December 18, 2017
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Faith leaders arrested for trespassing after hours-long sit-in at Sen. Collins’ Portland office

By Jake Bleiberg, BDN Staff
Updated:
Jake Bleiberg | BDN
Jake Bleiberg | BDN
Police arrested Rabbi Joshua Chason, 71, of Portland, for criminal trespassing around 8 p.m. Thursday, after he and a group of other faith leader spent about 10 hours occupying U.S. Sen. Susan Collins' office in protest of the Republican plan to overhaul the federal tax code.

PORTLAND, Maine — Nine faith leaders who had been occupying U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ Portland office for about 10 hours were arrested by Portland police Thursday night for criminal trespassing.

Around 8 p.m., police restrained the protesters, many of whom were over 60, before taking them to the Cumberland County Jail. Some of the protesters sang as police escorted them out.

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” Rabbi Joshua Chason, 71, of Portland sang as he was led out with his hands zip-tied in front of him.

The religious leaders had pledged earlier in the day they would not leave — even if it meant being arrested — until the Republican lawmaker promised to oppose her party’s tax package when it comes up for a final vote.

It was the second group of protesters this week to be arrested in the offices of Maine’s senior senator while urging her to reject the sweeping changes to the federal tax code that are being negotiated in Washington, D.C. On Monday, police arrested five protesters who staged a sit-in at Collins’ Bangor office.

The senator helped her Republican colleagues narrowly pass a tax bill earlier this month, but she has not yet said whether she’ll support the measure once it is merged with a House tax bill. The protesters said Thursday the measures would enrich corporations but hurt the poor and working class.

The faith leaders arrested Thursday were Chason; the Rev. Allen Ewing Merrill, 47, of Portland; Marty Soule, 67, a Buddhist leader from Readfield; the Rev. Carie Johnsen, 54, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Community of Augusta; the Rev. Christina Sillari, 54, minister of First Parish Church in Portland; Molly Brewer, 31, student minister at the First Universalist Church in Auburn; the Rev. Jim Gertmenian, 70, of Cumberland, a retired United Church of Christ minister; Diane Dicranian, 62, a Quaker from Bath; and the Rev. Jonathan Wright-Gray, 72, of Ocean Park.

They were charged with criminal trespass, according a Portland city spokeswoman. It was not immediately clear whether the Cumberland County District Attorney would sustain those charges.

“This is an expression of our faith,” the Rev. Ewing-Merrill of Portland’s HopeGateWay United Methodist church said Thursday afternoon. “We plan to be here as long as it takes. … [If] that means that we’re arrested and taken away for that, then that’s what it takes.”

The senator’s staff called the police prompting the arrests, according to Jessica Grondin, the city’s director of communications. A condition of the office lease states staff cannot leave it unoccupied after hours if there are other people there, Grondin said.

Less than two hours before they were arrested, the group was ushered into a back room of Collins’ office to speak with her on the phone. They returned to the office foyer about 30 minutes later and said they were grateful to her for listening, that she had not asked them to leave and that they had no plans to do so.

Collins was in Washington, D.C. on Thursday afternoon, for Senate votes, according her communications director, Annie Clark.

Clark, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment following the arrests, said Thursday afternoon that “Sen. Collins meets with thousands of Mainers every year. She appreciates hearing from her constituents and respects their right to protest.”

A few protesters first arrived around 10:30 a.m. and by early afternoon, 18 people were crowded into the foyer of Collins’ downtown office at One Canal Plaza. Throughout the afternoon, they prayed, sang, broadcasted their protest on Moral Movement Maine’s Facebook page and encouraged people to call Collins and ask her to reject the federal tax code overhaul.

“This is just not a state of wealthy people and every economic analysis of this bill says that it would disproportionately benefit the wealthy,” Sarah Singer, a 41-year-old mother who drove from Brunswick with her three sons to support the protesters, said. “This is a state of middle and working class folks, many of whom count on tax breaks that would be eliminated.”

Around 4 p.m., some protesters were eating Chinese food and sandwiches they said had been donated by local restaurants. One pizza delivery man said the pies he was delivering had been ordered by someone in Long Island, New York.

Collins’ Portland office is in the Key Bank Office Building, which is owned and managed by East Brown Cow, a local real estate company.

Monday’s arrests at Collins’ office in the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building in Bangor came after the Federal Protective Service, which is responsible for building security, called the police, Clark said.

In helping the Senate approve its sweeping tax plan, Collins secured assurances from Republican leaders that it would include amendments to allow taxpayers to deduct up to $10,000 in property taxes, to reduce a medical expense deduction threshold and to allow public and nonprofit employees to keep making catch-up contributions to retirement accounts.

Whether Collins’ provisions will survive the reconciliation process is unknown. She has left open the possibility of voting against the tax package when it returns to the Senate if she’s not satisfied with it.

Collins’ amendments were included in the approved Senate bill. President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, also promised her to secure eventual passage of two bills to partially offset the impact of ending the Obamacare mandate that individuals be insured.

Repeal of that key provision of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law is in the Senate tax plan but not the House version.

Thursday was Collins’ birthday. She is 65.

Follow Jake Bleiberg at @JZBleiberg.

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