PORTLAND, Maine — At the peak of this summer’s national civil rights movement, several groups rallied in Maine under the “Black Lives Matter” umbrella with a shared aim of Black liberation. Although their protests drew an overlap of support from activists, their methods and messages weren’t always the same.
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” was coined by activist Alicia Garza after the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, and gained traction in the summer of 2014 after police fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The movement reignited this May after the police killings of unarmed Black citizens George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
But its rise as a universal rallying cry to oppose police violence against Black people and raise awareness of the inequities they endure simplifies the complex resumes of many activists who have worked in various capacities for years doing anti-racism work.
Black Portland Organizers Working to End Racism — or Black P.O.W.E.R. — emerged as the most well organized group of racial justice activists in Maine. This more experienced collective of local Black activists and allies, including some who had convened as the Portland Racial Justice Congress several years ago, executed an eight-hour citywide march through Portland streets on June 5, drawing more than 2,000 people, and have kept pressure on city officials through incisive policy demands.
Clockwise from left: Black P.O.W.E.R. protestors march through Portland on Oct. 3 in an evening-long rally; Activists march down Franklin Street in Portland, with a long list of racial justice, environmental and political demands. A protestor chants through a bullhorn as the group marched; Protestors march through Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Some of those demands have already borne fruit. In June, city officials voted to remove police from Portland schools and ban the public use of facial recognition software, which studies show disproportionately affect Black and other people of color. The group also called to dissolve the Maine Information and Analysis Center, a secretive intelligence agency run by state police. Another of its goals, the departure of Portland City Manager Jon Jennings, appears within sight.
The group recently changed its name from Black Lives Matter Portland, partly to distinguish itself from another that became Black Lives Matter Maine weeks later. As protests on the ground have thinned, Black P.O.W.E.R. has been busy building capacity for long-term civic impact. It recently got a fiscal sponsor and received two grants, put members on payroll, hosted school supply donation drives for students in need and aligned with a campaign to pass initiatives that would raise wages in the city, strengthen the ban on facial recognition software and expand housing rights for renters.
The Bangor Daily News interviewed two founding members, Christiana Marvray and Mariana Angelo, in the days before and after a recent rally. They hinted at what’s to come.
Can you talk about the decision to change your name to Black P.O.W.E.R.?
Christiana Marvray: We wanted to make sure that we were representing ourselves as Black organizers due to a mischaracterization [by some city councilors earlier in the summer] that we were a white-led organization. We wanted to really localize the goals and intentions of our group. We recognize that our context and experiences are informed by us living in Portland and want to be intentional about that work. We can actually do a lot more harm by trying to broaden our reach for the sake of broadening it.
There’s a persistent narrative that I see that “outside groups” are coming in “from away” to organize these protests. Can you talk a little bit about the need to be public with your identity while working as a collective?
CM: That’s something I’ve had to come to terms with. I’m not from Portland. I’ve lived here for 3 1/2 years, but I’m from Missouri. I was on the ground in Ferguson during the Mike Brown protests and heavily involved in what was happening down there. I saw firsthand as organizers on the ground were turning up murdered and missing in the months and years after those protests came to fruition and started this national movement against police brutality and modern-day lynching.
Security is definitely a fear that we all have within our group, because the threat is real. We have a president who on national television [during the Sep. 30 presidential debate] told the Proud Boys, a white supremacist organization, to “stand down and stand by.” Those people have been showing up at protests in Portland. This is a real tactic of intimidation and fear that white supremacists use to silence BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) voices.
Mariana Angelo: The best thing that’s happened to Black folks is having to wear masks [to protect against COVID-19]. Being born and raised in Portland, I know both sides of Maine. I know the Vacationland that we all love — Sebago Lake, being on boats and hiking — I see that. But then I also see the life of being Black, being one of only 10 Black people that live in your neighborhood or your town, and how we as Black folks have become accustomed to working around white rage, because white rage means we die. We’re all under the banner of Black Lives Matter, but you aren’t just accountable to the national movement. You’re also accountable to the people in the neighborhood, to the mailman, to the kids that play basketball in your neighborhood, to all those people in your community.
How important is it to keep your chapter of the movement fluid and open to community support even as you are evolving and coming forward with your own identities?
CM: It gets frustrating for us when we hear questions from supporters like, ’When are you going to be out in the streets again?’ When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, somebody emailed us demanding that we create a rally to honor her, with no critical thinking about the ways that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s policies and beliefs have impacted and harmed BIPOC people. I think people want immediate gratification, but it’s really important that we are strong before we start making those outlets available to people. We’ve been doing those things so that we’re able to bring people in with something to stand on.
MA: Deena Hayes-Greene, an organizer with the [North Carolina-based] Racial Equity Institute, said, “Being a great organizer is saying ‘no’ to a lot of things.” We don’t want to be here just for the season. We are planning to be here for a very long time. We want to be an educational hub, for people to learn about city council, who they want to vote for, what our city’s budget is, who is [city manager] Jon Jennings? I think city councilors and mayors have not been transparent with our community.
Over the past few months there’s been a lot of confusion about the various groups organizing against racism and police brutality, including from media outlets. What is your perception of how the media has covered the protests?
CM: Honestly, this is probably going to be our last interview for a while. The last two interviews we gave, they misspelled my name and mischaracterized events we’ve been planning. It’s been frustrating waiting to see who’s going to get it right. That’s the danger of comments — from people like [Portland City Councilor] Tae Chong and other members of the City Council — that insinuate that this is a white-led organization. [Those comments] pass along the internalization, based in white supremacy, that Black people are incapable of doing this work, and that becomes reflected in the way that the media covers Black lives and anti-racist events that are happening — the laziness, the rushedness, the misrepresentation of facts.
Your group recently organized a donation drive for students in need of school supplies. What were you able to raise and what needs are you seeing in BIPOC student communities right now?
CM: The school drive was amazing. We understand that the people who were going back to school — who don’t have the opportunity to [opt for remote learning] because their parents work full-time — are predominantly going to be [people of color], low-income or unhoused individuals. We reached out to principals, vice principals and social workers at every public school in Portland and asked what was needed. We spent a lot of money to buy supplies, and community members dropped off pre-filled backpacks for students. We cleared them out multiple times every day.
Mariana, you were recently a University of Southern Maine student. I know there’s a lot of youth activists in this movement, and I’m curious how in touch with actual teenagers you are right now.
MA: I’m 24 and I’m still pretty close to a lot of youth. I’ve been invited by [USM program] Gateway to Opportunity to talk with high school students and help them understand what it is to be an activist and how they can start in their communities. I feel like I never got those conversations when I was in high school.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.