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ATHENS, Maine — A haven for the outlandish and outspoken could find itself outlawed after a small-town Independence Day celebration that bordered on becoming a melee.
The West Athens Fourth of July Parade has always been an event where people could express themselves as artists or activists and yes, act a little crazy, said Anna Freeman, who helped start the annual tradition 40 years ago. Even though she loves the parade and has devoted countless hours organizing it over the years, Freeman counts herself among the growing number of people in town who say that if Monday’s celebration was any indication of what to expect in future years — fighting, littering, squealing tires, taunting paraders — the show will not go on.
“Little by little there have been less people participating in the parade and more people just watching and drinking and drinking and drinking,” said Freeman. “The whole juice and fun and meaning of the event has been sucked into a beer bottle.”
A West Athens resident is gathering signatures to stop the parade, law enforcement agencies have said they will be be more proactive if it goes on next year, and Bruce Clavette, the town’s first selectman, vowed that the scene which unfolded Monday will not be repeated.
“That’s not a parade; that’s a riot,” said Clavette. “It’s not going to be the status quo next year. There are going to be changes.”
Instead of the politicians, firetrucks and marching bands that make up many Maine parades, West Athens paraders are more likely to dress as belly dancers, wave anarchist signs or concoct surreal floats out of whatever materials are at their disposal. That includes this year’s winning entry, which involved a puppet made from a cured pig’s head and most of its skeleton.
Many of the parade watchers are also unique, most notably in recent years for their level of intoxication. According to Freeman, few locals attend the parade anymore.
“By 9 a.m. the Valley Road was being inundated with parked cars and most people were already heavily drinking,” said Freeman. “As I rode in the parade, I saw nobody from my town. There were just people who decided this is where they’re coming to get blitzed out of their minds.”
Athens is a town of about 850 residents in southern Somerset County. West Athens, as it is called, is a part of Athens where about one-third of the town’s residents live.
Several Valley Road residents told the Bangor Daily News that the scene on Monday was out of control and violent. Mary Brown, who lives on the parade route, said she was shocked to see a group of people beating on two others at the end of her driveway. At first she tried to break the fight up, but then resorted to something organizers said has never been necessary at a West Athens parade — she called the police.
“There was 15 or 20 guys all beating up on two boys,” she said. “We’re just trying to have a parade and have fun. This year was too much. It was outrageous.”
Nearby resident Sylvia Judd agreed.
“I couldn’t stand to stay out here,” she said. “I went inside.”
Maine State Police Lt. Donald Pomelow said state troopers, county deputies, game wardens and an ambulance from Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan all responded to the call, but once they reached Valley Road had difficulty reaching the scene of the violence. Pomelow said the fight started after a pickup truck backed into a car and that one of the car’s occupants was hospitalized and needed stitches. No one has been charged and police are seeking the pickup truck’s two occupants.
Pomelow characterized the overall scene as out of control, prompting officers to issue several warnings for a range of violations, mostly trespassing.
“There were several incidents going on at the same time, mostly due to a little overindulgence in alcohol,” said Pomelow, who estimated that there were 1,000 to 2,000 people at Monday’s parade. “The last couple of years have been quite problematic as far as people getting out of hand due to alcohol and drug usage.”
David Avery, a Valley Road resident who said he witnessed fighting and indecent exposure in his yard on Monday, said he’s circulating a petition to urge selectmen to stop the parade.
“It was bad,” said Avery, who aims to collect as many signatures as he can and present them to selectmen on Tuesday. “The people watching the parade didn’t have any respect for our town.”
Clavette, the first selectman, said if the majority of the residents on Valley Road want the parade to stop, he’ll ask Freeman and the other organizers to end it voluntarily, consistent with public statements Freeman has made to that effect in the past and to the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday.
“It’s gone on for a lot of years and there’s a lot of nostalgia for a lot of folks,” said Clavette. “We knew this type of incident was going to happen sooner or later, and this sort of woke people up.”
Freeman agreed, but said abandoning the parade — and by extension possibly the play that takes place every year in a gravel pit at the end of the parade route — won’t be easy.
“Everyone agrees that we have to do something,” she said. “When I first marched in the parade with my baby on my back, it was all of our friends just having a good time. To go from that to not only strangers, but people who use the parade to disrespect our town, that’s terrible.”