Brunswick bias task force sees cause for concern

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BRUNSWICK — The town’s Human Rights Task Force is planning public meetings to deal with hateful speech and confrontations in the wake of the Nov. 8 presidential election.

“There was a consensus (that) if something occurs, we need to speak up,” said Councilor Jane Millett, who sits on the task force with Town Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman and Councilor Kathy Wilson.

“Some people are very frightened,” Millett said.

The committee’s response to anecdotal reports mirrors national news of a rise in incidents of bias and hate following the election of President-elect Donald Trump.

Over the course of his campaign, Trump was widely criticized for using racist, Islamaphobic, misogynistic rhetoric and policy proposals to incite his voter base. Millett said the incidents in Brunswick followed those themes.

“I’m hearing of those instances all over the country,” Millett said. “I think it goes to the general tone of the rhetoric in the election. Things have changed, and I don’t know if they’ll change back for the better.”

The Human Rights Task Force formed last year in a response to increased reports of harassment and prejudice in the downtown area and on the Bowdoin College campus. Since then, the committee has met with local leaders and organizations to improve lines of communications. The Police Department has also established an online reporting form.

Cmdr. Mark Waltz said the last report received through the portal was on July 9, but in many cases, people who feel threatened or unsafe just call 911.

Brayman said so far, reports of unwelcome behavior have been anecdotal, and the town has struggled to collect hard data. 

She encouraged residents to use the Police Department’s portal, which would enable officials to keep better track of events and patterns.

The committee is set to meet at least one more time in December, and Millett said it is likely the panel will plan ways to engage the broader community in an effort to denounce hate and quell fear.

Based on the anecdotal evidence, Millett recalled several incidents of name-calling and bullying “and I think there was one that was more threatening,” referring to a confrontation at a bar where someone was escorted from the premises.

She said a representative from Bowdoin College reported that minority students were trying to avoid walking alone, and some Muslim students had expressed worry about wearing hijabs.

From his point of view, Waltz said college security seemed to be handling more incidents of bias than his department. He mentioned a report that was forwarded to the department in which a driver harassed a student on foot with language from an “Access Hollywood” video that featured Trump bragging about sexual assault.

Millett said that there were also references to 1930s Germany at the task force meeting.

“There was a lot of fear out there, and I think all you have to do is turn on the news these days,” she said. “You see a lot of references to Hitler and white supremacy.”

The comparison between Trump and fascist Germany is partly due to the enthusiasm his victory has inspired from white nationalist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, who paraded in the streets of South Carolina following his election.

But Trump has also attacked what some critics call fundamental democratic institutions, like a free press and the federal election process – he has threatened to sue major news outlets and repeatedly called the election system “rigged.”

Comments of this nature have strengthened his comparison to fascist leaders of the past.

“Some of the things that I’ve read over the past couple of weeks have given some kind of … awareness of how insidious fascism can be when it starts,” Millett said, referring to the surge of white nationalism. She did not call Trump a fascist.

The comparison did not fall lightly on Brunswick resident Natasha Goldman, either.

Goldman is an adjunct lecturer in the Bowdoin College Visual Arts department, specializing in Holocaust memorials. Three days after the election on Nov. 11, she posted in the Facebook group Brunswick Community United.

“After reading this morning about the Ku Klux Klan marching in celebration of Trump … I sent an email offering free sessions on Holocaust history and art to local principals. Take me up on it!” she wrote.

Since her post, Goldman has taught two Holocaust history seminars for 11th grade students in Gardiner.

“Does the voting public have an understanding of how the rise of fascism occurs?” she asked.

She explained that education of the Holocaust focused primarily on the victim/survivor experience, and in her teaching experience, she’d been surprised to learn how little students know about the rise of fascism as a political movement.

“It happened very quickly,” she said.

Goldman emphasized repeatedly that she will not address the election in her classes.

Rather, she had considered offering her expertise to local schools for some time. But given the appropriation of Nazi symbols and language by emerging white-nationalist groups and the KKK, she decided now is the time to offer her services.

“I only talked about history,” she said, adding, “We’re in a very different historical moment.”

Goldman said people can draw comparisons on their own with the knowledge they have. “If you generate more knowledge in the community,” she said. “you have a public sphere that is more humane and just.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100, or Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or