Desiree Vargas and David Patrick are the co-founders of Racial Equity and Justice. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

One week after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Dane Morgan arrived in downtown Lewiston’s Kennedy Park, ready for another protest to begin. Nearly 350 people had gathered alongside him that afternoon, but it wasn’t until someone spotted Morgan, a well-known local DJ and real estate agent, and handed him a megaphone, that he realized he would help rally them into the streets.

He became one of the thousands of Maine people who helped transform their cities’ roads, bridges and parks last month into the sites of massive protests against police brutality and racism. The number of people who gathered nationwide in early June appears to be unprecedented, making Black Lives Matter protests likely the largest movement in the country’s history, according to several polls. They were especially notable for Maine, the whitest state in the nation.

“I’ve always been doing a lot of this work, but I’ve never done it as loudly,” said Morgan, 29, who went on to organize another Lewiston rally on June 12.

Now the quieter work has begun to address racial injustice on the state and local levels. There’s no set path forward. But in recent interviews with people in two cities, Bangor and Lewiston, which differ both demographically and politically, organizers and city officials made similar points: Any changes they make now should not simply focus on ensuring greater accountability of police but address the disparities that manifest themselves in schools, housing, workplaces and between neighbors — and that the work needs to be led by people of color.

“The police provide a convenient shield for the rest of the community to kind of hide behind when addressing issues of race, discrimination, racism, bias,” said David Patrick, co-founder of Bangor-based Racial Equity and Justice, which offers diversity consultations and trainings and organized a racial inequity protest June 1 in downtown Bangor.

“Most communities are comfortable putting communities of color and law enforcement in a ring and saying, ‘This fight is between you two,’ when in all actuality the entire community has a role and plays a major part in this,” he said.

Several interviewed expressed hope. But as leaders discuss how, precisely, to tackle broad inequity, they find themselves not only trying to figure out how to translate the energy of the moment into tangible changes but how to convince people that racism even happens — not in a faraway place but in their backyard.

“Whatever statistics that show prejudice are a microcosm of the society’s prejudice,” said Michael Alpert, president of the NAACP Greater Bangor Area Branch and chair of the board of ethics for the city of Bangor.

About 1.8 percent of Bangor’s adults are Black, according to the U.S. census. But 5 percent of all arrests in Bangor between 2008 and 2018 were of Black people, according to numbers analyzed by the Bangor Daily News that were submitted by the Bangor Police Department to the FBI.

Similarly, Black adults make up 3.6 percent of Lewiston’s population but 19 percent of arrests over those 11 years, according to the same datasets. The racial disparities in arrests continue for specific offenses: Black people have been disproportionately arrested in each city for drug crimes, simple assault, disorderly conduct, theft and other criminal allegations.

The Lewiston Police Department, unlike most police departments in Maine, also tracks the race of people against whom its officers use force. Since 2016, Lewiston officers have shot their weapons twice at people, both of them white, according to data provided by the department.

But Lewiston officers have used other types of force — such as chemical spray, pointing their guns or their own physical strength — 4.4 percent of the time when they have arrested people of color, compared with 2.6 percent of the time when they have arrested white people, between 2016 and 2019.

The numbers themselves are small, which makes it harder to draw statistical conclusions. Lewiston police officers used force in 80 of 1,822 arrests of nonwhite people and in 167 of 6,317 arrests of white people over the four-year span.

The Bangor Police Department has only begun tracking the race of the people against whom its officers use force. It recently updated the form police must fill out after incidents involving force, so they can write down the subject’s age and race, said David Bushey, deputy chief of police.

Bangor police provided a breakdown of arrests showing that, 48 percent of the time they arrest Black people, they are not from Bangor. This is similar to statewide numbers, kept by the FBI, that show how, last year, about 46 percent of arrests of people of all races did not happen in the locality where they lived.

Most of the time, police arrested Black residents of Bangor on outstanding warrants. That happened 146 times between 2015 and 2019. Black residents of the city were also arrested for bail violations (40 times), assault (30 times), domestic violence (26 times), traffic offenses (20 times) and other alleged offenses in that time, according to the department’s records.

‘Be aware of what you don’t know’

While some state lawmakers have called for more information to pinpoint where prejudice occurs in the criminal justice system, organizers said they don’t necessarily need more data to know that race plays a role in policing. They wonder why their stories are not enough.

