Hundreds of people marched through Portland on Friday to protest police violence against people of color, in one of many demonstrations around the nation following the death of a black man who was detained by police in Minneapolis on Monday.
George Floyd, 46, died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was caught on camera kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he begged for breath before he lost consciousness. When paramedics arrived, he had no pulse and was unresponsive.
Chauvin was arrested and charged with murder Friday, but not before outraged residents of Minneapolis and neighboring St. Paul demonstrated through the night, plunging the cities into unrest and chaos. The protests have spread across the nation, with groups taking to the streets from New York to California and Colorado to Florida to Atlanta. Some of the demonstrations have been peaceful, but others have led to vandalism and confrontations with police.
In Portland, two groups marched peacefully through the city with dozens of police in tow blocking traffic and clearing a path for the demonstrators. The first group assembled after 3 p.m. before City Hall, marched to the Portland police station on Middle Street, and then to Monument Square before dispersing without incident around 5 p.m.
Simultaneously, another group of demonstrators blocked Franklin Street near Whole Foods for about an hour before moving to the intersection of Congress Street and High Street, shutting down what is typically one of the city’s busiest intersections. Demonstrators dispersed by about 8 p.m., and there were no signs of violence or arrests.
In 2016, Black Lives Matter demonstrators marched through Portland after two black men were shot and killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. That protest generated more than a dozen arrests, but no one was arrested during the demonstrations on Friday, and police cleared traffic and stood by as demonstrators hurled insults at them and chanted profanities.
One of the demonstrators who attended the Monument Square rally, Raymond Diamond, 24, carried a white sign painted in flowing black letters that asked, “could it have been me?”
Diamond said he grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where a history of slavery, racism and oppression began before the nation’s independence and continues in subtler forms today. Although Diamond said he senses less racial tension overall in Maine, he fears he could one day be the victim of police violence simply for being black.
His fear of police began when he was about 14 or 15, when Diamond watched from the passenger seat as a police officer pulled over his mother in their own neighborhood, eventually making the traffic stop in their own driveway, he said. Someone must have thought they didn’t belong there, Diamond recalled.
He still remembers his mother’s anger, and her warning to him afterward.
“She told me to be careful and to protect myself and to do what I had to do to come home, so she isn’t one of those mothers crying on the news,” he said. “With a history like what we have, I’m not surprised this is where we are. The police are a reflection of the state. That’s not something that we can get around.”
Ahead of the local demonstrations in Portland, the Portland police chief and leaders of two labor unions representing officers released a letter to the community to say they were disturbed by Floyd’s death and the way his arrest was handled.
But the local police leaders – who collectively have several decades of policing experience – did not say in the written statement released Friday whether they believe the officer should face criminal prosecution.
Some police leaders around the country condemned the death as nothing short of murder, and by midday Friday, Chauvin was charged by a local prosecutor and taken into custody. He faces one count of third-degree murder and one count of manslaughter.
Floyd was initially detained Monday by Minneapolis police because he matched the description of someone who tried to pay with a counterfeit bill at a convenience store. A bystander’s disturbing video shows Chauvin, who is white, kneeling on Floyd’s neck, even as Floyd begs for air and slowly stops talking and moving.
The statement on Friday from Portland’s chief of police, Frank Clark, was co-signed by Officer Les Smith and Sgt. Eric Nevins, who lead the patrol and supervisors’s unions, respectively.
The police leaders expressed sorrow and frustration at Floyd’s death, and said they believe the professionalism, training and rigorous hiring standards in Portland mean there is little to no chance of a similar episode occurring in Maine.
“You should know that the Portland Police Department has policies and strategies in place in order to prevent such a tragedy from happening here,” the letter said. “Our policies and training prohibit neck type restraints. They also call for our officers’ use of force to be in response to an actual or imminent threat.”
The letter did not include a copy of the department’s use-of-force policy; the department has not responded to a request for a copy of the policy.
In an interview early Friday afternoon, Clark said he and every other member of the department who has spoken to him about Floyd’s death has been taken aback by Chauvin’s actions, calling it “unacceptable.”
“My first reaction was what if that was my brother or father or son?” Clark said. “To say it was disturbing is probably an understatement. I immediately think of the impact, wherever it is in the country, I think of the impact it’s going to have in our department and among our officers and in our community.”
“Never say never, but one of the other initial reactions I had was that would not happen here,” Clark said. “That would not happen here in Maine or in the city of Portland.”
Smith, the president of the local Police Benevolent Association, has more than 30 years on the job, and for the last decade has taught self defense and use-of-force classes to Portland’s officers at the state’s only police academy, in Vassalboro.
“My first reaction was that (Chauvin) was not taught that at any academy and he was not taught that at the police department,” Smith said. “Our whole goal is to use just enough force to protect the officer, keep the suspect safe, and keep the civilian safe. From the perspective I saw in the video, it just seemed it was out of line. It was way, way too much.”
Smith continued: “Its very frustrating to watch that happen. I put my heart and my soul into my training, and the Portland Police Department does the same. We take it very seriously. So when I see this, I take it to heart, when someone isn’t doing what they should be doing.”
The death is the latest in a history of police-involved killings that stretches back years, in which mostly minority men have died at the hands of police. Some of the cases have resulted in prosecutions, while many have not. Police officers enjoy special legal protections while they perform their duties, which often include controlled acts of violence that are permitted in order to bring someone under control, or to protect themselves or bystanders.
In many communities across the country and especially during the post-slavery Jim Crow era, police embodied the use of state power to reinforce a racial hierarchy and oppress non-white citizens.
Although Maine does not have a deep history of Jim Crow-era oppression, black people in Maine still see disparate treatment by police, the courts and in schools, according to the ACLU of Maine.
“Police departments around the country have been silent about the unnecessary killings of black people for far too long, so we are glad the Portland Police Department made this public statement,” said Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine.
Black children in Maine face more discipline, expulsions, suspensions and arrests at school than their white peers. Black residents have also documented ill treatment by private businesses, and in March, a 38-year-old Biddeford man was found guilty on federal hate-crime charges for his role in two unprovoked attacks on black men in Portland and Biddeford.
Most recently, black Mainers suffer a far greater impact from the COVID-19 pandemic than white people, Beyea said, echoing a national trend, despite Maine’s relatively small non-white population.
“We wish the PPD and all Maine law enforcement would recognize and condemn the systemic racism that makes these killings so commonplace. Policies and protocols and training are important, but they won’t stop people from being killed until we address the root of the problem,” Beyea wrote.
“It will take all of us acknowledging and fighting against racism to prevent the next tragic incident from happening here,” she said.
Police training in recent years has evolved to acknowledge that racism and unintentional bias play a role in how everyone views others and makes decisions, including police officers, and anti-bias training is now part of Portland’s training regimen and is reinforced through rotating classes that all Maine police officers must complete annually to maintain their certification.