The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as continued efforts to fight racial injustice and police brutality, were central themes of virtual events commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Maine.
The pandemic forced event organizers with the NAACP in Maine to move the 40th annual observation, traditionally featuring a gospel choir and dinner celebration, to a “Virtual Teach-in and Call to Action” featuring more than 20 sessions on issues such as education, black worker activism and incarceration.
As part of the event’s opening ceremony, Portland state Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross said recent events have highlighted the urgency to continue to fight for civil rights.
“[A survey] of U.S. adults nationally found that 80 percent of Americans agree that civil rights are as important in 2021 as in any time in the last 50 years, and as evidenced almost two weeks ago with the attack on the U.S. Capitol by white supremacists,” she said. “Three in 10 report that they were personally and negatively affected by discrimination in 2020. Over half of those cited race. Two-thirds of Americans surveyed said that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that America still needs to address systemic racism and specific racial disparities in our economy, education, jobs, criminal justice system and health care.”
Lectures and panels continued examining those themes across Maine on Monday. As part of its slate of events, Lewiston’s Bates College brought together leaders from several groups serving communities of color for a panel titled “Racial Disparity, Structural Violence, and COVID-19 in Maine.”
Crystal Cron, the founder of the group Presente Maine, which supports the state’s Latinx communities, said that when the virus first hit Maine, she worried about its impact on immigrant families that were doubled or tripled-up in overcrowded apartments. The group offered assistance in locating social services and formed a “food brigade” last spring to deliver thousands of pounds of food each week after seeing store shelves left bare.
“Why must we do this, when there’s practically endless resources that can be used to make sure our needs are met?” Cron said. “And I’m so, so tired, after 45 weeks, and after 30 years, I’m tired. I need you to wake up and realize this is happening in our state, where in the summer, many of you celebrated the low rates of infection, even as people of color, and black people, in particular, experienced some of the highest rates of infection in the country, here in Maine. So this isn’t OK.”
Lisa Sockabasin, the director of programs and external affairs for Wabanaki Public Health, echoed those concerns, saying that she was initially worried due to the poor treatment of indigenous communities during past pandemics. Sockabasin described her organization’s efforts to provide tribal members with everything from food and clean water to books.
“We were able to secure resources to create a traditional food mobile pantry — a mobile pantry that could help travel to each of the communities,” Sockabasin said. “And also travel to where our indigenous people live that are not in the community. In particular, reach our indigenous people who are in recovery homes or centers, or live elsewhere.”
Other activists and officials pointed to the pandemic’s health disparities, as well as the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, as helping spark racial justice efforts that continue to expand in communities across the state.
At a panel on “Local Leadership and Racial Equity,” municipal leaders from southern Maine described how their cities have begun to reconsider policies following last summer’s protests against police brutality. South Portland formed a Human Rights Commission in September, while Portland created a Racial Equity Steering Committee to examine the expanding role of police in the community.
The committee’s co-chair, Portland City Councilor Pious Ali, said that Martin Luther King Jr. helped to lay out a foundation for how the country and local communities to fight for against racial injustice and inequality.
“But now, what we are confronting as a country — we all saw what happened last summer. And we all saw what happened last week,” Ali said. “And I’m hoping that the work that we’ll be doing here in Portland, and the work that’s being done in South Portland, and the work that’s being done in Falmouth, and the work that’s being done here in the state of Maine, will not only reassert the direction we’re going as a people, as a country, but also will serve as an example for other communities that are not doing this work.”