Safiya Khalid, the first Somali American elected to the Lewiston City Council, said she has heard of many instances of police stopping residents because of the color of their skin, including her brother. Once, the police pulled over his car for an allegedly broken tail light, only to let him go — without checking his license or registration — after realizing they were looking for someone else, she said.

Another time, a Lewiston police officer approached the same brother and his friend on the Bates College campus — the boys weren’t sure why — and asked for their identification, according to Khalid. When the officer saw that he lived on Knox Street, home to many of Lewiston’s immigrant families, the officer remarked that he was surprised he hadn’t been arrested before, Khalid said.

Her brother wasn’t charged with a crime, but, even so, “he shouldn’t have been stopped in the first place, put in that position, that uncomfortable position,” she said. “Having [experiences of] biases and prejudice and profiling by the police at a young age? That will continue to be in his brain and traumatize him to be fearful of the police.”

Others described the distrust they already feel. “With communities of color, there’s not the trust in the police in the entire state. The trust doesn’t exist that if you’re not guilty, you’ll go home; that if you comply, it’ll be OK; that you’re innocent until proven guilty,” Patrick, in Bangor, said.

Morgan, who helped lead protests in Lewiston, has stories of his own, which sometimes surprises people who know him as a prominent real estate agent. But to those who don’t, he’s another tall Black man with dreads who “fits a profile,” he said.

Once, he tried to break up a bar fight in Lewiston and, when the police arrived, they moved to put him in handcuffs, only releasing him when bystanders explained he had tried to defuse the situation, he said. Another time, a police officer pulled over the vehicle that he and another Black friend were driving in Lisbon for no apparent reason, other than that the cop seemed to just want to know why they were driving through, he recalled.

Dane Morgan is a real estate agent, DJ, veteran and leader in Lewiston’s Black Lives Matter movement. (Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

“Every time I’ve made eye contact with a cop [while I’m driving], I’ve gotten pulled over,” Morgan said. Last year, an officer stopped him in Lewiston as he was driving from a late-night DJ gig. “‘Why are you stopping me?’ I asked. He said, ‘You were speeding,’ and I’m going 32 in a 30. Then I smiled. I’m like, ‘I know where we’re at now.’”

On June 16, Khalid put forward a resolution in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, to commit Lewiston to take action to address racial inequality, including within the police department.

It would build on work the department has already started, especially after a 2018 multi-racial brawl in Kennedy Park in which a white man died and a Black teen was eventually charged in connection with his death. In the aftermath, the police chief invited officials from the U.S. Department of Justice to facilitate a community conversation that identified “unspoken tensions” as the top source of conflict, according to the Lewiston Sun Journal.

Under Khalid’s proposal, a new committee will consider a number of changes, such as how to improve the process for making civilian complaints against police officers, ensure that all city staff undergo anti-bias training and police officers receive more crisis de-escalation training, and figure out ways the city can hire more racially diverse staff and police officers.

Councilors voted 6-1 in favor of the resolve. The lone opposing vote came from Lee Clement, a veteran police officer, who said his constituents in Ward 6 disapproved of the language.

“I’ve had some very strong comments made [to me], and I think that I have to vote for my constituents’ representation,” Clement said.

Others in Lewiston expressed the need to stand against racism occurring across the nation but didn’t believe it was happening to the same extent in their hometown. During the June 16 City Council meeting, Lisa Belanger said she’s lived in Lewiston for 12 years and doesn’t know of a single incident of police brutality.

“If I’m wrong, I’m willing to stand corrected, but we need to be presented with those facts and the evidence for them before the council makes any kind of decision on the way the police officers here in Lewiston operate,” she said.

Similarly, in a statement, Lewiston Police Department patrol officers expressed disappointment that their elected officials would associate them with “current national events, disputable studies and historical incidents which are extraneous to the current state of policing in Lewiston, Maine.”

In response, Khalid discussed the emotional burden that falls to people of color who tell their stories again and again. “No one else on this council truly understands what it’s like to be Black in America. I’m asking you, please, listen to your Black constituents,” she said. “Bring some humility to this conversation and be aware of what you don’t know.”

