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Black Lives Matter Plea Deal Falls Apart

Caroline Losneck
Maine Public
Black Lives Matter protesters rally in Portland in July.

An agreement reached between the Cumberland County district attorney’s office and a group of Black Lives Matter protesters fell apart Wednesday in a dispute over a required restorative justice session. Now it appears prosecutors will reinstate misdemeanor charges, which had been put on hold.

Last July, police arrested 17 protesters after they blocked off a busy street in Portland’s waterfront commercial district. In exchange for having criminal charges against them put on hold, the protesters agreed to participate in the restorative justice meeting with Police Chief Michael Sauschuck and other officers. It was supposed be held at a neutral location — the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church.

According to prosecutors, the deal included a provision that the meeting would be split into two groups, with separate sessions held over the course of the day. If that proved a success, and the protesters each paid a fine, the charges could eventually be dropped.

“Chief Sauschuck and I arrived there and it became very clear that they were not coming to the table with the conditions that we had laid out ahead of time,” says Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Ackerman.

Ackerman says the 17 demanded that they all stay together in one group for the meeting. For law enforcement, that was a nonstarter.

“The process of restorative justice is really about the bigger picture. And having a meaningful discussion about how can we address your concerns and understand them and how can you address ours and where we are coming from. That was not their attitude when we walked in unfortunately,” Ackerman says.

None of the protesters could be reached for comment. Stacey Neumann, a lawyer for one of them, says she believes the conflict can be resolved outside of court.

“Nobody, as far as I am aware of, has done a restorative program at this large of a scale before, so I think there was a lot of moving pieces — how information was shared or not shared — so I don’t think it was about goodwill on anybody’s part, I really don’t,” she says.

“I didn’t see a group that arrived with good faith, I saw a group that came in with demands and changes to a written agreement with the district attorney’s office, and that just sends a poor message from the very beginning,” Sauschuck says.

He drew a contrast between this particular group’s style of protest and open lines of communication between police and participants in many other recent protests and rallies in Portland, including the women’s march two weekends ago that drew as many as 10,000 but had no arrests or significant conflicts with police.

“We do it all the time, so I am absolutely disappointed that an issue like this, which had very important messages at its core, turned into an example of how not to do a protest, how not to do a rally, how not to do an event,” Sauschuck says. “Because I think you lose the message and it’s too important of a message to have it lost that way. We just have to do a better job, and we’re more than happy to talk with people or work with people in any of those settings.”

Ackerman says there’s still a possibility that the two sides could return to the restorative justice model. But she and her boss, District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, both say they expect they’ll move toward motions and a trial.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.