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Portland residents call for action after violent neo-Nazi march

Demonstrators hold signs outside Portland City Hall on April 10, 2023 to protest law enforcement's response to a recent march of neo-Nazis, which eventually erupted in violence on the steps of city hall earlier this month.
Nicole Ogrysko
/
Maine Public
Demonstrators hold signs outside Portland City Hall on April 10, 2023 to protest law enforcement's response to a recent march of neo-Nazis, which eventually erupted in violence on the steps of city hall earlier this month.

Portland officials promised to take bold action in response to a Neo-Nazi march by members of the Nationalist Social Club 131 that erupted in violence on the steps of city hall earlier this month.

But many who participated in counter protests and hours of public comment Monday evening said they’re afraid to live in Portland, and they doubted city officials and law enforcement could restore their trust.

The counter-protests started Monday afternoon outside the Portland Police Department, where more than 100 people turned out.

Leo Hilton, a member of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America who said he was knocked to the ground during the events that broke out at city hall earlier this month, called for the firing of the city police officers who failed to identify and take action against the neo-Nazi members who engaged in violence earlier this month.

And he wants police to release body cam and surveillance footage of the events.

"I'm calling on the city council to hold the police responsible for what I think was a serious act of misconduct that allowed these Neo-Nazis to get away without being at the very least identified," he said.

The group then walked to city hall, where several hundred more people gathered ahead of a city council meeting. Members of the Ideal Maine Social Aid and Sanctuary Band played on the steps of city hall. People held signs that read "Make Nazis afraid again," and "Honk if you want Nazis out of Portland."

For more than two hours, city councilors listened to concerns about the recent March by a Neo-Nazi group in Portland, and disappointment about the lack of response from police and from the city council.

"They let these Neo-Nazi terrorists walk away after people holding a pride flag were physically and verbally assaulted," Sampson Spadafore told city councilors Monday evening. "What kind of a city is Portland that we can have evidence of Neo-Nazis giving the Hitler salute and physically assaulting queer and Jewish people, while shouting slurs on video and no one does anything about it?"

Many who spoke — who identified themselves as queer, trans and people of color — said they're afraid to live in the city.

In a memo to city councilors, the Portland Police Department said about 15-to-20 members of a group known as National Socialist Club 131 marched downtown on April 1, "carrying a large banner and yelling derogatory slogans and statements to people in the area."

The department wasn't aware of the rally, until members of the public made calls describing the events.

Officers didn't see how the fight started or who was involved. And because witnesses declined to provide statements to police, no charges were brought, the department said.

Interim Police Chief Heath Gorham said he condemns the group's hateful views, but he stands by the decisions his officers made at the time.

"We try to be the person in the middle not taking sides," he told city councilors on Monday night. "Whether our views are completely apart from them, we cannot express our views. Our job is to facilitate their First Amendment rights."

But a few city councilors, including Victoria Pelletier, said they were frustrated by Portland's response to the latest events. And Pelletier said that no one should be surprised that members of NSC 131 showed up in Portland, after she recently became the target of white supremacist hate speech on social media.

"We were just here. We were here eight weeks ago, nine weeks ago," Pelletier said. "Same packed council. Everybody gave a statement, we all went around and we said our piece, and it was like we're going to do something about it. And there has been nothing, nothing that has been done since then."

But some city councilors, as well as the Portland mayor and city manager, said they would take "bold" action without providing many details.

And Mayor Kate Snyder pointed to a statement made by Cumberland County District Attorney Jackie Sartoris, who said she'll designate one lead prosecutor to be the point of contact for all criminal conduct informed by hate.