PORTLAND, Maine — Nearly 150 people turned out Tuesday evening for a community discussion about Portland’s response to recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, where the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager has sparked weeks of demonstrations.
While organizers of the Portland event described it as just the start of a longer term dialogue about “structural racism” — with more activities and action items to come — one immediate takeaway message was clear: Maine is not insulated from racism.
“Part of the challenge is nobody thinks it happens here in Maine — we have different demographics here,” Rachel Talbot Ross, head of the Portland branch of the NAACP and the event’s emcee, told the Bangor Daily News. “But Maine didn’t fall off the map. … We do have these issues here and it’s time for us to do something about it.”
The fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, earlier this month by a white Ferguson police officer reignited a nationwide discussion about race relations, as well as police use of deadly force and military-style equipment.
Demonstrations in Ferguson, in which heavily armed police at times clashed with protesters, resumed on Tuesday after Brown’s funeral in St. Louis on Monday.
The dialogue about race and law enforcement continued as well in Portland, which is diverse by Maine standards with a population that’s 85 percent white, and where police in 2012 acquired a $274,000 military-grade armored Bearcat vehicle.
On Tuesday night, some attendees said their black loved ones had been subjected to racial profiling or even abusive behavior by Portland police.
The nearly 150 people on hand at the Portland Public Library for the event broke up in five smaller groups for round-table discussions before reconvening as a larger group to share what they had talked about.
“We like to think that here in Maine it’s isolated, it’s safe, it’s not like [Ferguson],” said one participant in the discussion, Asher Platts. “But stuff does happen here.”
The Rev. Kenneth Lewis, pastor of Green Memorial AME Zion Church on Munjoy Hill, said he has “experienced [racism] my entire life, and I’m from the Northeast.”
He said African-American males “are an endangered species in our communities.”
Others in attendance asked for police to release data that might provide insight into whether there is racial inequity in Portland’s arrests, as well as more information about what military-style equipment the police keep.
City Councilor Jill Duson — who serves on the council’s public safety, health and human services committee and is the only black member of the council — said that Portland police work under a fair leader in Chief Michael Sauschuck.
“In every group we may have people who do things wrong or for the wrong reasons,” Duson said. “But our leadership is strong. I trust the leadership of our police.”
Sauschuck, who was in attendance, told the BDN afterward, “the key to an event like this is to focus on collaboration.”
“For me, it’s about building that trust and hearing what people have to say,” he said.
Ross said she would be walking away from the event “very hopeful and feeling determined.” She said conversations with police, local schools and other institutions to identify and address “structural racism” would need to follow.
“I feel like we were able to navigate the emotions of Ferguson and the unfortunate death of a young man, and talk about our local community,” she said.