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Marchers in Portland honor MLK Jr., send message to LePage

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Marchers in Portland honor MLK Jr., send message to LePage

PORTLAND — They started out in smaller groups, concerned citizens talking about social and economic justice at the Preble Street Resource Center.

But they ended as a mass of about 500, singing "We Shall Overcome" on the steps of City Hall.

Monday's rally celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day was organized by the NAACP.

The backdrop of the event stressing unity, however, was the early performance of Gov. Paul LePage, who on his first day in office signed an executive order allowing state agencies to request residency information of people seeking state assistance.

Then last week, the Republican governor told the NAACP to "kiss my butt" after the organization's leaders complained he would not continue a tradition of attending their MLK Jr. Day events. He then described the civil rights organization as a "special-interest group," saying he would not be "held hostage."

LePage ended up reversing course on Monday, and attended an MLK event not sponsored by the NAACP in Waterville.

Critics have expressed concern about the early actions of the LePage administration. Supporters, however, have welcomed LePage's bluntness and focus on providing services to Mainers.

Speakers at Monday's rally on the steps of City Hall, which was led by City Councilor Dory Waxman, asked the enthusiastic crowd to meet LePage's actions not in-kind, but rather, with kindness.

Several speakers honed in on LePage's executive order allowing agencies to question the residency status of people seeking social services.

Eda Trejo, a native of El Salvador, said that when she moved to the state, she had nothing and had to rely on the social services to make ends meet. Now that she is on her feet, Trejo has turned her efforts to immigrants trying to escape domestic violence. 

"The city of Portland helped me big time," she said. "The family shelter opened their door to me and welcomed me – never mind my color, my language – they opened their door to me and my family."

But Trejo, who said she pays taxes like others, said she feels as though that door is closing for people like her. After LePage's executive order, she said, she and her clients have been asked to produce proof of residency.

"It is not right they ask for documentation, especially when you have voucher for general assistance," she said. 

It was that topic that was also on the minds of about 200 people, who discussed economic and social justice earlier that afternoon at the Preble Street Resource Center.

Many reoccurring themes included the equality of all people and society's moral obligation to provide services to those in need, regardless of their residency status.

Jessica Butts of Portland said one of her relatives struggled with homelessness and mental illness. She said it was "horrifying, ironic and ridiculous" that LePage, a Franco-American who was homeless for a period, is "against helping homeless immigrants."

Steve Wessler, executive director of the Center for Preventing Hate, who moderated one community discussion, said the crowd of about 200 people was much larger than expected.

After an hour-long discussion, the groups gathered outside the shelter and marched to Congress Street along Preble Street, beating drums, blowing whistles and chanting "this is what Democracy looks like" until reaching the steps of City Hall.

Meanwhile, Brianna Twofoot, of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said during the rally that LePage's executive order sends the wrong message on behalf of the state.

"His first action as governor sent an unwelcoming message to the immigrant and refugee communities in Maine," Twofoot said. 

Rachel Talbot Ross, state director of the NAACP, then unveiled a basket full of books about diversity, as well as postcards that were passed out and signed at the event, that will be delivered to Augusta to welcome the governor and his family to the Blaine House.

Talbot Ross, who was thrust into the national spotlight following LePage's comments, then held up a copy of "Speeches that Changed the World," which had a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. on the cover.

"We think the governor may benefit from reading about how words affect people," Talbot Ross said. "Perhaps his speech writers and communications office might want to check it out as well."

Citing scripture, the Rev. Eric C. Smith, associate director of the Maine Council of Churches, said when God's favor returns "steadfast love and faithfulness will meet. Righteousness and peace will kiss one another." 

"Last week, all of us here who are committed to righteousness and justice were invited to kiss something else," Smith said. "But I believe Dr. King would have a message ... turn the other cheek."

The Rev. Kenneth Lewis, pastor of the Green Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Munjoy Hill, who stirred the crowd earlier with a reading of King's speech on rediscovering lost values, stirred the crowd again by leading the singing the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome."

After the event, a steady stream of well-wishers embraced Talbot Ross, who said she was moved with "tears of joy" by the outpouring of community support.

"I think Dr. King would be proud of us showing what a beloved community really looks like and acts," she said. "Our community should be proud.

"I'm really hoping the leadership of our state is paying attention," she added. "Because people really want to be a part of how Maine moves forward. Nothing is more important than us moving together."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net