Times like these often turn previously ordinary citizens into activists. Such has been the case with George Floyd's death at the hands of police. Protests against racism and white supremacy have spread to numerous towns across the country and throughout Maine over the last month.
Otis Edgecomb is a Black man and a former Marine who lives in Fort Fairfield. He saw the video of Floyd's death and felt compelled to attend multiple demonstrations in Aroostook County, and then organize his own Black Lives Matter protest. He spoke with Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about how that activism has grown.
Gratz: Welcome to you, sir.
Edgecomb: Thank you for having me.
Can you recall when you first saw the Floyd video, and what your initial reaction to it was?
The first time I saw it, I almost - I say almost - I almost couldn't get through it. It was heart wrenching, to say the least. It was disgusting. It was whatever negative connotation you want to throw on it. But it was murder. And that was my big thing - I was witnessing a murder. And I said, "This is a public, public thing - everyone's going to see this. This is like we're witnessing a murder and it's open for everyone to see." And it was a very low point in my life because I was witnessing the low, low bar of humanity.
So when did that change into a decision to actually become active - to become somebody who would participate in a protest, or organize one?
It was a coincidence, I guess you could say. My ex-wife texted me right when she saw the video too, and she was like, "Oh, my God, you have you seen this? It's disgusting. We need to do something about it." There was like a flip of the switch, it was like, "You know what? Yes, we do need to do something about it." I'm tired of the excuse of, "Oh it's fine. We're good people. We're not racist. We're not sexist. We're not this. We're not that." Maybe you aren't. But if you say you aren't, and then do nothing about it, you're kind of condoning it. From that point on I was like, "I'm making the change I want to be." I started organizing the protest for that Saturday. And the rest is history - every Saturday, 9 to 11, until the verdicts for the officers are reached.
Tell us a little bit about the protests that you have organized and how it has gone so far.
So it's been met with a generally positive response. I wanted it to be very centralized to the idea of justice for George Floyd. That was my plan. But it's grown organically into something more. I soon realized that this one instance of George Floyd was the spark, and the powder keg is the inequality and injustice that we see throughout - not just in Maine, not just in New York, not California, Texas, but everywhere.
Are there any particular instances of racism you've witnessed in Aroostook County that's informing what you're doing now?
That's like asking a woman, "Have you ever seen sexism?" My assumption is yes. But my personal anecdotal story isn't a reason why I'm doing this. I'm doing this because of the collective voice. For a whole-picture view, a systemic view, I think we have to look at the policy, we'll have to look at the procedures and why this is continuing.
You mentioned a few minutes ago that, over time, the protests have grown in scope in a general sense. What are the particular things that you hope will come out of it?
The whole point of our group - at least We The People of Aroostook - is to bring people together. Our message is one of unity. Our message is one of listening. It's not hard to listen - it's hard if you don't want to listen. I think that's the crux of the situation at the moment. So just hopefully this can bring a dialogue with people, people that historically have been quieted. A lot of people use the analogy of a knee on their throat, because it's very easy to see George Floyd. We want to take that knee off - you can speak and you're safe to speak. And that goes both ways.
Have state officials or anyone more local to you taken any steps yet that you feel are in the right direction, that are positive?
Local law enforcement have been terrific. They're exactly where they need to be. They're listening. A member of our group, Lillie Lovado, she's been speaking with law enforcement. She's actually had a meeting with Chief [Laurie] Kelly, here in Presque Isle. Chief Kelly has been amazing, very transparent, very willing to work with us. Same thing with me - I know, personally, in Fort Fairfield where I live, Chief [Shawn] Newell - great, great individual. I think if we listen, and we take everyone's point of view and everyone's perspective into consideration when we are making these policies in this reform, I think going forward it's going to help the future. We want to be ahead of the curve. And I believe Maine can be ahead of the curve when it comes to police reform, when it comes to educational reform, when it comes to economic reform. We can be the beacon of light to show people, "This is what you do."
Otis Edgecomb of Fort Fairfield has organized a group, We The People of Aroostook, to advocate for greater racial equality.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Originally posted 8:00 a.m. July 2, 2020