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Portland City Council Considers Black Lives Matter Activists' Demands

Willis Ryder Arnold
Maine Public
Protesters gather at Congress Square in Portland in May, then moved on to City Hall and police headquarters.

Members of Portland’s City Council are voicing varying levels of support for demands made by Black Lives Matter activists. But there is one demand that is not gaining traction — to fire City Manager Jon Jennings.

During the massive Black Lives Matter protest in Portland last Friday, a flyer was circulated that listed broad demands, from defunding police departments to divesting from fossil fuel investments to closing the Long Creek Youth Development Center, the state’s only juvenile prison.

The flyer — also posted on the BLM Portland Facebook page — also called for additional funding for COVID-relief efforts in communities of color, and banning the use of facial recognition technology by the city.

“Yes I support them, everything they are asking,” says Portland City Councilor Pious Ali. “For so long, black people and other people of color, other marginalized members of this country have been treated inhumanely, and I think it’s about time that things change.”

But he stressed that he did not embrace the activists' demand that City Manager Jon Jennings be fired. The flip side of the Black Lives Matter flyer condemned Jennings for purportedly advocating racist policies on housing and medical care and for “criminalizing poverty.”

Ali was one of several councilors who attended a City Hall press conference Saturday to reject that demand. Councilor Spencer Thibodeau says the claims about Jennings remind him of former Mayor Ethan Strimling, who frequently clashed with Jennings.

“It seemed to be a laundry list of items that someone I used to work with, a former mayor and Progressive Portland launched against the city manager the last three years. So it seemed to be a rehashing of issues unrelated to the very real issue that people who look like me are killed, and unfortunately killed by bad actors and that includes sometimes police officers,” he says.

Thibodeau, Ali and several other councilors say the debate about city policies should be brought to the council, not the city manager. And they note that the July ballot includes an item that would allow the city’s charter to be opened up, with a new look at the structure of its government.

Thibodeau does say he wants to prospectively ban city police use of facial recognition software, which a federal study has shown misidentifies people of color more often than white people. And while Thibodeau doesn’t necessarily want to defund the police, he does support more funding for social services.

“Maybe we do need to invest in additional social services and I think that what that’s going to take is maybe some help from the federal government,” he says.

And there may be a rift emerging on the council over how to ensure police department accountability. Ali last week asked the city manager for an investigation of police actions during the protests, particularly the nights of June 1-2, when there was vandalism downtown, the use of force including pepper-ball fire and dozens of arrests.

Ali was surprised, he says, when Jennings turned that investigation over to the police themselves. So was councilor Kim Cook, who this week called for a third-party investigation.

“There needs to be some independence to that investigation, to ensure that the report really reflects all voices and all information and hopefully has some credibility with the community,” she says.

Other councilors could not immediately be reached for comment. Jennings declined to comment, although he said he would do whatever the council directs him to do.

On Tuesday afternoon, the council’s Health and Human Services Committee plans a review of police policies, including use of force and training around de-escalation tactics and implicit bias.

Originally published June 8, 2020 at 5:12 p.m. ET.

Clarification: Although Portland City Councilor Pious Ali said he supported "everything" Black Lives Matter activists were asking for, he made it clear he did not support calls to remove Portland's city manager.

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.