BELFAST, Maine — Police estimate that around 200 people came together Sunday afternoon at Post Office Square in downtown Belfast to protest racial inequality.
That gathering — the second protest in Belfast that day — was followed by a “civil disobedience” event: protesters marched down Main Street to the waterfront, with some in the group walking back up the hill to block the intersection of Main and High streets. At that intersection, protesters said a man tried to drive his car into the group at low speed, but no injuries were reported.
It was one of many protests held across the nation and beyond after the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after he was pinned at the neck by a white Minneapolis police officer who has been charged with murder.
“We occupied the intersection for a little bit, just to make a statement. We wanted our police department to release a statement about the death of George Floyd. We were trying to get their attention. What can we do? Stop traffic,” said organizer Syd Sanders, the 18-year-old valedictorian of Belfast Area High School. “The cops did show up. It was all peaceful. No one was doing anything violent … It was just a peaceful protest, with some peaceful civil disobedience. It worked, and I’m thrilled.”
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Belfast Police Chief Gerry Lincoln released a statement Monday in response to the protest, which he described as having begun “very peaceably” and with only a few “disrespectful” participants.
“The Belfast Police Department has no place for racism in its ranks, will not tolerate it in any form, and firmly believes all people deserve to be treated equally,” he said. “The tragic events in Minneapolis cause us all to reflect upon our own procedures and training to be sure when action is taken, it is done properly, justly, and equitably in all situations.”
Not everyone in Belfast was pleased, of course, with the protesters’ decision to block the intersection.
On Monday, the “You Know You Love Belfast” Facebook group blew up with comments about the protest, with people both criticizing and defending it. Some who witnessed the protest, but did not participate in it, said they felt unnerved or angered by the chanting, yelling, road-blocking and other behavior of the protesters, and pointed out that they did not have a permit to march on the streets. Others mentioned a profane sign that one of the young men held up, that children dining at Main Street restaurants might have seen.
Deputy Chief Dean Jackson of the Belfast Police Department was skeptical of claims that protesters vandalized city property, saying that he was aware only of a parking sign that had its chain broken. He also said that he had heard a report Monday morning about the man who allegedly tried to drive into the group of protesters, but that he wasn’t aware of any injuries.
“The bottom line is, it ended peacefully. There was no major vandalism,” he said.
But Raymelle Moody, who attended the protest, said that she witnessed disturbing behavior on the part of bystanders. People in two vehicles “shouted expletives” and made lewd gestures at the protesters, she said, and then another person at the intersection of Main and High who was frustrated by traffic being blocked.
“[They] decided they were going to drive their car directly into this group of teenagers,” she said. “I was standing right there. I was very surprised that no one got hurt.”
Those events, and the often-angry responses to the protest on social media, to her, demonstrates that racism is alive in Maine.
“I am outraged by the continuing systematic racism that goes on in our country,” Moody said. “We’ve been quiet for far too long. It is us, the privileged, who need to raise our voices and stand up for these people. That is what will result in actual change.”
But Shawna Aitkin, who was in the car that went into the crowd, said Monday that she and her companions drove up to the protesters hoping they’d be allowed to pass through. Instead, they were surrounded and shouted at for a minute or so before they were able to drive around them and up the street.
“I literally felt threatened and could not stop shaking,” she wrote the BDN. “They were out for a riot [and] looking for someone to give them a reason to riot.”
Kayleigh Bernier, 20, of Camden, said that taking part in the protest was a powerful experience for her. She noticed the tension between some of the bystanders and the protesters, and also saw the driver “trying to just drive through the protesters.”
“Eventually we had no choice but to get out of the way,” she said. “There were definitely a couple of people not happy about the event. But I feel very strongly about racial injustice, and I know a lot of other people do, too. We weren’t going to stop just because there were hecklers.”