two rows, she said, with one officer walking back and forth in the back saying “Who’s going next?” At about 11:30 p.m., she said, the rows opened up, she was grabbed by police, and the rows closed again behind her.
“And then there were like five (officers) on me,” she said, “I’m 4 feet 11 inches, I’m really small. They put me to the ground. My voice was shot so they couldn’t really hear me because I was yelling all day. And they’re like, ‘Do we need to drag you, or are you going to walk?’
“They can’t hear me, so then they start to feel aggressive I guess, and I have to yell to the point where it, like, screeches. I ended up getting picked up and somebody has their arm in my rib cage. … They used excessive force for really no reason.”
Rachel Bernstein of Cape Elizabeth said she got to the police station around 9 p.m. She positioned herself in the front line, across from two female police officers and joined the effort to get officers to kneel and converse with them. She was asking why some had body cams and some did not – and said she was told Portland police are not required to wear body cams – and why some were dressed in riot gear for a peaceful protest.
She said that from what she could see, about 10 people, mainly “drunken white males,” started throwing water bottles from the back of the crowd.
“Without any warning, (police) pepper-sprayed the entire front line of the crowd where I was standing,” Bernstein said, “which of course is not near where people were throwing water bottles whatsoever.”
Like Gibbs, Bernstein said an officer who the other officers said was in charge kept saying “Who’s next? Who’s next?”
She saw several officers throw Gibbs down and her megaphone smash to the ground. Bernstein, 34, said she was shouting “First Amendment rights!” and asking why there were five officers on a small black girl.
Then the officer in charge said, “the girl with the glasses,” referring to her, Bernstein said. She put her hands up and said, “Hands up, don’t shoot, I’m not resisting.” She was cuffed tied with zip ties.
She said she was held in a van by herself for about an hour and 20 minutes. When another protester was arrested and put in the van, she asked for her zip ties to be adjusted because they were too tight, but the officer did not adjust them.
Once they got to the police station, about 2 1/2 hours after her arrest, she said officers had a hard time cutting off the ties because her hands were so swollen. She said she was seen by medics, who gave her ice for the swelling. She said she still had neuropathy in her left hand when she was interviewed June 4.
Priscilla Dimitre of Portland was just getting off her shift at Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room, a little after 11 p.m. She had been watching live feeds from the protest while she was at work and was concerned. She walked to Franklin Arterial where a few people were spread out on the sidewalk observing the situation.
Although she supports Black Lives Matter, she said in a phone interview June 7, she doesn’t like to join protests. “I really don’t like being in crowds, yelling and stuff like that,” Dimitre said. “… I don’t know, it just gives me anxiety, I guess.”
She said she was asked by a police officer to leave, and asked where she could stand, and was told the sidewalk was public property, so she moved there. She decided it was not a good place to be by herself, so she started walking back to her car. On the way she encountered another police officer, and started a conversation with him.
“I thought it was going OK at first but I guess I kind of got emotional from it being a long day,” she said.
In a recording of the interaction she provided she can be heard urging the officer to shake hands with the protesters.
“I’m not in control right now, I listen to my orders,” the officer responded. “That’s how police departments work … I hope you know every officer here thinks what happened (In Minneapolis) was horrible … we are reacting (to the protests) tonight.”
Another officer approaches and is heard saying he has orders to take Dimitre to jail if she doesn’t leave. “This is a lawful order and it’s the last one,” he says.
Dimitre seems to pause for a second, the officer says “you are under arrest,” and the recording ends.
“I thought what I was having was a decent conversation with somebody and that wasn’t a reason to be arrested,” Dimitre said. “I didn’t get a chance to really react except to be in shock at that moment.”
She said the ride in the van to the jail was rough. The driver told her a police car almost T-boned them trying to get to the scene and he had to slam on the brakes. Dimitre said when he did, she and the other people handcuffed in the back of the van fell off the benches.
Bernstein, Gibbs and Dimitre all expressed surprise at the lack of sanitation at the Cumberland County Jail. Gibbs and Bernstein said there was excrement on the toilet in the cell they shared.
“This is still COVID right? So you would think that the police station will take precautions, but there was nothing, no wipe down, no sanitation, nothing,” Gibbs said.
They all said when they asked for water they were told to drink from water fountains, one attached to the toilet in the cell, that also did not appear to have been cleaned recently. Some people were given paper cups containing something resembling Gatorade.
Dimitre said she received her discharge paperwork at 2:50 a.m., was told her $60 bail had been paid and given a court date of Sept. 10.
But she and others whose bail had been paid were held for longer.
“We kept showing our green (discharge) papers through the cell door,” Gibbs said. “Nobody cared. Nobody cared if we had water, nobody cared. It was really uncomfortable.”
Dimitre said the sheriff’s deputies made it sound like there was an angry crowd rioting outside and that was why they were still being held.
Bernstein said she was released around 5 or 6 a.m. with a court date of Oct. 10. Dimitre said she and Gibbs were released together at about 5 a.m. and saw 20 people waiting outside.
“I literally just got tears because they were there to give us food and water, to make sure we had a ride home and to have the information that we needed for lawyers,” she said. “It wasn’t anything like (the officers) were saying.”
Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said June 9 that he finds it hard to believe the jail was not clean, since the jail is nationally accredited, and accreditation requires documentation of the cleaning that occurs. He said the toilet systems are industrial, designed for jails so they do not look like ones you would find in a house.
“We take great pride in the cleanliness,” Joyce said. “Then you add on COVID, and we’ve been really trying to keep everything as clean as possible, given the number of people coming in and out of this facility.”
He said he had additional staff on the night of the arrests to facilitate a smooth booking and release process, but because of the pandemic, he asked his staff to work slowly and deliberately to avoid mistakes that might let the virus enter the facility. He said he asked staff to check each intake’s temperature and oxygen levels and answer a questionnaire one by one before entering the building.
“So, it was a slow process, and I’ll take responsibility for that,” Joyce said. “I’m sure that somebody could have felt like they should have been able to be released in 15 minutes when it took us an hour and 15 minutes to adequately do the processing and stuff and make sure that everything was in order. If they don’t know the process, one could assume they’re ready to go, but they weren’t.”