Maine has the highest percentage of white residents of any state in the country: 94.1 percent. Yet starting on Friday, May 29, there has been one or more Black Lives Matter protests in Maine every day. The largest ranged from 3,000 to 5,000 in Portland to 1,500 in Augusta to 1,000 in Lewiston-Auburn, but hundreds have turned out in towns like Brunswick, Sanford, Waterville, South Portland, Norway, and Bangor, to name a few. And when Trump visited the small town of Guildford located almost in the exact center of rural Maine, hundreds turned out to protest last Friday. I would estimate that one percent of the state’s overall population, and perhaps five percent of those between the ages of 15 to 25 have joined in.
The protests have been driven by a new generation of Black Lives Matter activists, largely (but not exclusively) drawn from Maine’s significant African immigrant community, a legacy of federal Somali refugee resettlement programs and asylum seekers from Angola and elsewhere. The protests are overwhelmingly made up of multiracial crowds of high school students and young workers.
Protesters have blocked traffic, held mass die-ins for 8 minutes and 46 seconds (the time it took for the police to murder George Floyd), surrounded police stations, besieged city halls, and marched for hours on end without permits.
In Portland, the state’s largest city with a population of 67,000 (150,000 in the immediate vicinity), 500, then 1,000, then 3,000 people turned out day after day to rebuild a makeshift memorial to victims of racist violence on the steps of the police station. Each day, the cops trashed the memorial; each day, it was rebuilt. Monday night, June 1, cops used clubs to shove multiracial lines of high school students, linked arm-in-arm, who surrounded several police cars. Later in the night, the police attacked them with pepper spray, but the young people held their ground, even after a tractor trailer truck drove through the protest, narrowly averting disaster. The police later arrested the driver but did nothing to stop him as he drove through the crowd (literally) in front of the police station. The next day when we returned to rebuild the memorial, and the police stationed snipers on the roofs, they kept a rifle trained on people speaking to the protest for hours at multiple locations.
In Lewiston-Auburn (the main site of Somali resettlement since the 1990s), 700 people took over the bridge linking the towns over the Androscoggin River (the primary source of power for Maine’s once-thriving textile, shoe, lumber, and paper mills) and held a die-in for Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Again, the march was led by high school students and recent graduates, but whole families turned out, pushing strollers for young kids and wheelchairs for elderly or disabled kin. Once again, during the die-in, a motorist attempted to speed onto the bridge but this time was cut off by a police cruiser.
In Augusta, the state’s capital, a multiracial team of organizers called a rally in front of the state capitol building. The mayor and several city councilors spoke as well, stating they stood with the protesters. But when the mayor tried to read a vague city proclamation promising to support equality, protesters interrupted him with chants of Black Lives Matter, forcing him to cut his speech short. A young black organizer then led the crowd in a chant of “break the system.” Marching around the state capitol, we got incredible support from passers-by, most of whom honked their horns. But, once again, a white man in a truck with a Trump placard threatened to run through an intersection filled with protesters. When confronted, two Augusta police officers said, “The road’s not closed. It’s a free country.” Fortunately, a young white woman in the car just in front of him drove one mile per hour, refusing to let him pass until he was finally turned around by the crowd.
Politically, the protests stand out for their militancy and raw anger. Among the youngest generation of marchers, there is near-universal support to defund the police and a visceral hatred of the cops as well as the politicians (almost all the bigger towns in Maine are run by Democrats) who stand behind them and their bloated budgets, even as schools, healthcare, and social services are suffering cuts. When Portland’s official Black Lives Matter chapter held an eight-hour march and rally on Friday, June 5, 5,000 people attended and cheered at the organizers’ demand for the resignation of Jon Jennings, Portland’s city manager. Jennings earns twice as much as the elected mayor and is the architect of austerity budgets and the $17 million per year gobbled up by the police.
Of course, there are more moderate voices seeking to deflect the movement as well. At a rally of several thousand on June 3, the Westbrook police chief (from the town next door) “apologized” for saying “Blue Lives Matter” at a press conference earlier in the day. However, she said nothing about deploying her officers on the previous nights and took no responsibility for their part in attacking protesters. And the day after the call for Jennings’ resignation, liberal mayor Kate Snyder and several city councilors leapt to Jennings’ defense. In Portland, Jennings and the mayor will be the main obstacles to defunding the police and redistributing resources to schools, healthcare, and social services.
Turning this unprecedented anger and action into a force capable of winning concrete, statewide demands will be a challenge, but the fight to defund the police in Maine looks set to continue.