WHAT IS A CRIMINAL? The intersection of racial justice and policing in Portland

Featured WHAT IS A CRIMINAL? The intersection of racial justice and policing in Portland

Jean Valjean is hungry so he steals a loaf of bread. He cannot work and his family is starving, so he commits this necessary act.

But Javert, the local police official, considers it a threat to society and pursues the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables for hundreds of pages, convinced he is a criminal who will always return to committing crimes. The reader, on the other hand, roots for Valjean.

Rodion Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky's protagonist in Crime and Punishment, does not consider himself a criminal. He's an ubermensch, a superman who does not have to abide by the laws of men. When he kills a worthless pawnbroker, he thinks his premeditated murder no crime; in fact, he considers it a benefit to rid society of this usurious wretch. Only when he kills her younger sister, when she happens upon the scene, does he begin to feel the remorse that will be his undoing. The reader delights in the just suffering he endures.

What we think of these fictional criminals might be straightforward enough: a misdemeanor and a felony, respectively. But the settings of these novels — Revolution-era France and St. Petersburg in the 1860s — were relatively homogenous and told stories of class, not race. Today’s Portland, Maine, has an increasingly mixed population and a predominantly white police force. Issues of racial profiling are prevalent.

These issues were on tap for the season’s first Think & Drink, presented at SPACE Gallery on Feb. 28. Titled “What Is a Criminal?”, the event was the first in a four-part series of panel discussions called “Policing, Protection, Community, and Trust in the 21st Century,” sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council and moderated by Samaa Abdurraqib of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

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Portland shows up to talk about policing in Portland at the SPACE Gallery's first "Think and Drink" event. 

Anne Schlitt, assistant director of the MHC, knew the first subject area needed representatives from all perspectives to weigh in.

“We collaborated deeply with the moderator to develop the content, and since it’s such a hot-button topic, we called together an advisory board,” Schlitt said. That group included Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts, Phippsburg Police Chief John Skroski, who brought a smaller rural policing perspective, Dr. Leroy M. Rowe, assistant professor of African American History and Politics at USM, Rachel Healy from the ACLU, Jim Burke from UMaine Law School, Danielle Conway, who in July of 2015 became the seventh dean and the first African American to lead Maine’s public law school since its founding in 1962, and Dr. Darren Ranco, chair of Native American Programs at the University of Maine.

“When we started, our interest in the topic of policing wasn’t immediately polarizing," Schlitt said. "We needed to dig in and understand the broader topics of policing and racial injustice. That’s the way we created the four sections [of the series], and tried to represent that with our panelists.” She adds that the theme was decided before the elections. Since that time hate crimes across the country — including bomb threats to Jewish schools, mosque burnings, heightened KKK presence, and destruction of cemeteries — have risen dramatically.

Schlitt has a personal interest in the subject, she says. Her husband, Erick Halpin, is a patrol office in Damariscotta. “It’s not one of the larger immigration populations. It’s largely white. His experience with race has been more theoretical.”

Abdurraqib doesn’t deal with incidents of police profiling in her work at the MCEDV, but works indirectly with both sides of policing. “I support advocates across the state who do direct support work, but they work more closely with police,” she said. “In my job, I’m providing training for law enforcement for risk assessment tools, so when they go to a domestic violence call, they can go through risk assessment to see whether a person who committed a domestic violence offense before is more likely to commit another one.”

For the discussion, the decision to do prep work with several members of law enforcement turned out to be crucial foresight. The panelists for the evening were Alicia Wilcox, from the School of Legal Studies, Husson University; Michael Rocque, a sociology professor from Bates College; and Carl Williams of the National Lawyers Guild. (The Portland Police Department was not represented, neither on the panel nor in attendance.)
Williams later voiced concern of the representational imbalance in an email.

“I don’t have experience with the police in Portland. As far as I know, no one from the police came to the community discussion. That seems unfortunate,” he wrote, stating that he was not commenting as a representative of the ACLU or the National Lawyers Guild. “I have heard of multiple incidences of Portland police killing community members. That is chilling. I am aware of the police and district attorney pursuing cases against Black Lives Matter protesters. That is upsetting. I have read and seen videos of Maine's governor saying things that appear to be openly racist. That is unacceptable.”

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The panelists: Michael Rocque, Alicia Wilcox, and Karl Williams. Photos courtesy of the Maine Humanities Council. 

