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Police Chiefs Speak Out After Portland Chief Takes A Knee On Another Night Of Protests

Fred Bever
Maine Public
Demonstrators protesting George Floyd's death march down Congress Street in Portland Tuesday.

More than a dozen police chiefs from the Greater Portland area, as well as the state’s Commissioner of Public Safety, called a press conference Wednesday to pledge support for protests in the name of George Floyd, who died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. But they also condemned violence and vandalism that have surfaced on the fringes of otherwise peaceful activism.

The officers spread out up and down the steps of Portland’s City Hall, as several stepped to a lectern to express empathy for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“For the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the videos, witnessed in the media, that are upsetting, disgusting and appalling: they go against the code of conduct and the very path that we swear upon to uphold the law,” said Kevin Joyce, Cumberland County sheriff.

Joyce’s is one of several law enforcement agencies that have aided Portland in its response to the series of protests that began last week. He said actions such as those of the Minneapolis police create a ripple effect of fear, distrust and stigma.

He noted that he and other police officials held a held a virtual meeting with leaders in the Portland protests on Tuesday.

“And pretty shocking to hear what some of the young folk think of law enforcement, so we need to do a better job for the young kids,” Joyce said.

Westbrook police chief Janine Roberts echoed that view.

“Hearing a young man in that conversation yesterday talk about how every day he and some if not all of his brothers and sisters of youth of color wake up fearful that every time they see a police officer — every time they see a police officer — they’re thinking, ‘Is it going to be me? Am I going to be arrested, am I going to be attacked, am I going to be killed?’ That was an eye-opening statement,” she said.

Roberts says she is trying to absorb that insight to help her and fellow officers bring more compassion and accountability to their profession.

“The slogans, the chants that have come forward in our society over the last few years around black lives matter, blue lives matter, all lives matter, I say every life matters,” she says.

Roberts says she later heard a complaint from a citizen that her phrasing echoes statements that some feel diminishes the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement. She says she now sees that it could be “emotionally charged” and will continue efforts to earn the community’s trust.

The press conference came after another night of protests over police brutality swept through Portland Tuesday night, and with less of vandalism and clashes with police that marked protests the night before. 

Late Tuesday afternoon, Portland wine-seller Jacques Devillier was angry, and he was anxious about the coming night. Some time during protests the night before, vandals smashed the windows of one of his two downtown stores and burglarized it.

"You know, they have a right to protest and I support them. And it's a just cause. But what happened last night and what's going to happen tonight is completely wrong," he says. "Them destroying those businesses, that's just the start. This is not Portland, this is not the way we operate."

Less than an hour later, a thousand or more Black Lives Matter protestors, most in black garb and protective masks, marched up Congress Street.

At one point a small group of counter protestors, some wearing MAGA hats, arrived at a nearby corner. A phalanx of police in face shields and with batons formed across the street. An officer spoke with the counterprotesters, and they left the immediate scene. The riot police then withdrew.

Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public
Maine Public
Counterprotesters turn up at Tuesday's demonstration in Portland. After an officer spoke with them, they left the immediate area.

And during a stop at Monument Square, one young woman tried to steer the crowd's emotions in a peaceful direction. "Love with peace please," she said. "Yesterday was beautiful but it didn't end too well, so let's try to get it right, please."

Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public
Maine Public
Protesters march past Portland Police officers Tuesday in another demonstration in the wake of George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis.

Fifteen minutes later the marchers reached the Portland police station. Behind a barricade at the top of the station's stairway, police chief Frank Clark was accompanied by five other officers, and city manager John Jennings.

The crowd called on them to join in taking a knee in honor of George Floyd, the African American who died under the foot of a white Minneapolis police officer. The Portland brass took a knee, as the protesters cheered.

Protestors continued to voice outrage over African Americans' treatment by  law enforcement, and to call for radical change. As the protestors moved on from the police station, participant Macy Galvan, a Peace Corps volunteer recently returned to Portland, said she was heartened by the evening's events.

"Seeing the policemen kneel, I thought that was really powerful. We all want it to stay peaceful, really do, and hopefully those bad seeds will keep their distance and leave the rest of it to the people who really are here for the right reason."

Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public
Maine Public
Protesters stage another "die-in" Tuesday atop Munjoy Hill in Portland.

The protestors headed up Munjoy Hill, where they staged a die-in under the setting sun. After dark, a smaller group returned to the streets outside the police station, lighting fireworks and eventually drawing a response from police in riot gear who used pepper-gun pellets to clear the streets. 

In a press release issued Wednesday morning, Portland Police said that 10 people were arrested and charged with failure to disperse.

Another protest is expected Wednesday night.

Updated 4:40 p.m. June 3, 2020.