Today’s post is written by Samara Doyon. Samara has been a black girl living in Maine for the past 30+ years (read: her entire life). She is a writer, educator, wife, and mother. Despite the roots of her family tree, half of which reach generations deep inside the cool soil of the Pine Tree State, she recognizes that she will most likely remain an outsider for life, as the definition of “Mainer” upheld by the governor and half the state does not include people who look like her.
In July 2017, a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest took place in downtown Portland, Maine during which a confrontation erupted between pedestrians and a man in an automobile. (I’ll let that statement speak for itself). Local media described the incident as if the driver were an innocent victim, harassed by the hostile rabble while attempting to flee conflict. But eyewitnesses and the phone footage which was repeatedly removed from Facebook told a different story. An unconcerned driver glared defiantly at protesters who, in frustration but still calling him “Sir,” attempted to redirect his path around themselves. He pursued his course despite reason, continuing to plow directly into the crowd, eliciting reactive shouts and more insistent demands to change course (including slaps to the vehicle). This did not deter him. Not long after this show of entitled aggression, the driver completing his goal of physically forcing the crowd apart with a moving vehicle, the protest came to an end. Eighteen protesters were arrested and the 17 non-minors were eventually charged with obstructing a public way along with some other misdemeanors. The proceedings led to fines paid by protesters as well as a restorative justice agreement–discussions to take place between Portland police officers and defendants. The sessions did not move forward, however, as the specific terms became strongly contested. This conflict led to a reinstatement of the original charges and the arraignment I briefly attended last Monday.
I couldn’t stay long, because I had other obligations, but I needed to be near the sisters and allies as they entered the courthouse. They had submitted their personhood and reputation to public scrutiny, enduring ridicule, misrepresentation, and disregard for their religious practices in the case of the Muslim women (as pictures of themselves with their hijabs removed were circulated without their consent) to say for all Black men, women, and children: “We are human; we deserve to be treated as humans.” And Monday I had the chance to place my body in the line of the public gaze and in a city courtroom with others to say, “Thank you.” That was it, really. My presence wasn’t an instance of heavy lifting. It was simply a gesture of gratitude and support.
While I was there, several mildly annoying things happened. For one, those gathered for support encountered a verbally hostile, severely misinformed, maddeningly vague, middle-aged white man leaving the courthouse. Punctuating his sentences with expletives, he asked, “Are you kidding me?!” Followed by, “They’re going to bomb us!” I’m still not sure who he thought “they” were. Also, when I went through security to enter the courtroom and had the nerve to ask about what personal items I could take in with me, the security officer (who refused to look me in the eye) ripped the messenger bag out of my hand and ordered me to put my phone inside.
But the most frustrating part of my brief hour downtown took place when Judge Fritzsche took his seat and began explaining what BLM is about (you know, our perception of injustice) and why he thought sitting down and talking things through between the defendants and the Portland PD, creating some kind of mutual understanding and a new, restorative justice plan, was the only way to make things right. Have you ever instinctively known you were being handled rather than addressed; placated rather than heard? That was the mood in the courtroom. The judge insisted on pursuing this restorative justice course, as opposed to moving forward with a trial and giving the defendants the chance they sought to argue their case, ignoring the context of constant silencing, dismissing, and erasure faced by POC [people of color] which makes “mutual understanding” a joke. With the kind of gross imbalance of power permanently lodged between police officers–those publicly respected, revered, and regarded with the “good faith” in which Judge Fritzsche kept imploring the courtroom to engage–and those of us so often regarded with a complete lack of credibility whenever we bring up any instance of injustice (“us” often meaning Black women), “mutual understanding” usually means those with less power holding our peace so that those with more power feel less threatened by our grievances.
Perhaps most bizarrely, Judge Fritzsche repeatedly referenced the struggle of young Black men; with oblivious condescension, by the way, as though implicit bias and disproportionate violence at the hands of authorities were a matter of opinion rather than a terrifying, reality hanging over the heads of POC in this country everyday. And he pursued this topic of Black men despite the fact that not a single defendant in that courtroom was a Black man. I wasn’t sure how much further he could have removed himself from the personal struggle of the defendants before him while claiming to understand.
That is, until he brought up Chance Baker. That part almost did me in.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Chance Baker, he was a young homeless man who bought a pellet gun in Union Station Plaza this winter and was brandishing his purchase in the plaza parking lot when Portland Police were called. The specifics of what happened at that point differ, depending on who you ask. The police knew the weapon was a BB gun, or they had no idea. Baker was clearly not under the influence of any chemical substance, or he was obviously intoxicated. The pellet gun was in his hands and he refused to set it down, or it was on the ground. It’s hard to find clear answers. Everyone agrees, however, that Chance Baker was shot in the forehead by Sergeant Nicholas Goodman and that this kills shot was the sole shot fired. Also, despite the bizarre assumptions of several mistaken bystanders, Chance Baker was a light-skinned Black man.
I think in his mind, throughout the proceedings, Judge Fritzsche was validating the awareness of injustice looming over BLM supporters in his courtroom. I’m not sure. But when he explained that there was no way to know how much, in the intersection of race, homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse, we could tell which factors had led to Baker’s death, the fire in my bones nearly propelled me out of my seat to shout, “It doesn’t matter!” Because when you, as a POC, learn that a young man desperately in need of help, living in your own small city, has been shot IN THE FOREHEAD by an officer, a human being shot down like a paper target at a local fair, the detectability of his blackness is not the factor dropping the weight of loss like a cannonball into your own gut. It’s the disposability of his entire life. It’s the fact that alternative paths of resolution were never pursued (a non-lethal, disabling shot for instance). It’s the way so many people in the community shake their heads and say, “Oh, well. It’s sad, but it couldn’t have been helped,” when his death clearly could’ve been helped. It’s the lack of accountability. It’s the total, unquestioning acceptance. For whatever combination of reasons (blackness, mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness), a human being’s life didn’t matter in that ugly and terrifying equation which played out at Union Station Plaza. That’s the part that stays with you when you live your every moment wrapped inside the stunning and glorious but systematically dehumanized skin of the marginalized.
I left the courtroom and returned to my own daily chaos, later learning that Judge Fritzsche had recused himself from the case. And while I was glad about that for the defendants’ sakes, I also couldn’t help thinking he was letting himself off the hook on a personal level. This could have been an opportunity for Judge Fritzsche to broaden his own understanding, to listen and learn what BLM is really about, specifically here in the city of Portland, Maine, and for the women and men who had come to make their case in his courtroom on Monday. But when someone drives their preconceptions full-speed toward the brick wall of an unimagined reality, something has to give, either the preconceptions themselves or the nerve of the driver and his determination to engage. I wouldn’t be surprised if Judge Fritzsche’s preconceptions survived the day, highlighting the necessity to continue speaking the truth others still don’t know they need to hear: Black lives matter.
- For the local media’s perspective on the BLM protest, here’s an article from the Bangor Daily News:
- To read more about the most recent hearing, look here:
- For the story of Baker’s death, look here: http://www.pressherald.com/2017/02/18/shooting-reported-at-portland-strip-mall/
- And here:
- Finally, for a glimpse at who Chance Baker was, check out another one: http://www.pressherald.com/2017/02/24/at-candlelight-vigil-friends-remember-man-killed-by-portland-police/
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