For almost two weeks, protests have taken place in communities all over the state of Maine as part of a national outcry over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
When protesters first started marching in downtown Portland two weeks ago, there were similar chants of “I can’t breathe,” as heard at many other demonstrations in the wake of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, and passionate speeches that spoke to the anger felt by many protesters.
“I don’t want to see people profit off of black culture, eat black food, enjoy ethnic restaurants, and be silent today,” an unidentified protester said.
But this last weekend at a protest in Lincoln Park, located at the busy intersection of Franklin and Congress streets, Black Lives Matter Portland circulated a flyer with a set of demands. They included a shift in funding away from jails, prisons and police to schools, jobs and social services. They also include calls to close the Long Creek Youth Development Center, establish a COVID-19 Equity Task Force and remove City Manager Jon Jennings.
The city was quick to respond to some issues, scheduling committee meetings on police policies regarding the use of force, implicit bias training and departmental budgets. But, Abdul Ali, who works in youth justice reform and supports the protest efforts, says there’s a lot that has to be done to achieve a real cultural reckoning.
“You have thousands of people lying on the ground on Commercial Street — white, black, Asian, Hispanic, every culture in Maine is laying down there demanding that you make a full shift on the way people are living, not a minor improvement,” he says.
Ali says the issues addressed by protesters run deeper than the demands put forward by Black Lives Matter Portland. He says city councilors and state officials need to meet with leaders in the movement and in communities of color to address major social policy issues.
Minor tweaks, he says, just won’t cut it.
“If I have a knife in your back, right, and I have it all the way in, if I pull it out, is that an improvement? No. If I pull it out a little bit more, is that an improvement? No. If I pull it out all the way is that an improvement? No. You have to heal it,” he says.
And, when it comes to the hot-button issue of defunding the police Ali says simply restricting department funding doesn’t fully address the needs of his community.
“If the people are requesting that the money be defunded, it also needs to be reinvested,” he says.
“Protesters themselves and organizers have put forward some really compelling policy proposals that we should all be looking to for leadership right now,” says Senior Justice Policy Associate Erica King at the University of Southern Maine.
King says that the concept of justice reinvestment, or defunding the police, must be done in a way that addresses systemic inequities that funnel people of color into encounters with police and the broader justice system.
“What I see in my research and other research that others have done in Maine is that the racial disparities that exist across systems, across, health care systems, across public health systems, across housing, across employment, persist and get exacerbated by a justice system and follow them into a justice system,” she says.
King and Ali say they don’t disparage all of the policy efforts aimed at addressing protesters’ demands or preventing fatal encounters between police and people of color, but they say the state and local municipalities have a lot more work to do.
The Portland City Council Finance Committee will meet June 18 to review each departmental budget, including the police. The full council is scheduled to meet June 22 to discuss a Police Department report on protest actions that took place June 1 and 2.