Progress remains elusive in Portland a year after racial justice protests

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While a lot has changed in a world that is slowly emerging from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s not clear whether things have improved in terms of racial justice.

A year ago, protests erupted in Portland and across the country in response to the deaths of people of color at the hands of police. The city’s largest demonstration came on June 1-2 and included protesters clashing with police who used pepper spray and wore riot gear. Vandalism took place and storefront windows were destroyed. A truck drove through a crowd of people.

Ultimately, nearly two dozen people were arrested and an independent review of the Portland Police Department’s handling of the situation was established.

Lelia DeAndrade co-chairs the Portland Racial Equity Steering Committee.

Eventually, the calls for change led the city to create a committee to review systemic racism and the role of policing in Portland. The Racial Equity Steering Committee, which met weekly over the course of several months, delivered its final report to the City Council in April.

Lelia DeAndrade, a co-chair of the committee, last week said there’s still a sense of “anticipation and dread” among the Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities.

“It’s a year later, attention is dipping, it’s hard to know if this is really going to take root and if we’re going to see substantive changes,” DeAndrade said. In terms of community relations, she said, she hasn’t seen any real change.

“There are other people who might have a better sense of progress, but nothing has stuck out to me,” she said. “It has just been this waiting game.”

DeAndrade said the way the country responded to the murders of eight women in Atlanta earlier this year, many of them of Asian descent, was a setback because there was a “knee-jerk reaction” that it wasn’t about race.

“It seems you can have a death sentence for having a taillight out,” she said. “It’s so easy for something small to quickly escalate and result in a BIPOC person dying because of an encounter with police.”

People protesting the death of George Floyd and other black citizens confront a Portland Police Department cruiser June 1, 2020, on Franklin Street. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

Several other committee members either did not respond or declined to discuss the potential result of the committee’s work.

The City Council, which received the panel’s report on April 28, won’t have its first full discussion until a workshop presentation on June 28. While the hope would be that there is a detailed discussion resulting in the council enacting all the recommendations, DeAndrade said, this moment is a “nail-biter” for the committee members.

“We worked harder and we worked longer on this than any of us expected,” she said. “I hope the councilors keep in mind what they asked for and what we delivered. It’s easy to get a report like this and feel defensive.”

DeAndrade also commended councilors for considering the report in a workshop, rather than relegating it to a committee. 

She said this is a moment not for anyone to defend themselves but to look forward to improving things in Maine through a racial equity lens. She said the important thing for councilors and the city to do is remember why they asked for the report to begin with and thinking of the next steps. Rather than worrying about how expensive some changes may be or if some recommendations make the city look bad, they should focus on moving forward.

“They had it in mind we would come with recommendations,” DeAndrade said. “I’m sure they didn’t think everything was fine. You can’t bring together a group with such diverse expertise and not think there were going to be really comprehensive recommendations.”

The recommendations vary dramatically in scope, she noted, suggesting the council could take baby steps and implement something like the proposed permanent racial equity board and empower it to help guide the work going forward. Steps like that, she said, would show the city is open to engaging with the ideas.

“And the recommendations aren’t a family,” DeAndrade said. “They could make this a multi-year plan. It’s going to require creativity. No city in the country is overwhelmed with money right now. It’s about trust-building. And going back to the anniversary, a lot of BIPOC people are thinking ‘Is anything good going to come out of this?’”

While the independent probe of the Police Department’s actions last summer continues, PPD representative David Singer referred questions to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin. She said it is important to let the firm hired by the city, Minneapolis-based Clifton, Larson & Allen Law, do its work and declined further comment. 

“While we certainly acknowledge the one-year anniversary of the protests in Portland, we feel it is important to respect the independent investigative review process,” Grondin said. “As we are expecting the final report to be available in the next few weeks, we are withholding any further comment until it is released and shared with the City Council.”

DeAndrade, meanwhile, provided a sober analysis of the last 12 months.

“I haven’t seen anything to say ‘Wow, we are moving on and things have changed in the last year,’” she said.

Members of Maine Inside Out perform a reworking of “The Weeping City” May 25 at 754 Congress St. to commemorate the anniversary of George Floyd’s death. Maine Inside Out wrote “The Weeping City” in 2009 after a fatal police shooting in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Portland remembers George Floyd

Hundreds of people gathered May 25 on Congress Street in Portland to use art to commemorate the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death.

Organizations including Indigo Arts Alliance, Black Owned Maine, Maine Inside Out, the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, Black POWER, Racial Equality & Justice, the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, and Maine Youth Justice staged “A Day of Remembrance” at 754 Congress St. – the former gas station where artists Daniel Minter, Ryan Adams, and Titi de Baccarat last year created “Counting from Thirteen,” an installation designed to bring attention to racial injustice and question American history since the passage of the 13th Amendment.

The outdoor event featured live music and poetry, and a performance of the play “The Weeping City” by Maine Inside Out. Portland City Councilor At-Large April Fournier also delivered remarks.

Jerry Edwards, a co-founder of Black Owned Maine, said the show of unity at the event reminded him of the feelings evoked at the protests following Floyd’s murder last summer by a Minneapolis police officer.

Edwards, who is originally from Texas and is also known as his musical alter ego Genius Black, performed his song “Head Down,” which is about people turning a blind eye to police brutality. He said despite living in Maine since he was in college, he had “never felt more supported as a Black man in Maine” than he did at the initial protest about police brutality last summer.

“All those people that did that with me that night, I didn’t forget that,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that they kept all the action super hot forever, because things wane, but that was real. We were in danger, but it was together.”

— Elizabeth Clemente