PORTLAND, Maine — Seventeen Black Lives Matter protesters arrested during a demonstration last summer have struck a deal with prosecutors to avoid criminal charges.
As part of the settlement with the Cumberland County district attorney, the 17 adults charged with misdemeanors after the July 2016 protest will sit down to talk over their differences with city police as part of a so-called restorative justice program, which encourages mutual understanding between offenders and those affected by a crime.
If the deal becomes official at a Jan. 26 court hearing, the agreement will mark the first time that restorative justice has been used in a Maine civil disobedience case, said Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Ackerman.
After the demonstration during a summer that saw American racial tension at its highest level since the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, those involved in the Portland protest case came to see it as an opportunity to encourage better relations between police and the protesters.
“With the atmosphere in this country between police and protester, and especially with this group Black Lives Matter, we’re hoping that we can avoid the types of situations that a lot of other cities have dealt with,” said Ackerman.
Last July, 18 people, including one minor who is not part of the settlement, were arrested when police forcefully broke up a protest that was organized weeks after police killed two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and a black former Army veteran shot dead five Dallas police officers.
The protest blocked a busy, downtown intersection for several hours, and those arrested were charged with obstructing a public way, failing to disperse, and, in some cases, obstructing government administration. Police broke up the protest after some activists pushed back against a slow moving SUV that tried to drive through them.
None of the adult protestors will be charged with a crime, but Ackerman said that the settlement will include provisions to hold the protestors “accountable for what happened that night.” She declined to provide details.
Jon Gale, one of the 17 lawyers who represented the protestors free of charge, said that his client, Karen Lane, is very happy with the settlement.
The Portland Center for Restorative Justice will lead a discussion between police and protesters aimed at helping each side understand the others’ motives and decisions.
Fred Van Liew of the center said his group is working to schedule the meeting for some time before the court hearing on the settlement.
“It’s really heartening that the [district attorney] and the Portland police see that in this particular instance that there is a better way to resolve things,” said Van Liew.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck declined to comment, citing the pending court hearing.
The divide between law enforcement and protesters was made deeper in this case when the Cumberland County sheriff released mugshots in which several protesters were not wearing their religious headscarves. Sheriff Kevin Joyce later admitted that distributing the photos was a violation of policy and apologized.
During the demonstration, activists from the Portland Racial Justice Congress demanded that Sauschuck affirm the value of black lives — which he did — and “that his department is committed to creating trusting relationships with the people of color.”
Ackerman said that the deal was possible because of Sauschuck’s support.