Despite some reasons for optimism, especially here in Maine, Monday was not a good day across the country.
Peaceful protesters in the park next to the White House were cleared with tear gas so the president of the United States of America could take a picture. Four police officers in St. Louis were shot as protests turned violent.
While protests have largely been peaceful in Maine, tensions did escalate in Portland Monday night with police pushing back protestors and using pepper spray when some got close to their line and threw water bottles. Twenty-three arrests were made and multiple businesses were damaged, according to the city.
Just as America cannot continue to look away from the systematic oppression that has existed for generations, we cannot look past these troubling developments. We also must not let chaos and fear drown out the voices of compassion, frustration, pain, reconciliation, and meaningful action. If there was a bright spot on Monday, it was the strength of those voices here in Maine.
In Rockland, police chief Chris Young and Knox County Sheriff Tim Carroll joined with protesters to kneel silently for nine minutes, roughly the same amount of time that former Minneaoplis police officer Derek Chauvin, now charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, had his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Floyd, an unarmed black man, died a short time later.
“As law enforcement, we strive to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We must begin by coming forward and condemning unjust police violence. If we remain silent in the face of injustice, we fail to protect and serve,” Young said in a statement on his department’s Facebook page. “What happened to George Floyd is despicable — it should have never happened, and should never happen again. We don’t believe in letting evil flourish. We stand with you.”
Melissa Barez, a Rockland resident of nearly 30 years, said she had never been more proud of her town. And she made an important appeal to togetherness.
“I don’t want this to turn into an us versus them. There is no us versus them. It is all of us,” Barez told the crowd. “I love you all. I am proud of you all. I am thankful for you all.”
In Bangor, police chief Mark Hathaway and Greater Bangor Area Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president Michael Alpert released a joint letter ahead of Monday’s downtown protest.
“While the shocking actions of these police officers do not reflect the actions of all police officers nationwide, their actions erode the trust and confidence that all neighborhoods must place in their police departments,” the letter said. “We know that the Bangor Police Department must build, improve, and sustain community trust through greater transparency and approachability, continued training, and consistent professional conduct.”
While there were tensions toward the end of Monday’s protest in Bangor between police and a smaller group of protesters who seemed unaffiliated with the original rally organizers, the crowd eventually dispersed. There were no arrests, according to police.
We find hope in people like Dante McAllister, leading a “Black Lives Matter” chant and hugging and shaking hands with police in Bangor (though everyone needs to remember we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic!). We find hope in the officers taking a knee along with the protesters.
“Their reaction wasn’t aggressive, they wanted to hear what I wanted to say,” McAllister said about the police officers. “And I told them, and showed it. We all have to love each other.”
Bangor City Councilor Angela Okafor, who spoke at the protest, posted on Facebook after the event expressing her pride in the community for achieving “what people said we could not; a peaceful and unifying protest.”
“We support our cops too while we fight for justice. Our cops blockaded the street and stood there in solidarity and protection of us. I honestly was very scared going in this evening.” Okafor said in the post. “Seeing our cops and my colleagues and several of our community leaders was very helpful in calming my anxiety to a huge extent. We started a very good dialogue here. Please let us not throw it away in the hands of the instigators.”
Hugs, handshakes and kneeling together aren’t going to solve the longstanding problems of racism and inequality. But as seen Monday in communities like Bangor and Rockland, they are hopefully helping to lay the groundwork for sustained dialogue and much-needed change.