It’s not every day that hundreds of people take to the streets of Bangor, as they did Monday night to protest racial inequality and police brutality following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
It was an unusual, but not unprecedented, moment for the Queen City, which does not generally see as many large political demonstrations as two of its counterparts to the south, Augusta and Portland.
The event started with a large, peaceful gathering next to the Bangor Public Library that drew an estimated 500-600 people, according to the Bangor Police Department. Afterward, demonstrators marched up Main Street to a park across from the police department. Then, a smaller group of protesters broke off and spent time rallying in front of the police station.
“They’re really not that common here,” local historian Richard Shaw said of large political gatherings. “But when they happen, they are very heartfelt.”
The turnout on Monday night may have been even higher if it weren’t for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, said Sue McKay, 65, a longtime Bangor resident who attended the protest and has experience organizing demonstrations for another man, Charlie Howard, whose 1984 murder in Bangor helped accelerate the state’s LGBTQ rights movement.
“I personally know a number of friends who would have gone if not fearful for their health,” she said. “I think it’s really extraordinary that you had that kind of turnout under these conditions.” She added that she was “very impressed” how many rally goers wore face masks and kept a safe distance from others.
Estimating crowd sizes is an inexact science, but just a few other Bangor demonstrations of the past few decades have surpassed the size of Monday night’s, according to the available record.
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Most recently, more than 1,000 activists marched through downtown Bangor in January 2018 to commemorate the Women’s March one year earlier against the policies of President Donald Trump.
A dozen years before that, roughly 1,500 people gathered on the Bangor waterfront to call for an end to the Iraq War. In October 1998, an estimated 800 people rallied for an expansion of LGBTQ rights in Cascade Park after a smaller number marched 10 miles through the rain from Orono.
There have been less spontaneous events that have drawn big crowds, such as rallies by political candidates including Trump. And the city’s annual LGTBQ Pride Parade grew to its biggest size ever last year, with between 2,500 and 3,000 attendees.
But in general, demonstrations have rarely topped 200. About 150 people went to an Occupy Bangor protest in 2011, and 100 went to a rally to protect the Penobscot River in 2017. Annual memorials for Howard now generally attract between 30 and 40 participants, according to McKay, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor that organizes those events.
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It’s far more common to see smaller demonstrations of five, 10 or 20 people on street corners or outside the offices of Maine’s congressional delegation.
Historically, Greater Bangor has hosted some other larger demonstrations around galvanizing national events such as Floyd’s death, according to Shaw.
In 1965, some local faith leaders helped organize a march downtown following assaults on civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama. Between the late 1800s and early 1900s, members of the Temperance Movement also held multiple demonstrations.
“There are a lot of people of conscience around here who really care about things,” Shaw said. “A lot of churches, a lot of people who are very much in tune with the sensibilities of something that might have happened far away. They can’t probably visit the scene of the crime, but they can be on TV and make a statement.”
Watch: Hundreds protest George Floyd’s death outside police department