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African American Lawmakers Call On Maine's Political Leaders To Speak Out Against Systemic Racism

Kevin Bennett
Maine Public
Black Lives Matter protesters rally in Bangor June 1, 2020.

Around the country, governors, mayors and CEOs are responding to the death of George Floyd and the massive outcry from Black Lives Matter by joining protesters, reviewing police policies and pledging to make change.  But what's being described as "the tipping point" for the world is not just about police reform, it's about systemic racism. And here in Maine, one of the whitest states in the country, the only two African American state representatives are calling out political leaders for their silence. 

Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland is the first African American woman to serve in the Maine House of Representatives.  She followed in the footsteps of her father, Gerald Talbot, who was the first African American elected to the Maine Legislature.  

And for the past two weeks, since protests erupted over the violent restraint of George Floyd under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, Talbot Ross has been dismayed about the voices in Maine that she says have been missing in action.

"Governor Mills, Speaker Gideon, President of the Senate Troy Jackson, your silence is a betrayal to the offices that you hold when you continue telling us that you care about all Mainers. Your silence means you're complicit in the horror show that we've seen in our criminal justice system and policing in America."

In an interview Wednesday, Talbot Ross echoed comments she made during a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland last week about political leaders' silence.

"Your silence is violence. And unless you come out and say that unequivocally to the public, there is no policy that is going to make that better."

Talbot Ross also warned Democrats and Republicans that if they fail to take notice of the shifting ground, speak out publicly and work to address racial inequities they will do so at their political peril. "And if you think you're going to get away with it, we will vote you out."

Talbot Ross and Rep. Craig Hickman of Winthrop say they've heard little from their State House colleagues over the past two weeks.  In his fourth term, Hickman is the longest-serving African American in the Maine House.

"Back in the day, when I was a young activist in the ACT UP movement, our motto was:  Silence equals death," Hickman says. "And that means exactly what it sounds like, when we don't speak truth to the kind of power that kills us, what else are we to believe?"

On Wednesday, Gov. Mills released a statement acknowledging Maine and the nation's troubled history of systemic racism and other disparities, including the findings that black and African American citizens account for a higher percentage of COVID-19 cases. 

Mills said she is committed to "defending the lives, integrity, and equality of all our citizens." She also said she has asked Public Safety Commissioner Mike Sauschuck to review law enforcement policies, including racial profiling and anti-bias training, and to offer recommendations on whether and how any laws can be strengthened. 

But Talbot Ross says what's needed is not a piecemeal approach to these issues or a series of policies or bills, it's something deeper. "Unless we go to the root of this and really start to talk about anti-black racism in this country and in this state, it's not going to shift anything."

"You can't turn a blind eye to it and I don't intend to," says Maine Senate President Troy Jackson. Jackson says he recognizes he's in a unique position and has a profound responsibility to work with his State House colleagues to broaden their collective understanding of unconscious bias and privilege.   

"And for me it's really important that I do everything I can to try and make a state and a society where Black Lives Matter and people do feel safe," Jackson says.

If people want to help, Hickman says, they can join the Black Lives Matter movement, or those in power can let George Floyd be the catalyst for changing the makeup of who's seated around their board room tables.

"It's time to realize that asking people to take your knee off of my neck cannot only be to law enforcement on the street," Hickman says. "It has to be to every single person who holds power in every aspect of society."

House Speaker Sara Gideon, who is also running for the U.S. Senate, joined protests in Freeport and Bethel this week. She also released a statement on Wednesday, saying action is needed to address police brutality and systemic racism. "There is much to be done at both the state and federal level to ensure justice for all," she said.  

Talbot Ross says one tangible place to start would be with a new rule that says no bill can pass in state government unless it goes through a racial impact analysis, similar to a fiscal one, to show that it won't create any additional racial disparities.