Portland rally for Black Lives Matter leads to 18 arrests

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PORTLAND — A leader of the July 15 Black Lives Matter protest that led to 18 arrests on Commercial Street declined this week to discuss the demonstration, the group’s demands, or Police Chief Michael Sauschuck’s assertion that she and other protesters wanted to be arrested.

“I don’t have time to talk about that,” Idman Abdul, of the Portland Racial Justice Congress, said by phone Monday.

Her response came two days after Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Manager Jon Jennings praised police and Police Chief Michael Sauschuck for their actions in response to the demonstration that began at 6 p.m. at Lincoln Park and ended more than seven hours later in front of police headquarters on Middle Street.

Police arrested Abdul and 17 others who had formed a circle in the center of Commercial Street at Pearl Street. They had occupied the space for more than three hours, chanting slogans in support of Black Lives Matter.

There was some tussling as police, with Sauschuck on the scene, moved in after 10:30 p.m. Commercial Street was closed from Franklin to Market streets, and protesters had tried to prevent one car from leaving the area.

“Last night, the Portland Police Department was yet again on the front lines as our country’s hurt, pain and frustrations were on display,” Strimling said July 16 in a press release. “And, as they do day in and day out, our law enforcement personnel performed with professionalism and empathy.

The Portland Racial Justice Congress announced the demonstration in support of Black Lives Matter late on the morning of July 15.

“The people of Portland want to know that their public servants in the Police Department affirm the lives of black and brown people and are committed to the fair and equitable application of the law,” group spokesman Abdul said in a press release. She added the protest would “show solidarity with victims of state-sanctioned murders at the hands of police nationwide.”

Following the demonstration in Lincoln Park, protesters marched to Commercial Street.

According to the Cumberland County Jail, Abdul, 22, was among 18 people arrested and charged with a Class E count of obstructing a public way. Also arrested were Alba Briggs, 25; Mariana Angelo, 20; Sable Knapp, 26; Kennedy Johnson, 22; Caitlin Vaughan, 29; Sarah Lazar, 32; Nasreen Sheikyousef, 25; Kennedy Bateaux, 38; Shadiyo Hussain-Ali, 23; Llewellyn Pinkerton, 21; Leah Kravett, 25; Barbara Van Derburgh, 22, and Jenessa Hayden, 23, all of Portland; Karen Lane, 50, of Auburn; Lelia Saad, 24, of South Portland, and a 16-year-old.

All were released July 16. If they are convicted, the Class E charge carries a maximum six-month jail sentence and $1,000 fine.

Sauschuck later said in a press conference that the people taken into custody were “ringleaders” who had wanted to be arrested.

After the arrests, protesters who had lined the sidewalks on Commercial Street marched up Market Street to police headquarters on Middle Street, which police then closed between Market to Franklin streets.

“I honestly did not think I could be more proud until Friday night. The commitment and professionalism shown by every member of the Portland Police Department is a tremendous example of what makes this city great,” Jennings said in a statement on July 16.

The Portland Racial Justice Congress also demanded Sauschuck allow more citizen participation in “law enforcement oversight committees or policy review,” and equip police with body cameras “in order to promote safety and accountability.”

In a press conference held before the demonstration, Sauschuck said he had not been contacted by the Portland Racial Justice Congress, but responded to the demands, including saying the lives of people of color mattered to him and the police.

“It is unfortunate from my standpoint we spend as much time arguing about the language, because to me, it is my context that of course they matter, and why wouldn’t they matter?” Sauschuck said. “From a law enforcement perspective, of course they matter. They certainly matter to us.”

While police cruisers all have cameras and the chief reviews video they record, Sauschuck said he does not expect his officers to be equipped with body cameras in the near future.

“I want to see where case law lands,” he said, because body cameras could also infringe on civil liberties in instances where police respond to a call in a home and the video could become a public record.

Sauschuck said the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee has records of all misconduct complaints and how they have been handled, which are also available for public review.

“We are very transparent; we believe in accountability, and I’ve got nothing to hide,” he said.

Sauschuck has acknowledged his department needs a more diverse force and is committed to matching the demographic of the city’s population. The first African-born police officer was sworn into duty this year. Sauschuck said the rate of minority officers may still be around 5 percent, while census statistics place the city’s minority population at 7 percent.

Strimling was sympathetic to protesters, but sought communication and outreach.

“Innocent lives are being lost – both civilian and sworn personnel. Orlando, Dallas, Minnesota, Louisiana – there are more. Your anger is, in many cases, justifiable. I’m angry, too,” he said. “But we must remember that it is when we stop shouting that we hear each other best.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Last updated July 19, 2016, at 10:45 a.m.

Activists protesting in support of Black Lives Matter block the intersection of Pearl and Commercial streets in Portland’s Old Port on Friday evening, July 15. Eighteen protesters were eventually arrested. (Dan D’Ippolito / For The Forecaster)

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.