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Portland MLK Jr. Day speakers urge action on racism, gun violence

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Portland MLK Jr. Day speakers urge action on racism, gun violence

PORTLAND — Nearly 700 people turned out Monday morning for the city's 32nd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast, sponsored by the Portland branch of the NAACP.

"I think we can liberate humanity from the myth of separate races," keynote speaker Rinku Sen said, as the audience at Holiday Inn by the Bay stood and applauded.

Sen is an Indian-American author, activist and president of the Applied Research Center, a national think-tank on racial justice. The center recently launched a civil rights education campaign called "Drop the I-Word," asking the public not to call any human being "illegal."

Sen encouraged the crowd to follow King's example by loving one's enemy and not simply "reshuffling" the balance of power between races. She also said that discussions of racism must focus on its impact, not the intentions of those who cause it.

"You can't know what's in someone's heart," she said. "We can no longer be so concerned about who is a racist ... we need to be concerned about what is causing racial inequity."

Correcting that inequity starts with addressing it explicitly, Sen said. Echoing a theme of other speakers, she said, "If we can't be explicit about the racial dimension of gun violence, we can't solve it. You can't solve a problem you can't name."

Rachel Talbot Ross, the NAACP branch president and the city's director of equal opportunity and multicultural affairs, said the branch supports gun control proposals last week by President Barack Obama, whose televised inauguration Monday was shown at the end of the breakfast.

"There are thousands being taken by gun violence," Ross told the audience. "It's despicable."

Ross noted that her father, Gerald Talbot – the branch's founding president – led attempts as a state legislator in the 1970s to create a waiting period for handgun purchases. For his efforts, she said, he received a threat that he would die by gunfire.

City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who has been a gun-control advocate, praised Talbot and asked him to stand at his table in the audience.

"Are you going to stand with Gerry, stand with me, and say 'no more gun violence'?,'" Suslovic asked the crowd, prompting another standing ovation.

Suslovic noted that 50 bills aimed at reducing gun violence have been submitted to the state Legislature. In Portland, Mayor Michael Brennan held a press conference last week urging support of gun-control legislation.

Brennan repeated that call at Monday's breakfast, and also spoke about the "power of words" in fulfilling King's legacy. He said he was proud that on Dec. 29 Portland became the first city in Maine where same-sex couples said "I do" in legally recognized marriages. And he pledged that he would try not to refer to individuals by words such as "homeless," "immigrant" or "refugee."

"Over the next year, I'm going to try calling people 'new residents of Portland,'" he said. "That's how we build community, that's how we strengthen community."

This year's Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast was emceed by two "new residents," Casco Bay High School student Fatma Adnan and Deering High student Mohamed Nur. In keeping with the focus on words – and the theme of Obama's inaugural address – excerpts of the U.S. Constitution were read by students from the Portland Housing Authority's after-school study program.

As usual, the breakfast was attended by a host of community leaders and elected officials. Ross noted that others, including 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, were in Washington, D.C., attending the inauguration.

Also not on hand was Gov. Paul LePage, who for the first time was not invited to the event after declining invitations the past two years. Instead, LePage issued a statement Monday proclaiming the federal holiday a day of service.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.