Safiya Khalid pictured campaigning in Lewiston in this August 2019 file photo during her run for City Council. (Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Still, she would like Maine to collect better information about police encounters, such as how often police stop people of color versus white people. This type of data collection, which other states have done, could better show whether the color of someone’s skin prompted the police encounter.

But while Maine municipalities don’t have extensive data on profiling, there are enough statistics to show how Black Mainers face harsher experiences than their white peers, something scholars point to as a result of the country’s long history of disenfranchising racial minorities.

Black people make up about 2 percent of the Maine population, but they account for 5 percent of arrests and 11 percent of the prison population, according to an analysis of Maine’s criminal justice system by the Council for State and Local Governments published last fall. The researchers found that Black people are disproportionately represented at every stage of the criminal justice system and often face harsher punishments than their white peers for similar crimes.

Black people also accounted for 19 percent of the homeless population in 2018, according to the Maine State Housing Authority. And while 11 percent of Maine’s white population lives in poverty, 25 percent of Black Mainers do.

Studies have shown that poverty and experiences in childhood can contribute to the likelihood that someone will be arrested. This knowledge has been used both by police, to justify their policing, and by protesters, who argue it means police departments can’t be the sole focus of change.

The inner city of Lewiston, which encompasses the most impoverished neighborhood in Maine and has a denser population of nonwhite residents, “has a higher crime rate, and more serious crimes occur in our inner city,” Lewiston police Chief Brian O’Malley said. “Individuals who commit more serious crimes are more likely to resist arrest, flee from the police or assault a police officer, thus causing the officer to use force to make an arrest.”

The fact that more Black Mainers are struggling financially, which may lead to more frequent interactions with police, in addition to the commonly held racist experiences of Black people in a predominantly white state, are why organizers are asking city leaders to more broadly confront the biases inherent in their budgets, policies and public priorities.

“We want to be able to have community education. We want to have more resources distributed to communities that are marginalized,” said Desiree Vargas, who co-founded Racial Equity and Justice in Bangor. As an Indigenous woman, she and her family members have experienced the trauma of both racial slurs and physical violence in Maine, she said.

“I think the system has failed in making sure community voices are heard. I heard that loud and clear over the last few weeks, and I’m trying to identify ways to get folks to the table,” said Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer, a former police officer. Cayer will co-chair the city’s new committee on race and policing with Ayesha Hall, a school psychologist who works in Lewiston public schools to promote equity.

‘It needs to be action’

Desiree Vargas and David Patrick are the co-founders of Racial Equity and Justice. (Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN)

Bangor is following a similar path to Lewiston by looking into creating an advisory committee, led by people of color, to propose ways the Queen City can be more inclusive and equitable, said Clare Davitt, the City Council chair.

Bangor is also setting up diversity training for department heads, councilors and some other city staff that would be more meaningful than the HR video they currently watch, she said.

“When we talk about these issues, it needs to be way more than social awareness,” Vargas, with Racial Equity and Justice, summed up. “It needs to be action, and it needs to be coming from people of color making those decisions.”

So far, the Bangor Police Department has focused on organizing upcoming officer training on the topics of implicit bias, use of force and diversity awareness, and it’s reviewing its policies, Chief Mark Hathaway said. It’s in the final stages of developing a policy requiring officers to intervene if they see other officers using excessive force.

“It is incumbent on all of us in law enforcement to examine racial disparity in the criminal justice system,” Hathaway said, adding that those examinations must be done together with members of the community.

Two Bangor organizers, in separate interviews, praised Bangor police for seeking the feedback of people of color and listening to concerns.

“Chief Mark Hathaway has been a unique and valued ally,” said Patrick, with Racial Equity and Justice, who said they worked together on several incidents involving race in Bangor. The chief is “extremely transparent” and “never once had an agenda that wasn’t based in justice.”

Michael Alpert is president of the Greater Bangor Area Branch NAACP and chairman of the board of ethics for the city of Bangor. (Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN)

Alpert, the president of the local NAACP branch, has a few ideas for how Bangor can begin to eliminate racism. He wants Bangor schools to do more to address the discrimination students face. He thinks an anti-bias advisory committee at the county level would be wise, given that Penobscot County commissioners oversee the sheriff’s office and the jail. He wishes police in Maine kept more thorough records on whom they stop, to determine if they’re targeting people of color.

