BELFAST, Maine — Protesters at Resistance Corner in Belfast are testing the limits of free speech after an anti-mask, anti-shutdown demonstrator pushed a man into traffic following a tense exchange that was captured on video and posted online.
Police responded to the scene in seconds, but no charges have been filed since the altercation occurred on Jan. 3.
Activists regularly gather at the corner of High and Main streets in Belfast to speak out on many causes. Lately, it’s been the site of weekly anti-shutdown and anti-mask protests that are sharply critical of the state’s response to the pandemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend people wear masks in public settings as the most effective way to limit the spread of COVID-19, in addition to social distancing and hand washing.
But in the wake of last week’s deadly riot at the nation’s Capitol, the lines between First Amendment rights and lawlessness have been blurred across the country. And in Belfast, a coastal city that has long prided itself on being a bastion of free speech, the stakes, and the tensions, about the way people voice their opinions are higher than ever.
“I live in the United States of America. We have inalienable rights,” said Jennifer Crowley of Hampden, one of the anti-mask, anti-shutdown protesters who regularly come to the corner to demonstrate.
Crowley engages with as many as she can about the issue, she said, even as her group has become a flashpoint for the city. Downtown merchants and others have decried the loud, maskless gathering of protesters for being too aggressive and intimidating, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
On Sunday, a galvanized group of about 10 protesters carried signs that said “No Lockdown for ME,” “We Will Not Comply” and “Masks Make People Stupid and Rude.”
Crowley used a megaphone to share her disdain for mask wearing and the pandemic response at Resistance Corner. She and some of the other protesters said that they can’t or won’t wear masks, and the requirements to do so in public spaces prevent them from going to those places.
A fair number of drivers honked supportively Sunday as they cruised through the intersection. Others on foot or in cars heckled or argued with her and the other protesters.
But they didn’t miss a beat before responding.
“U.S.A.! U.S.A! U.S.A.!” one protester yelled as he waved an American flag.
City officials are concerned by the reports of these protesters both hassling and getting hassled. Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders said they are monitoring the situation closely.
“The city believes in the right of free speech, and the city believes in public safety,” he said. “My concern is either side getting accidentally engaged in fisticuffs or worse because of this. That’s not what protest is supposed to be about.”
A tense moment
But that’s what happened on Jan. 3, as a 51-year-old Belfast man and his dog were waiting adjacent at a crosswalk from the crowd of protesters.
A Facebook Live video clip shows the incident that followed, which begins roughly at the 31-minute mark.
“Before I got to the crosswalk, they were instigating,” said Joseph, who asked to be identified only by his first name. “They were mocking. Basically, they were looking for a dialogue.”
He yelled back, and said he didn’t care why they were demonstrating. But they didn’t stop. After Joseph, who was not wearing a mask himself, crossed the street, he stepped up on the curb where protesters were standing. That’s when a man told Joseph he was violating his space.
“He got in my face,” Joseph said. “He’s still screaming at me. By that time, I’m screaming at him, ‘I just want to pass.’”
He asked another protester to intervene. Then the man pushed him forcefully into the intersection.
“It was a two-handed, full shove,” Joseph said.
Belfast police officers were parked across the street and spoke with Joseph within seconds after the alleged assault. They didn’t ask him if he wanted to press charges, Joseph said.
Three phone calls to Belfast Police Chief Gerry Lincoln were not returned.
“The police asked me in a roundabout way what’s next,” Joseph said. “I said, ‘I don’t need to make this situation more volatile than it is.’ I believe it will make things worse … frankly, it’s just making downtown Belfast for that day not a place that I want to go to.”
Matt Norwood of Brooks, an anti-mask and anti-shutdown protester who streams the protests live on Facebook, said the tensions have been the result of other people trying to stir up trouble.
