More than 1,000 people gathered around Portland City Hall Wednesday afternoon for a peaceful protest organized by Black Lives Matter Portland leaders. A sea of protesters wore all-black clothes in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and masks to reduce the spread of the coronavirus during the ongoing pandemic.
Similar demonstrations have spread across Maine, the United States and around the world over the past week and a half since George Floyd, a black man, was killed when Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, crushed Floyd’s neck with his knee for nearly 9 minutes as Floyd vocalized that he couldn’t breathe. Chauvin has since been charged with second-degree murder, and three officers who were also present were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. Floyd died on May 25.
Floyd’s murder — along with the recent killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — reignited and boiled over long-held frustrations about the injustices of police brutality, institutional racism and white supremacy in the United States.
Maine activists plan to continue organizing protests through at least Sunday to demand systemic change from local officials and to draw attention to the countless number of black and brown lives lost to police violence.
Wednesday marked the fourth day in a row — and fifth evening — of demonstrations in the state’s largest city. Speakers shared intimate accounts of their experiences with racism and prejudice in Maine as well as visions of hope for change.
The peaceful protests were followed by a standoff with police and youth protesters outside the Portland Police Department’s headquarters, which ended with several arrests. During evening demonstrations earlier this week, confrontations between protesters and police ensued with 33 arrests made between Monday and Tuesday, according to the Portland Press Herald.
Machar Nguany — a 21-year-old who was born in Portland, graduated from Casco Bay High School and attends the University of Southern Maine — opened up Wednesday afternoon’s demonstration with a poem.
Listen to Nguany’s poem, “Why,” and follow the text, which he shared with the Maine Monitor, below:
Why can’t you hear me?
yo knee on my neck
mouth gasping for breath
Why can’t you see me?
Is this melanous hue just too dark for you
Why do you fear me?
This body portrayed as a weapon far too often
Why can’t you feel me?
This pain cannot be left for history
But this should be no mystery
Police only came to be because slaves longed
to be free
the spirit of Africa within them not meant to be
Funny tho it seems these teachings are only
familiar to me
That the history taught in the classrooms isn’t
What it’s made out to be
Now they want us to step back and make
And wonder why we so fucking angry?
How would you feel if your people were
If your brother’s doing life and white people getting less
How would you feel if ya homies in the dirt
and his killer’s walking around without a care in
This is why we stand
This is why we fight
This is what got me tossing in my bed every
So what if the government don’t like the
methods that we’re using
Check the constitution it’s our right to
Fiona Akilo Stawar — a 17-year-old from South Portland who graduated from Westbrook High School — followed Nguany.
“In times of uncertainty we need light — a light to guide us. This light is anyone that stands up to oppressors,” said Stawar. “This fight is no longer about what party you stand for. It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or Democrat. This is about standing up for human lives, black lives.”
Hamdia Ahmed — one of the lead organizers of the protest — took to the stage and reiterated the demonstration was meant to be peaceful and show solidarity with black people.
“We want peace. We want everybody to come together. We want to resolve the issues that are happening,” said Ahmed. “This is about systemic, institutional racism.”
As the audience cheered in agreement, Ahmed invited black voices to come up and share their stories with the crowd. “They deserve to be heard. This is their space,” said Ahmed.
A man who lost most of his voice over the last few days of protest took the stage and spoke with all the breath he had left. A concerned mother of a young black boy shared the fear she feels for her son’s safety every single night.
Portland City Councilor Jill Duson addressed the crowd and quoted Angela Davis: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”
Duson continued in her own words, “It’s hard to protest, and it can’t be polite.” She went on to ask political leaders and protesters to join her, “in a moment of silence, representing our shared sorrow for the families of folks who have been killed or brutalized.”
Duson took a knee and invited anyone else that felt comfortable doing so to join her. This was the first demonstration of the day where people took knees in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Portland Police Chief Frank Clark and Commander James Sweatt took knees and clapped.
“We want to be here,” said Sweatt. “As a human being I want to be here. It doesn’t matter whether I’m wearing a uniform or not.”
One day earlier, the Maine Association of Police released a statement on Facebook praising the professionalism of local law enforcement during the tenser, nighttime protests in which police wore riot gear, fired pepper spray into the crowd after water bottles were thrown at them and arrested demonstrators. The Black Lives Matter Portland group wrote that the police association’s post “lacks sensitivity, betrays a misunderstanding of structural racism, and draws a false equivalence between the murderous systems of structural racism, and the actions and attitudes of some protesters.”
Westbrook’s chief of police, Janine Roberts, also took a knee in solidarity Wednesday. During a press briefing earlier in the day, she made a comment that “every life matters,” which drew criticism. She later apologized for what she said, admitting that she “screwed up.”
Comments like Roberts’ and “All Lives Matter” sentiments are seen as dismissive of the disproportionate targeting and killing of black and brown people by police officers and white people.
This one of many topics touched upon by one the final speakers of the afternoon — Chartreuse Money — a drag queen known as the “Grand Duchess of Casco Bay.”
Chartreuse Money has worked as an educator in Maine public schools for 4 years and as a drag entertainer throughout New England for 2 years. She’s worked with people from different cultural, racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds with varying gender identities, sexual orientations and ableness.
“Until these (black and brown) children have equal representation within the institutions which they are forced to be a part of and learn from — until these children are learning the stories of Marsha P. Johnson; are learning the stories of black history and brown history; and why we called it the Spanish Flu; until these young people can look to people like me for guidance and feel safe and know that they’re growing up in a world that is full of empathy and compassion and equality — no one is free.”
As the crowd cheered, Chartreuse Money went on asking elected officials why the Black Lives Matter flag wasn’t flying overhead. She then went on to sing a short song she wrote to the crowd called “America, Reimagined.” She sang:
Oh beautiful for spacious skies
For anyone that’s white,
For darkened White House vacancies
Hide racists from the light.
Please shine your light on me
And take this crown from off our heads
‘Til black lives have equality
Listen to excerpts of Chartreuse Money’s speech here:
Upcoming demonstrations across the state:
- Thursday, June 4
- Friday, June 5
- Saturday, June 6
- Sunday, June 7
- Augusta: Capitol Park, 33 Union St., 2 p.m.