What happened Wednesday night at Cumberland and Washington?

For eight years, I have managed Black Girl in Maine the blog and related social media as a labor of love and as a one-woman operation (aside from the very rare and sporadic guest post) but in recent months it’s become clear that this site and the related social media has grown larger than my original vision. Thanks to a dedicated readership and those who have gone one step farther to become patrons, I am now able to add a contributor to the site. Today’s post is written by Marena Blachard. Marena is a dynamic “Black girl in Maine” herself who is also a mother, model, creative force and early childhood educator. 
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By the time I got there, almost no one remained at the scene. A man was sweeping broken glass in a restaurant doorway. Two men were smoking by a car at the gas station. A small group of people sat on a stoop. I paced.

A Facebook post from a friend brought me out into the humid night air in this part of Portland, Maine, close to midnight.

“Something’s happening at Cumberland and Washington…” it read.

I met Susanna Rajala, who was standing on Cumberland Avenue, looking down on Washington. A police car was parked in a lot to her left, facing Northeast, headlights on. It was slightly foggy, humid, and surprisingly quiet.

Her eyes were alert.  

“What happened?” I asked, out of breath from my cross-town jog. I’d questioned some of the people around, but Susanna was the only one with an answer.

Below is my brief interview with her from the following day. In it, she describes an emotional scene and talks about police conduct.  

The events of the night of Wednesday, August 10, are unclear. I expect that there is an ongoing investigation but I have so many questions. Where does one go for answers? It’s not been reported in any media, as far as I can tell. In working through my feelings of confusion and concern for members of my community, in this national political climate that feels dangerous for people with black and brown bodies, I am led to ask the seemingly age-old question: who is policing the police?  

There aren’t any national standards for powers and features of civilian oversight of law enforcement. But, there are organizations working toward that end. A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom & Justice was recently published by a group of over 60 organizations affiliated with Black Lives Matter. The publication is thorough, detailing both problems and policy solutions on local and national levels. The document demands “direct democratic community control of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, ensuring that communities most harmed by destructive policing have the power to hire and fire officers, determine disciplinary action, control budgets and policies, and subpoena relevant agency information.”

What does our local community oversight look like? Earlier Wednesday evening, I’d gone to the police station on Middle St. to attend a meeting of the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee (PCRS). I was a few minutes late but when I arrived, there were 17 people in the lobby. We were dismayed to find out a few moments later that the meeting had been cancelled without any notice.

In recent interviews including this one, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck has cited the PCRS as an example of the Portland Police Department attempting transparency. I’d never been to one of their meetings before and was really curious about its purpose and function.  

While at the police station, I met a local woman who was even more curious. She described how she’d attempted to find information online about the subcommittee. She’d emailed city councilors, searched for meeting minutes, tried to locate the required annual report, and couldn’t find much information beyond the basic offerings of this site.  

Later, I was able to find an interview with Kelly McDonald, Portland lawyer and PCRS chair, in which he stated, “We do not have a lot of power as a subcommittee.”

From what I could tell, this subcommittee is tasked with reviewing the process involved with each investigation into a complaint, but not the outcome, and reporting to the city manager. Since Sauschuck became chief, McDonald said they haven’t had any misgivings about a single internal affairs investigation. Sauschuck’s tenure began in January 2012.

I wish I could give you an informed analysis of what that means, but I’m not an expert in this area. And, I guess that’s why I’m writing this post. The past few days have been a blur of trying to get information and as an average citizen, I don’t feel well-equipped to launch my own personal investigation. My reliance on institutions, like the media, for information about that night reveal that there is opportunity for events like this to go entirely unnoticed. Unreported.

I’m concerned that there are eyewitnesses in my community recalling unimaginable police behavior and the entire incident seems invisible. What would it take for it to become visible? An official complaint? Has anyone filed one? Is there even a point in doing so? If you feel an injustice has been done to you, you have to report it to the police… and then the police decide whether or not there was any wrongdoing. If you’re a person who feels wronged, how can you be expected to trust completely in the system that wronged you? Especially if you have any past trauma involving the authorities, experienced on American soil or abroad.

Here in Portland, we were recently visited by Trump. He used the opportunity to cast suspicion on the local Somali community and immigrants in general. His message resonates with and emboldens bigots. Anecdotally, there seems to be an increase in the frequency of personal stories of black and brown people being harassed locally. This is an atmosphere of fear and traumatic stress. So many in Black Portland and Black America are in the depths of a crisis. Living while black in 2016 feels like at any moment you or a loved one can become a hashtag.

In the aftermath of the July 15 Portland Racial Justice Congress’ protest, there were folk questioning the need for disruptive protest in town. As if “The Forest City” were an exceptional enclave of racial harmony. Or as if the fact that black people are only 7 percent of the population meant that the national movement for black and brown lives is somehow irrelevant here. Or as if access to the police chief or other officials for meetings and conversations was the highest attainable goal in the fight for equality.

“This is Portland,” these folk said.

The erasure of local racial experiences directly mirrors the national issue of white silence. The intersection of Cumberland and Washington may be physically located in Portland, Maine, but it is really Anytown, USA.

On Friday, in Portland, a  young Muslim woman was verbally assaulted in a library. A white man called her a “nigger bitch” and told her to go back to her country. Her story made it into the paper because it was spread on social media and the University of Southern Maine issued a statement. The majority of the newspaper article is dedicated to the administration’s response. What was missing was any mention of how the USM police navigated the situation. What steps did the police take to address the issue in the moment? Why was the young woman compelled to post on social media? Ignoring crucial facts is one example of the erasure I mention above. Only telling part of the story is white silence or worse. Our reliance on the media for this information and it’s inadequacy is institutional racism. Yes, in Maine. (Also, as a side note to the Portland Press Herald: she posted about it on Facebook, not Twitter. Smh.)

This young woman’s courage in speaking out wasn’t without consequences. Almost immediately, she was a victim of online harassment over the incident. That was also missing from the newspaper article. Shay has written extensively in this space about the consequences of speaking out about experiences of racism. Online harassment and death threats are not uncommon for our local black leaders. Is it any wonder that victims are afraid to come forward with their stories? They face a press that can choose to ignore key details, a largely ill-informed public, and a powerless citizen oversight subcommittee. What recourse can they dare hope for?

Portland Racial Justice Congress made demands for more accountability when they shut down a segment of Commercial St. during high tourist season. Traffic patterns were upset. People were enraged. Disruptive protest is a known tactic to gain visibility for civil rights issues. I wonder how many events like Wednesday night’s remain invisible? Unnoticed and unreported. No complaints filed.
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