Portland police officers arrest two men on Middle Street after a late-night standoff with protesters in this June file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Republican lawmaker wants to increase penalties for people who destroy property or assault police officers as protests against racism and police brutality continue nationally, but a civil rights advocate cited “grave concerns” about the proposal.

Rep. John Andrews, R-Paris, introduced a bill that would amend state law to include the “willful destruction of public and private property” in the Class B felony category. It is unlikely to be taken up in 2020, since majority Democrats and minority Republicans have not agreed to return for a special session. The measure could be taken up in 2021.

Protests against police brutality and racism ignited earlier this year nationally after the deaths of George Floyd and other Black individuals at the hands of law enforcement. Demonstrations have escalated after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake, who is Black, in late August. A 17-year-old white teenager is charged with killing two protesters there.

Andrews said in a news release the bill law would increase penalties for anyone who destroys public property, loots, uses items like fireworks or bodily fluids as weapons or sets property that does not belong to them — such as flags on public grounds — on fire. It would increase the felony penalty for assaulting a police officer, which is now a Class C felony.

“Given what is happening around the country, we cannot assume that outside agitators will not hijack peaceful protests in Maine to further their national agenda,” Andrews said.

Protests in Maine after the killing of Floyd and others were largely peaceful, though one Portland demonstration in early June resulted in 23 arrests and devolved as police pushed people back and others threw bottles at them. Burglaries were reported in four places, including Urban Outfitters, which police said a large group of people broke into.

Zach Heiden, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the proposal raised “grave concerns.” He noted property destruction is already a state crime and that racial groups are already disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system. The bill also ignores how police can escalate protest situations by using tactics including deploying pepper spray, he said.

“The government should be focused on making sure that individuals can exercise their right to free speech without threat of violence from counter-protesters or law enforcement,” Heiden said.