“We have been in a few altercations defending ourselves. There definitely would not have been fighting on our part,” he said. “I don’t think shouting is a violent action. I really don’t. When people drive by and yell things at us, we yell back. We don’t mess with people. I don’t think it’s meant to target or harm anyone. It’s meant to wake people up.”
Right to — and limits of — free speech
Berney Kubetz, a Bangor attorney who is an expert on First Amendment law, said the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of free speech. Anyone can speak freely and without restriction on virtually any matter of public interest, he said. But there is a boundary when free speech becomes incendiary and has the direct potential to incite violence or unlawful activity.
“The courts have drawn a line in an attempt to balance these two concepts — the right to speak freely and a prohibition on speech that has a direct potential to incite violence,” he said.
When Kubetz, who also is the attorney for the Bangor Daily News, reviewed the video, he said it appeared to be more than a matter of people voicing opinions.
“I believe it would constitute assault,” he said. “The guy was physically shoved into the street. Fortunately, it appears from the video that there was no traffic. But it could have been a very serious event if there had been.”
Last week’s riot at the Capitol, and the threats of violence at the upcoming presidential inauguration, show how the right to free speech can be misused.
“I think there’s no doubt that we are in a place that we’ve not been in my lifetime, certainly,” Kubetz said. “The limits of free speech are being pushed to the precipice. And as we saw last week, what began as free speech escalated, somewhat predictably, into acts of violence.”
How it started
The anti-mask, anti-shutdown demonstrators began occupying the corner of Main and High streets in Belfast every Sunday about two months ago. They displaced Black Lives Matter activists who had protested there beginning early last summer.
Activists have been a regular sight at the corner for almost the past 20 years — mostly they’ve advocated for peace, social justice and the environment.
But the new wave of protesters who seek to abolish state mask mandates and who vehemently disagree with scientists and public health officials when it comes to COVID-19, have deployed more aggressive tactics, according to long-time activists.
“We were bullied off the corner,” Meredith Bruskin, a Black Lives Matter activist, said. “People came and were not wearing masks and were very aggressive. It was upsetting. We did not want to put anyone at risk.”
So, at the request of city officials, they relocated to another corner in town for the sake of safety.
BLM activist Louisa Carl of Waldo said the anti-mask demonstrators surrounded them on the corner a couple of months ago, and deliberately tried to intimidate them from the site.
“I think they were very intentional about wanting to disrupt and dilute what we were doing,” she said. “They’ve been very confrontational from the second they showed up.”
But Norwood said that his group never meant to silence or displace other activists on the corner.
“I love everybody being out here speaking their minds,” he said.
Difference of opinion
For some who own small businesses near Resistance Corner, Sundays can feel onerous when the anti-mask and anti-shutdown protesters are demonstrating there.
About two weeks ago, a customer complained to Helen Sahadi, who runs a yarn shop on Main Street, about an interaction with the protesters.
“She was walking with her family and she touched her mask,” Sahadi said. “They started screaming at her: ‘You’re a superspreader! You’re a superspreader!’ She felt totally harassed.”
It’s ironic to hear protesters say they are worried about the impact of lockdowns on Maine businesses, she said, when their demonstrations have affected her businesses.
“I’m not anti-protesting,” Sahadi said. “Just do it peacefully. Don’t harass people walking by.”
But Kaleigh Van der swaagh, an anti-mask and anti-shutdown activist from Northport who also owns a downtown Belfast business, said that the protests are bigger than just the city.
“I care about the entire Maine economy,” Van der swaagh said. “I think that the people in this downtown area who are so concerned about losing an hour of business — they’re very privileged.”
But that’s not how it feels to merchants such as Jennifer Lisa, whose store, Quench, is located on Resistance Corner. Revenue from weekends in December is important to small stores, she said, especially in a year as challenging as 2020. Still, she considered closing her store on the Sundays leading up to Christmas because she felt that customers would be deterred by the noise and protesting.
Then she changed her mind.
“I stayed open because I have just as much right to be here as they do out there,” she said.