Following protests outside City Hall opposing the recent appearance of a neo-Nazi group in Portland, some members of the City Council Monday night pressed officials — and by extension police — whether they were doing enough to prevent hate crimes in Portland.
Monday night’s city council meeting included two hours of discussion on the subject from the public and city staff, including a memo from interim Police Chief F. Heath Gorham, who stated his officers acted accordingly by not arresting any members of the neo-Nazi group on April 1.
Protests have mounted as a video circulated of the April 1 event, which depicted several members of the hate group shouting homophobic slurs and assaulting a counter-protester.
On the city’s response, Councilor Victoria Pelletier said she was “disappointed and disgusted by this entire display.”
“Where is the line between free speech and hate speech, where is the protect and serve and integrity that people are asking you to have?” Pelletier said.
Pelletier, who is Black, was the target of racist attacks this past winter on social media. She said Monday that the dozens of people who spoke to the Council and the nearly 200 who rallied before the meeting proved that residents don’t feel safe in Portland and want city leaders to do more.
She too criticized the city’s official response for being ineffective. She argued that Monday’s conversations mirrored those from February, where officials take public comment, hear a memo, make their statements, and then simply move on to the rest of the agenda — with nothing actually accomplished.
“I’m so upset with this entire thing,” Pelletier said. “We’re just going through these motions about racial equity and now we go into a meeting after people said they were afraid to live in Portland. I’m not satisfied with this entire conversation. I don’t feel like we’ve gotten anywhere.”
Police presence was ample at Monday’s meeting, with roughly a dozen officers present in council chambers. A spokesperson for the Police Department said Tuesday that the department had one on-duty officer there, which isn’t unusual, and the rest were command staff or off-duty.
Councilor Andrew Zarro asked city leaders to make it clear what the next steps would be. He said while he understood there is a free speech component, saying slurs and then attacking people, as the April 1 demonstrators are alleged to have done, “that is a line that cannot be crossed.”
“How do we make it right?” he said. “I don’t know if we can.”
These comments followed about a 30-minute rally and march outside the police station — which police were not visibly present for. One of those present was Leo Hilton, a Portland resident who said he was one of four people who were attacked by Neo-Nazis outside City Hall on April 1.
As Hilton and others at the event described, police officers let the bad actors go without even asking for identification. A spokesperson for the police department said that none of the members of the group were identified on scene, and “none have officially been identified at this point.”
“I’m not scared, I’m just really fucking angry,” Hilton, who is white, told the dozens gathered outside the police station. “I’m angry they want everyone who is not like them dead.”
The group that gathered outside City Hall on April 1 has been widely identified as the Massachusetts-based neo-Nazi gang NSC-131. The group takes its name from the National Socialist party in Germany, and has been acknowledged by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist hate group.
According to Hilton, the assault occurred on April 1 when he and three others held up a pride flag, and the protesters — who were all masked — tried to tear the flag out of their hands. One member of Hilton’s group was then punched, and Hilton was thrown to the ground.
“They knew they could hit us and get away with it,” Hilton said. “These fascists are cowards.”
Jeremy Niles, another who protested the hate group’s appearance, said his message was to other white Portland residents.
“You can’t be neutral on Nazis,” Niles said. “There are marginalized people being beaten and legislated against. Protesting against our Black and trans and queer neighbors is not an abstract thing.”
Several at Monday’s rally pointed to what they saw as a discrepancy between how police handled the appearance by the neo-Nazi group at City Hall, including their attack on counter-protesters, and the response to protests in Portland during the Black Lives Matter uprising in the summer of 2020, where thousands rallied in downtown Portland following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police officers.
At one rally outside the police station in 2020, Portland police officers were positioned on roofs with sniper rifles in anticipation of potential violence. At another protest that summer, 23 people were arrested, and many in the crowd were sprayed with pepper spray, including Victoria Pelletier, the city councilor.
Steve Morton, a Massachusetts resident who was visiting Portland, saw Monday night’s rally outside City Hall. Morton said he had actually seen the members of NSC-131 on April 1, but did not initially know what their presence was about. The members typically wear masks, black sweatshirts or jackets and matching tan pants.
“They were walking around like they were tough guys,” Morton said. “But I’m pretty sure they wanted to stir the pot.”
Outside City Hall, nearly 200 people gathered near the steps denouncing the neo-Nazi group’s appearance, including the Ideal Maine Social Aid and Sanctuary Band, a local protest marching brass band.
Nathan Miller, of Portland, waved a large Black Lives Matter flag near the street. Cars honked in support.
“The voices of hate, ignorance and cowardice take up too much space,” he told the Phoenix. “We need to let them know they don’t speak for us.”
Zahara Muna, a demonstrator outside City Hall, saw the video of the assault on people she knew circulating online, and decided to join the rally.
“Portland police let them go freely,” Muna said. “They are making them feel safe to come here. Portland, Maine isn’t a safe place for Nazis or fascists.”
Police Chief defends officers’ actions
Interim Police Chief F. Heath Gorham told the City Council on Monday that the views expressed by a hate group that appeared at City Hall and assaulted a counter-protester on April 1 “are in no way keeping with the values of the Portland Police Department.”
He said police were not informed of the group’s demonstration before it happened. In his memo, he said officers were not able to see who started the altercation, but confirmed reports that an officer drew his gun. Following this, the members of NSC-131 began to disperse, and police allowed the groups to separate.
Chief Gorham also told councilors that in addition to not seeing the start of the fight, witnesses weren’t willing to give statements, and therefore they couldn’t make arrests.
“I support the decisions in the incident,” Gorham said of officers who arrived on scene.
NSC-131 is a New England-based white nationalist group, taking its name from the National Socialist Party of Nazi Germany. The Anti Defamation League describes them as seeking to form an “underground network of white men who are willing to fight against their perceived enemies through localized direct actions,” and that they promote racism, antisemitism and intolerance through various platforms.
The city council plans to overhaul its citizen police oversight board, one of several recommendations from the Charter Commission voters approved last fall. The city will add language on July 1 to the charter to begin adopting the stronger civilian oversight board.
Criticism of the police response to the neo-Nazi rally was highlighted by comments last week from Cumberland County District Attorney Jackie Sartoris, who had indicated in a recent Portland Press Herald report that the police should have been able to make arrests following the march.
In a later statement to the city, Sartoris said the newspaper’s headline did not reflect “what I believe I conveyed to the reporter nor reflects my views.”
“Our law enforcement personnel acted on April 1st to keep the peace in a very fluid, very difficult, and fast-paced situation,” she said in the statement.
Sartoris opposed any “distraction” from ensuring that “we learn from this event such that any future incursions upon our tolerant and peace-loving community by hate groups, including neo-Nazis, prevent violations of the law including acts of violence, and immediately holds them accountable if they step over that line.”
— Colin Ellis