Portland officials form united front against racism

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PORTLAND — An array of city officials last week condemned three recent, racially motivated incidents.

In a May 7 press conference organized by City Councilor Justin Costa, city councilors, Mayor Michael Brennan, and School Board member Pious Ali said the city must remain open and welcoming to all.

“As elected officials, it is important to be emphatic … these actions have no place in the city of Portland,” Costa said on the steps of City Hall.

The show of unity came after a woman on Fore Street was called a racial slur by someone in a passing car, the Portland Halaal Market on St. John Street was vandalized, and a black man was attacked along Congress Street.

The incidents occurred last month amid what Costa said was a “charged environment” nationally. He added it is “too soon to intimate there is a common thread” to the three episodes.

Police have made arrests in only one case: Charles and Benjamin Bean of New Gloucester face charges of assault and interference with constitutional and civil rights for their alleged April 19 attack on Antonio Byars off Congress Street.

State Attorney General Janet Mills has also filed complaints under the Maine Civil Rights Act against the Beans, citing witness accounts the brothers singled out Byars and threatened him with racial slurs.

“The time is always right to say something,” Costa said, adding the recent incidents are not indicative of the city’s overall attitude toward diversity and tolerance.

Councilors Nick Mavodones Jr. and Kevin Donoghue were unable to attend, but expressed their support, as did all School Board members who were unable to attend, and the entire city delegation to the state Legislature.

Councilor Jill Duson, who served as mayor before the position became a fully elected one, said fighting bigotry and hatred is a shared cause.

“Justice is something we are all responsible for,” she said.

Duson, who has served on the council since 2001, said councilors have done a good job of listening to a diverse population when considering city issues. But, she added, imparting the message of acceptance must also done in a localized manner.

“I’ve been challenged to educate people in the supermarket,” Duson said. “When something happens, we need to do something about it.”

Brennan said he wants it clear that people have the right to live in the city without facing prejudice based on skin color, gender or sexual orientation. He said disputes with state government over General Assistance for immigrants have not helped foster tolerance.

“It is divisive, as opposed to how we can come together as a state,” he said.

Brennan also conceded work needs to be done at the local level, acknowledging the Police and School departments have been unable to hire staff that reflect Portland’s diverse demographics.

“We have made very strong efforts over the years, but we have a long way to go across the board,” the mayor said.

Councilor David Brenerman, who also served previously as mayor and in the Legislature, and returned to the City Council in December 2014, said the changing racial demographic in the city is not coincidental.

“The city has become one of the most welcoming in the nation,” he said.

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

Sidebar Elements

Portland City Councilor Justin Costa speaks at a May 7 press conference, where officials spoke out against racially motivated attacks and vandalism in the city. “It is important to be emphatic … these actions have no place in the city of Portland,” he said.

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.