BRUNSWICK — The town’s Human Rights Task Force is trying to determine the role of municipal government in confronting a reported uptick of harassment, discrimination, and general anxiety over civil liberties since the presidential election.
“A lot has happened since we last met,” committee Chairwoman Sarah Brayman told community leaders at a March 1 meeting – the first since Nov. 18, 2016, when members of the panel said they wanted to take a stand against a reported increase in local incidents of bias following the election of President Donald Trump.
The Task Force formed in late 2015 in response to a series of incidents downtown and at Bowdoin College that raised concerns over public safety, discrimination and harassment.
A year later, the task force is still considered an official town panel, and residents are calling on it to consider specific actions that some members of the committee aren’t sure fall under its purview.
Brayman and Councilors Jane Millet and Kathy Wilson steer the Task Force.
Also in attendance March 1 were Councilor David Watson, Chief of Police Richard Rizzo, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Pender Makin, Bowdoin College Dean of Students for Diversity and Inclusion Leana Amaez, Town Manager John Eldridge, Assistant Town Manager Derek Scrapchansky, Tedford Housing Director Craig Phillips, Church of Scientology minister Richard Fisco, Curtis Memorial Library Director Elisabeth Douchette and Librarian Sarah Brown.
Brayman told the group she’d been contacted about everything from providing sanctuary to immigrants under threat of deportation to changing Columbus Day to “Indigenous People’s Day” and preventing racial slurs hurled at pedestrians by motorists.
Most reports of harassment have been anecdotal, she noted.
When members of the group were asked to report incidents, the only one offered was by Rizzo, who described an incident at Bowdoin College where students found a swastika and the number 666 etched into the snow outside a dorm on South Street.
Rizzo, whose department created an online reporting form last year, said police have not received any new bias incident reports since the summer.
Brayman said she heard from an Indian resident who has been harassed by motorists six times in the past year, with many occurring disproportionately after the November election.
Worried about how the national political climate has affected the treatment of “brown people,” the resident asked the committee to consider a community forum with police.
Brayman relayed the request, along with another from a resident who contacted her about making Brunswick a “sanctuary town.”
That designation would be up to Brunswick to define, but is usually understood to mean that local police would not work with federal agents to deport undocumented immigrants.
Millett pushed back on the police forum idea, especially as the conversation veered toward whether police would comply with federal agencies and directives relating to the deportation of undocumented immigrants.
“I don’t want to put the police on the spot to predict the future,” she said.
Amaez cautioned that if the town is going to engage in legal questions related to immigration and law enforcement, the committee should have an attorney present to answer questions.
Rizzo did not wade into the discussion about immigration policy, but stated it was his department’s responsibility to enforce the law.
The job, he said, includes protecting residents from harassment, and he encouraged the Indian resident Brayman mentioned to contact police about preventing future incidents.
The conversation continued in a manner that touched not only on the topics the committee should address – matters of race, religions, sexuality, and class – but how and if the committee ought to address them.
Over the phone Tuesday, Brayman acknowledged the meeting’s format reflected the panel’s unclear role in matters of identity and politics.
“It gets down to what’s the appropriate role of municipal government in this issue,” she said.
Other towns and cities, such as South Portland and Westbrook, have passed resolutions in response to acts of hatred, specifically those targeting Muslims and immigrants.
Brayman reiterated that it’s important and valuable for towns “to take a stance” on their values.
“We already have a human rights resolution, and we’ll discuss expanding that,” she said, as well as changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.
She said she supports future planning to strengthen the relationship between police and the public, acknowledging that issues around race don’t just manifest themselves in difficult conversations, but also in public safety.
“Another approach (the committee has) taken is essentially to be a clearinghouse,” Brayman said – a place to strengthen communication between different organizations in town.
For example, she said she learned last week that staff at Curtis Memorial Library have plans to address the national and local political climate with a community read of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s “Writings on the Wall.”
“Even if we don’t accomplish a lot, I think it’s good for councilors to be listening,” she added.
Millett noted Monday that political groups, such as Brunswick Rising, have formed in the wake of the November election and they may be more effective in community organizing.
Watson agreed Tuesday.
“I think the town is limited in what it can do,” he said, adding he isn’t sure the town even needs to expand its existing human rights resolution.
“(Brunswick) has laws that protect people regardless of their race, creed, religion,” he said. “All we have to do is enforce those laws. We have to go back to the rule of law.”
Brayman pointed out that the Task Force is deliberately nonpartisan, and includes diverse political opinions; on Tuesday, Watson described himself as a conservative “counterpoint” in the group.
The committee will meet next on April 25 to discuss specific issues related to the LGBT community.
Brunswick Police Chief Richard Rizzo said his department has not received any bias incident reports since last summer.