Mainers gather at an anti-Asian violence rally in Portland on Saturday. Credit: Nick Schroeder / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — A public rally of city officials, educators, lawyers and members of civil rights organizations gathered on the steps of City Hall to condemn anti-Asian attacks on Saturday.

Gathering roughly 300 attendees, the “Stop Asian Hate Rally for Multiracial Solidarity” featured a carousel of speakers from a multiracial coalition, tracing ethnic and familial histories and sharing stories of discrimination, racist attacks and systemic barriers in their personal and professional lives.

Though many have spoken out, it was Portland’s first formal gathering to confront violence and discrimination targeting Asian people in the U.S. since a 21-year-old white man committed a string of deadly shootings in Atlanta on March 16, killing mostly Asian women.

The Atlanta attacks, paired with a recent attack in Portland for which a man has been charged with a hate crime, have prompted city officials planning board member Marpheen Chann and city councilor Tae Chong to speak out and convene the rally with support from community groups.

Chong, who was born in South Korea and became the first Asian American publicly elected to Portland city council in 2019, anchored his speech in broader civil rights movements for the liberation of ethnic groups in the U.S., invoking Cesar Chavez, the Black Lives Matter movement, Indigenous rights and the march on Selma led by Martin Luther King Jr.

“It should not take a massacre for us to recognize that anti-Asian hate is part of our nation’s history and current reality,” Chong said.

Chann, the son of Cambodian refugees who was adopted by a white Maine family as a child, linked the rise in anti-Asian racism with political forces during the Trump administration. A recent study found 3,800 reported anti-Asian incidents in the last year, attributing the rise to former President Trump’s scapegoating of the Asian community for the spread of the coronavirus.

“When a white mob stormed the Capitol building, it wasn’t just an attack on our democracy, it was an attack on our multiracial democracy,” Chann said.

Priya Natarajan, a teacher in Portland public schools since 2002, drew cheers from the crowd when she argued that schools should include more Asian American history in their curriculum, and “not just stories of trauma.” Natarajan, who is of Indian descent, stressed that Asian American education should not happen at the expense of curriculum that centers BIPOC histories.

“Let’s not allow ourselves to be used as political pawns against other people of color, especially Black and Indigenous communities,” Natarajan said, mourning those who died at the hands of the Atlanta gunman with others “who have suffered at the intersection of systemic racism, misogyny and class violence.”

Speaking to the crowd, high school student Anh Thach, of Vietnamese descent, said that her early school years in Maine were marked by a lack of role models and nonwhite peers. She often “sought white validation to help feel accepted” before finding a diverse student body at Portland’s Casco Bay High School.

Thach said that anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. was around “long before COVID,” but has been worse in the last year.

A vigil against anti-Asian violence is planned for Tuesday evening in Portland, hosted by the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center and Unified Asian Communities, a Maine coalition formed last year.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Marpheen Chann’s link to Cambodia.