PORTLAND, Maine — Black youth led the charge at another spirited rally in Maine’s largest city on Friday, fusing creative expression with righteous anger in a protest-themed celebration.
A multiracial rally of nearly 1,000 people marched in the heat to celebrate Juneteenth, a day marking the end of slavery in the U.S. Organizers cleared space for Black youth to deliver speeches and poems to the crowd while doubling down on recent demands to reallocate law enforcement budgets to health and social service professionals in the city.
“We are asking the city to defund the police and remove school resource officers from Portland and Deering high schools,” said Christina Donato, a recent graduate of Portland High School and one of three young organizers identified at the event.
Calls to reduce funding to police and reallocate it to social services have echoed over more than a dozen rallies in the Portland area since a national uprising for racial justice sparked by the police killings of unarmed Black Americans, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Advocates have sustained those demands in calls to city officials. The school board will vote June 30 on a resolution that would remove school resource officers from two high schools. The city council may soon vote on an ordinance to ban municipal officials from using facial recognition software.
Timothy Wilson, a former chair of the Maine Human Rights Commission, praised the young organizers on Friday. He told them to prepare to fight for access to political power.
“You need a seat at the table,” Wilson said. “Get to that table.”
The urgency of the national uprising has raised public awareness of Juneteenth — a holiday long observed in Black communities marking June 19, 1865, the day the final state in the Confederacy, Texas, emancipated its enslaved African American people. A Harris Poll released on Thursday found two-thirds of Americans in support of June 19th becoming a federal holiday.
Breaking from earlier protests, which focused energy outside the city’s police department, Friday’s rally largely played out at celebratory sites, where hundreds watched young people perform speeches and poems.
After an initial gathering at City Hall, protesters marched to the Abyssinian Meeting House, an African American meeting house built in 1828 that has been in an ongoing restoration process, and ended at Deering Oaks Park, where people ordered from food trucks and clustered, almost uniformly wearing masks — among friends on the grass.
Mike Sweeney, a white man who attended the protest with his wife and infant child and recently moved to Portland from San Francisco, said that he was impressed with the display of youth leadership on Friday. Friday’s protest was the first Sweeney had attended, he said, having been kept away by concerns of public gatherings during the pandemic.
“I hope this movement sticks,” Sweeney said. “I think it will.”