Thousands of people gathered in Portland over the last several days to protest nonviolently after the country’s latest death of a black man who was in police custody.
Their peaceful protests were followed early Tuesday morning, however, by clashes between police and a smaller number of people, some of whom allegedly vandalized businesses in the Old Port. Nearly two dozen people were arrested.
The May 25 death of George Floyd, a black resident of Minneapolis pinned to the ground by a white police officer who pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, was graphically captured on smartphone video, igniting more than a week of demonstrations and violence in cities across the country.
Daily Black Lives Matter protests in Portland began Friday, May 29.
That afternoon around 100 protestors gathered outside City Hall and walked to Monument Square and police headquarters. On Sunday, two more protests took place with several hundred protestors moving from City Hall to the Cumberland County Jail, Monument Square, and the police station.
Both protests ended with the creation of a memorial of flowers, candles and signs left outside the Police Department in honor of Floyd. The memorial items were subsequently removed by police officers.
On Monday night, several hundred people, many wearing all-black attire and face masks, met at the intersection of India and Commercial streets at 7 p.m. for the third day of demonstrations.
They walked toward the Police Department, three blocks away on Middle Street, chanting “hands up, don’t shoot.” Organizers addressed the crowd, which grew to more than 1,000 participants, and shared stories, a poem, and a deep, communal breath.
“I just want to invite some stillness,” one of the speakers told the crowd.
“We are here for a third day because the memorial that we continue to put up in memory of George Floyd continues to be taken down by the police,” another speaker said. “But we made a promise to them that we intend to keep that we will be back here every day.”
Along with demands to restore the memorial, organizers Hamdia Ahmed and David Thete asked to speak with Police Chief Frank Clark, who did not appear publicly throughout the protests.
City Hall, ACLU respond
The city and Police Department released an open letter on Friday in response to Floyd’s death stating the department’s values of integrity, leadership and service to the community.
“Our hearts go out to George Floyd’s family and friends, and we, like many, are awaiting answers and justice,” the statement said. “… We will continue our efforts to critically assess and critique our policies, training and procedures, seeking to align each with recognized best practices.”
The ACLU of Maine recognized the Portland Police Department for its public statement, but also encouraged the department and all Maine law enforcement to “recognize and condemn the systemic racism that makes these killings so commonplace.”
While nearly 2 percent of Maine’s population is black, black individuals make up 7 percent of the population in jails and 9 percent in prisons, and black individuals are four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to the ACLU.
“We’re also troubled by a continued and pervasive insistence that ‘these things don’t happen in Maine.’ Maine is not immune to systemic racism,” Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said in a statement released May 29.
Even in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, black people make up more than 20 percent of confirmed cases in Maine, while still only representing 1.6 percent of the population according to Beyea.
“Invariably, black people in Maine face systemic barriers to education, health care, employment and justice,” she said. “It will take all of us acknowledging and fighting against racism to prevent the next tragic incident from happening here.”
‘I can’t breathe’
At around 7:30 p.m. Monday, the crowd of 1,000 lay on the ground outside the Police Department chanting “I can’t breathe” for nearly nine minutes, to coincide with the length of time Floyd was pinned to the ground in Minneapolis.
Protestors then spread throughout the Old Port, blocking traffic on Franklin Street while holding hands and lying down on the pavement.
“It just seems like a lot of us are in prison even at home (due to the coronavirus quarantine),” one protester said while walking toward City Hall. “I think that’s why this feeling of blackness, or whatever race might mean to people out there, is really being lifted.
“Especially in a white place like Maine,” she added, “it feels good to see white people in support of black lives, if they really are.”
Another Portland resident acknowledged that the protest was not about her, but about showing support for those whose voices are not heard. And yet another said she opted to join the Monday night protest after stumbling upon one earlier that weekend.
“I’m here because I don’t want any more black people killed by police and I want the brutality to stop,” she said. “I want to honor all the people who’ve been killed and I want to do whatever I can do to help end systemic racism.”
Another said their presence was intended to show support: “If you don’t do anything about it, it’s just going to keep going. So that’s why I’m here, to do my job and my part in my community.”
The crowd returned to the police station at around 9:30 p.m., and it seemed the demonstration would end there.
“We’re tired,” one protester said. “But I’m still going to be here today, tomorrow, the next day, the day after.”
“This is no longer a movement,” another told News Center Maine. “It’s a revolution now.”
Early morning violence
But the atmosphere, which had been peaceful, grew darker and more confrontational in the early morning when a group of a few hundred people faced off against Portland police officers, Cumberland County sheriff’s deputies, Maine State Police troopers and officers from other area jurisdictions who had been called in to help control the crowd.
In a statement released early Tuesday afternoon, police Lt. Robert Martin said the remaining protesters began damaging barricades and encircled and damaged police vehicles. He said protesters threw water bottles, glass bottles, and rocks at officers, and some officers received death threats from protesters who surrounded them.
Martin said a group of protesters also broke into the Urban Outfitters store on Middle Street around 9 p.m.
He said several orders to disperse and leave the area were issued before the first arrest was made just after 10:30 p.m.
Martin said a tractor-trailer truck attempting to make a delivery drove through a group in front of the police station. The driver and a passenger were confronted by protesters, and the driver, Anthony McAfee, 45, was arrested on a charge of reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon.