He has also pondered the idea of officers continuing to receive psychological screenings throughout their career to make sure they have the “emotional suitability for the work, which does involve a wide range of people,” Alpert said. Ideally, police would be paid more, to attract more experienced candidates, he said.

They could also use more training on how to use their power kindly. “If you’re empathetic toward any other individual, your empathy will generalize. That’s why police sensitivity training is so important. It’s not just to be sensitive to a particular group of people, it’s to be sensitive,” Alpert said.

If there’s ever a time for changes, it’s now, he said. “There’s been a rally in Bangor that was bigger than any rally since anti-war days in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’ve received more interest in NAACP than before,” Alpert said. “There’s been a lot more conversation among people in Augusta. I think the members of the City Council and School Board who are thought of as belonging to minorities are being listened to as leaders.”

“This seems like a real movement. I’m hopeful there will be change not only in terms of laws and public discourse, but within people to make up their minds to not be bigots. I think it’s a choice,” he said.

Others also emphasized that policy changes can only do so much. “This is about a larger cultural transformation,” said Joline Blais, an assistant professor of new media at the University of Maine at Orono who attended a June 5 rally at the Bangor airport. “If you change the word ‘policing’ to ‘peacekeeping,’ you get something very different.”

‘We’re not dropping it’

Dane Morgan is a real estate agent, DJ, veteran and leader in Lewiston’s Black Lives Matter movement. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The displays of unity during the protests won’t necessarily translate into a uniform set of goals moving forward. Across Maine, people have floated a range of ideas, from bolstering police training, to reducing funding for police departments in favor of other social services.

For instance, while Portland recently decided to remove police officers from schools, Morgan hasn’t made up his mind yet whether Lewiston should do the same. He knows some of the officers inside Lewiston schools are beloved by students, though he wonders if the money paying their salaries would be better spent on restorative justice coordinators. He also isn’t sure the city should cut funding to the police department, as many have called for.

He does, however, share the belief that Maine needs to collect comprehensive statistics on police interactions with minorities, and cities such as Lewiston should elect more people with diverse backgrounds to elected office.

Lewiston police have made some suggestions of their own, though not without expressing initial misgivings. They don’t want their previous efforts to build trust with the community to be overlooked, such as creating a community relations team, which conducts outreach efforts especially in the downtown.

The police union expressed support for accountability measures, such as purchasing body cameras and paying for officers to attend more regular training on using force. It also urged city leaders to learn more about the difficulty of their jobs. City councilors should be required to undergo simulations that replicate situations where police may fire their weapon, the union said, and councilors should ride with officers at least five times during their first year in office.

Officers can also learn more about the people they police, Morgan said. He would like community members to be involved somehow in the hiring of officers. And he would like to see new officers getting to know their community before being sworn in and reporting to the police department.

“Let Officer Doe work alongside Abo” — which means “father” in Somali — “for two or three or four months. He’s got to be in the community. He reports to Abo, not the police department,” Morgan said. That way, the officer better knows how to talk with people. “But more so, when Abo has an issue in the middle of Lewiston, Abo isn’t immediately afraid because Officer Doe shows up.”

Clare Davitt, Bangor City Council chair, is seen in this Nov. 13, 2019, file photo.

People in both Bangor and Lewiston expressed concern that momentum to improve treatment of minorities would fizzle. Recently, teenagers spray-painted a swastika outside a Bangor synagogue. And Davitt, the City Council chair, said she hears opposition from white people who argue that they have struggled, too.

Her response is clearcut. “We’re not saying your life isn’t hard. We’re just saying you haven’t suffered because of the color of your skin,” she said.

But the vast majority of emails and social media messages she receives from residents each day are overwhelmingly in favor of addressing racial disparities, she said; and every member of the council attended the June 1 protest downtown. The community is paying attention, too: At the Bangor Public Library, where she is a librarian, requests for books about race issues “are through the roof,” she said.

“What I feel, and what I’m seeing, is that we’re not dropping it,” Davitt said.

In Lewiston, Hall said she will make sure that the work of the reform committee, which she will co-chair, is not a “one-off effort out of passion,” but something that sustains itself.

“I can’t tell you that this time is going to be different,” she said. “What I know is, when they say, ‘Strike while the iron is hot,’ I know, as tired as I am as a Black woman right now, I need to find the strength to go on, and I can’t think, ‘Is this time going to work?’”

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.