© 2021 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Michael Brown Killing Stirs Debate about Racism in Portland

Susan Sharon

Nearly 200 people turned out in Portland Tuesday night to discuss the racial implications of Ferguson, Missouri, in one of the whitest states in the nation:  Maine.  Many say the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer has raised the curtain on institutional racism in the U.S.  And blacks and whites at the meeting say they're committed to rooting it out.


Even meeting organizers with the NAACP didn't expect such a large turnout on a week night.  But the crowd in the basement of the Portland Public Library was so large that it had to be broken up into several groups.  And the community dialog, post-Ferguson, was frank.

"An officer need to know, he need to weigh a situation out.  He need to look at his situation before he kinda approach it," said Cathy Hardy of Portland, who recounted a story in which she says her unarmed, black teenage son was forced to the ground at gunpoint by police. "He need to see if this kid has got a grenade or has this kid got a machine gun other than a box of cigars, other than an air gun which is a BB gun, you understand? All you have to do is restrain the child.  A child doesn't have to be shot in his head or in his torso.  We're breaking down."

While several mothers in the group echoed Hardy's fears for the safety of their sons and other young black men, others, such as Byron Davis of Portland, say they've never had any trouble with the police in Maine.  Still, Davis thinks there are ways that African Americans can protect themselves.

"You do have rights and I think that we should have classes on your rights, you know?" he said. "I mean, you have some bad elements but everything is not bad.  So, if you know your rights you might could come out of this thing alive."

Others raised what they view as the militarization of police departments and how that can erode trust.  A recent USAToday/Pew Research poll found that blacks and whites are sharply divided when it comes to their confidence in police to use equipment and weapons appropriately.  Nearly seven in ten blacks have little or no confidence in police.  But six in ten whites do.

"I just think the entire evening, really, when it comes down to it, is about collaboration and relationship building and trust building," says Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.  

Sauschuck attended the dialog session.  He didn't address the group - he says he's interested in listening and learning from the community.  But in an interview with MPBN, Sauschuck said there were tactics used in Ferguson, Missouri that wouldn't be used in Portland.  And he's confident that his department has taken appropriate steps to help avoid that kind of situation.

"The community policing efforts that are out there - we have a great senior lead officer program and outstanding community policing coordinators, and our internal affairs process is as transparent as humanly possible, with a citizen review committee that looks at every external complaint that is filed against the police department," he says. "They get a chance to read exactly what I read. There's nothing to hide."

In addition, Sauschuck says police undergo crisis intervention and other training to de-escalate physical confrontations with conversation.  But only 5 percent of the force are people of color.  According to the 2010 census, 15 percent of residents of Portland are people of color.  Sauschuck says it's his goal to try to boost diversity in his department.   

Asher Platts of Portland summarized the thoughts of his breakout group. "We like to think that, here in Maine, it's isolated, it's safe, it's not like...but it is," Platts said. "Stuff happens here and, you know, we need to preserve that history."

As an example of how that history is being shaped,  three young Muslim women shared some of the kinds of experiences they've had in Portland.  Howa Mohamed says she was asked for her passport so many times in high school that she began bringing it everyday.

"And I sat back and thought, 'Why do I have to do this?' " she said. "Why am I expected to bring my passport to school?  Why do I have to apologize for being - oh, sorry - you didn't see that I was an American citizen, you know what I mean?  It lowers your self esteem and you, actually, you have to sit back and think, you know what?  This is unfair.  This is not what's supposed to happen."

One of her friends, Hamdi Hassan, says racism was out in the open in her high school in Portland, where Muslim students' veils were regularly stepped on and they were teased for praying at school. "Or, like people saying if I like Osama bin Laden, or calling me a terrorist 'cause I am Muslim."

The group closed its meeting with a moment of silence for Michael Brown, the young man killed in Ferguson and laid to rest earlier this week.  NAACP leaders say the next step will be to organize more focused dialogs with educators, law enforcement and the legal community.  One meeting, they say, is not enough to do what needs to be done.