Over the next hour, the crowd continued to throw objects at police, including bricks and bottles of urine. Several trash cans were set on fire, and there were 32 additional reports of burglary and vandalism.
Police used non-lethal use of force, and pepper spray in Pepperball and aerosol spray delivery systems against the people they believed were throwing projectiles.
Martin said order was restored just after 2 a.m. Tuesday morning.
Twenty-two protesters were arrested on charges of failure to disperse; 18 individuals are from Portland. All were taken to the Cumberland County Jail, where they were processed and released on bail.
Police Chief Frank Clark said police respect the right to protest, and that his department was disgusted by Floyd’s death, which ignited the national protests.
“We are fortunate that no one was seriously injured (in Portland) and that most of the property damage was minimal,” Clark said. “Unfortunately a committed smaller segment of this group ended up making this event anything other than a peaceful and lawful protest. They took the opportunity to commit acts of violence, damage public and private property and place my officers and the public at risk. We will not stand for such criminal behavior.”
Staff writer Colin Ellis contributed to this report. Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen lives in Portland.
City condemns racism, brutality, deaths of Floyd, Arbery
Before a fourth night of protests led to 23 arrests in Portland, the City Council issued a proclamation endorsing peaceful protests and condemning the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and George Floyd in Minnesota, and all forms of racism and police brutality.
The proclamation states the deaths have “again shone a light on systemic racism and the current and historically disparate treatment of African Americans and black people in our country” and that “as public servants we have an even greater responsibility to speak out against racism, discrimination, bias, and hatred.”
It commits the city to protect the rights of the Black Lives Matter movement and protesters who demand justice for all, and recommits to working with the community to address and uproot institutionalized racism and to be vigilant over its own public safety policies and actions.
Councilor Jill Duson, who was Maine’s second black woman to be elected to public office and served as its first black female mayor, helped draft the proclamation. She said she has found herself incapable of engaging in community response.
“This one is just too much, I just can’t,” she said, her voice breaking. “So, I’m doing some self-care.”
Councilor Tae Chong described his experiences with racism as an Asian American.
“I’ve had young men in their 20s try to run me over with their car while I was on my bike. He chased me for almost a mile,” Chong said. “I’ve seen white coworkers get promoted, even those who I mentor, while my status did not change regardless of my high performance.
“Seeing George Floyd’s injustice brought back all the injustice done to me and to my family and to my relatives, and to many people of color I know in this community and beyond,” he continued. “I am angry and I want justice, (but) I also realize that my experiences as an Asian American is still less dire, and an easier path than an African American man or woman.”
Chong said the council hears and understands the protesters, as do the city manager and the Portland Police Department. He noted that the Portland police stand with immigrants, even passing up federal funding to do so, but said he will also be requesting more racial bias training for the police.
He asked protesters to channel their passion into registering people to vote, into attending council and committee meetings, and giving councilors advice on how to improve policing.
Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said “You don’t watch that eight-minute video (that documented Floyd’s death) and come away with anything but anger.” But he also urged channeling that anger into change.
“For all of the diversity we have on the council, what is most important to me is how you’ve seen the more institutional kind of roadblocks removed as time has gone on,” he said. “But there clearly is more work that needs to be done.”
Thibodeau said the stories of violence and looting from around the country represent a small fraction of the peaceful demand for change.
“What I think our council is doing tonight is recognizing that good, peaceful work, and the foundation that it sets for the future,” he said.
Councilor Kimberly Cook said the outrage is “absolutely justified and these protests are necessary … but we can’t go so far as to burn things.”
“Most of the protests including in Portland, have been really heartfelt,” she said, “and we’ve maintained that balance.”
A few hours later, after about 1,000 people concluded a peaceful protest, police arrested 23 individuals in response to dozens of alleged acts of violence, vandalism and burglary downtown.
At the council meeting that evening, Councilor Belinda Ray called the vandalism and looting a “red herring.”
“We cannot let that become the story,” she said. “There is a peaceful protest going on.”
She also called on people to be actively anti-racist, “or else we are actively part of the problem.”
“Every day that we walk through the world, thinking that our experiences as white women are the baseline, attempting to minimize George Floyd’s murder by blaming him in any way, that is perpetuating the problem,” she said. “Casually going out into the world right now socializing, not wearing a mask to keep your asymptomatic droplets to yourself, risking catching and spreading a disease that is killing black people at a far higher rate than white people, that is perpetuating the problem. Talking about rule of law when the laws are unjust, that is perpetuating the problem.”
Councilor Justin Costa said, “I think it is important to emphasize, not simply that we hear you but that all of us agree with you, your outrage is correct.”
He urged people to not lose sight of the things we have control over as members of a community.
“This is a community that does stand up for one another,” Costa said, “that has long stood on the side of justice and what is right and has done things that very few other communities throughout our entire country do.”
Councilor Pious Ali expressed gratitude as an African immigrant for those who have sacrificed their lives and everything else for him and others like him to be here.
“We are together in this,” Ali said. “Many other people like me not just in Portland but across the country are ready and willing to work with indigenous or African Americans … to make sure that we have a better world tomorrow for all of our children.”
— Jordan Bailey