These issues provided added impetus for the series’ content this year. “We’re deeply aware of the questions around race, and the way policing has been fraught over time, and how the issues have been bubbling to the surface,” Schlitt adds. "There’s no right or wrong answer. We’re interested in creating the conversation so people will be better informed as they go about the work of policy or policing. We hope members of law enforcement come to the sessions. Certainly, the panelists will provide a variety of perspectives to help the audience examine their own beliefs with fresh eyes.”
The consensus of the discussion, of panelists and audience alike at the packed SPACE Gallery, is that we are all criminals, whether of street or white-collar crime, misdemeanor or felony, and especially whether or not we get caught. Some of us are perceived as criminals beforehand and are policed accordingly. These perceptions are often based on race, gender, age, but also such factors as what neighborhood we’re in, what time of day or night it is, and what we’re wearing.  Language barriers can also present all kinds of problems. Drug use or mental illness can alter dramatically the nature of a police call.

Over the past 25 years, Maine averaged 2.5 police-involved shootings a year. But there were six shootings last year, and three already this year. At a point during the event, the most recent shooting, of a man with a BB rifle, was referenced.  “Say his name!” someone in the audience called. “Chance Baker,” another responded.

Of the panelists, Abdurraqib asked, “What is a crime?” and “What is the process you have to go through to be labeled a criminal, to be charged with a crime?”

The group provided a range of answers. “If I got a ticket for driving over the speed limit, maybe get a verbal warning or get a ticket, but I don’t consider myself a criminal,” Wilcox said. “When you’re a kid and experiment with drugs and don’t get caught, and your neighbor doesn’t know, you don’t feel like a criminal. Did you sleep with someone before their age of consent? Probably everyone here has committed a crime. If we got caught, we maybe get a warning. We think of it as an ‘us’ and ‘them,’ but is it really? Or is that just what we have been taught?”

The less personal and more theoretical classroom perspective was added. “When I ask students to list the top 10 crimes, they all include the ones we expect —murder, rape, theft,” Rocque said. “I ask them why pointing a gun at someone is a greater crime. There any many more millions of dollars lost to white-collar crime than street theft.”

The ACLU lawyer took a more direct approach. “Look at who uses drugs and who sells drugs. Even though whites and blacks both sell and use drugs, each within their own communities, black folks and brown folks get arrested,” Williams said. “Then the cycle starts — small crimes, prison, parole violation. Then they go back in. When they get out, they can’t get a job and they go back in again. They are more likely to get picked up for violating parole and they go back in. Cops profile a car, pull it over. A driver has four packets of heroin. There are four people in the car. Police charge all four of them with collective trafficking. A crime is whatever the dominant society deems is the most threatening. But dominant society uses violence, the threat of force, to make us appear in court, for example.”

Williams feels that perception of a “criminal” is too-often formed from a tilted system, rigged towards the rich or powerful.

“The profession that commits the most cases of domestic violence? Cops. But you don’t see too many cops get arrested for that. What is the cause of that? Privilege? Fear of retribution from the dominant society?” he asked, in contrast to “the kid stopped three different times by police who are profiling. The kid in the hoodie eventually loses his cool, gets arrested for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, trespassing — all because the last bus has left so the bus stop is closed.”

After the event, I asked Abdurraqib, “Beyond panel discussions and demonstrations, how can police and community get in the same room to address racial or religious profiling?”

“It’s not the function of the panel discussions to propose legislation," she said. "Sometimes people at an event meet like-minded people and go out and encourage legislators to make changes.” Abdurraqib notes that two legislators and a city councilor were present at the Feb. 28 event.

“The goal is to have community conversations, but not come out of a conversation with a bullet-point platform on how to change social climate or policing.” The MHC is trying to find more of the blue perspective, “but it’s kind of difficult to have police officers sit on stage and have that conversation,” Schlitt said.

Upcoming Think & Drinks: in the series, “Policing, Protection, Community, and Trust in the 21st Century.” Social discussions on policing in Maine, its intersection with race, and how local experience connects with what we are seeing across the U.S.

April 5: “What Makes a Police Officer?: Training and Expectations of Law Enforcement”.
May 3: “Who’s Watching Whom?: Physical Surveillance By and Of the Police.
June 7: “What’s the Harm?: Emotional Challenges of Policing and Being Policed.
All events are free and run from 6:30–8 p.m. at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | https://mainehumanities.org/blog/think-drink-blog/think-drink-portland-2017/ 

Last modified onTuesday, 14 March 2017 20:31