Fighting the fight for racial justice in Maine…I salute these brave young people

I never imagined when I moved to Maine in 2002 that talking about race, racism and race relations would be something that I would do with regularity. In many ways, coming from Chicago, I had spent years in my own silo, one that was rich with diversity and where my presence was not alarming, different or “othered.” Choosing to talk openly about race in a state where non-white people make up less than 10 percent of the population is a risky proposition. It makes you a very unpopular person who is alarming, different and often perceived as a troublemaker…and it most certainly doesn’t make you many friends. Needless to say, my social calendar stays pretty empty. I have few regrets, despite the occasional moments of sadness when I see the impact upon my family and the utter isolation in which we live, but occasionally something happens that reminds me that there is value in raising our voices for the collective good.

In recent years and months, I have seen more of my fellow Mainers speaking out about racial injustice. Too many times, there is an assumption that because the number of non-whites in this state are so few that racial bias has no place in our lives. The reality is that racial bias in Maine is real and it takes many forms. My friend, blues man Samuel James has been raising his own voice as a Black man raised in Maine to talk about the racism he has faced and continues to face. As more of us raise our voices, it gives us the strength to stand tall even when we face opposition.

However, it is the actions of a group of high school students in Lewiston, Maine, who have me convinced that change is coming…even in a state like Maine. With demonstrations taking place across the nation, few would expect them in a state like Maine but demonstrate we did. Last weekend, we had two demonstrations, one at which I had the honor of speaking at and meeting some of the courageous young people of all races who are working for racial justice across this state. Which is why, when a few days later when one of them reached out to me about a situation at Lewiston High, I was alarmed.

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Several students put up a poster in the high school to raise awareness about the racial injustices that disproportionately affect Black people using the slogan that has emerged in this struggle based off the Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. The students were told that using “Black Lives Matter” is divisive and ordered them to take the poster down. Of course, the complaints are that all lives should matter and when we only focus on the plight of Black Americans, we are creating racial divisions. In theory, all lives should matter but in reality all lives don’t matter equally. Much like George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, some of us are perceived to have more value than others. In a year that has seen record numbers of Black lives shot down before their prime, Black women sexually assaulted by law enforcement and Black children marked for failure before they can even spell their own names, calling the slogan Black Lives Matter divisive ignores the reality that Black lives seem to have little value in our current day. Many white Americans have already divided Black people out to label them as troublemakers or criminals because of the color of their skin alone, divided them out as being less deserving of rights and safety when police are involved, and dividing them out by trying to silence them when they even try to discuss race. Black people and their non-Black allies want discussion to bring people together for once across racial lines.

How talking about an issue can be divisive is beyond me. To acknowledge and discuss inequity does not create inequity any more than discussing cancer leads to the creation of more cancer. Such thinking is faulty at best and downright insensitive and insulting, and it often reveals the racial bias held by the person who dares to utter such things.

In the day of the viral story, the plight of the students in Lewiston was picked up and went national; not long after, the school reversed its decision and are now allowing the students to put the poster back up. The community is planning a forum on the matter sometime in January. Based off comments in the local paper, I imagine it will be a lively forum since many feel this sort of “thing” has no place in our public schools. Yet I can’t think of a better place for such action.

These brave young students are our future, they are connecting across racial lines and having the types of discussions among themselves that many of us who are much older won’t even dare to have with our family, friends or even ourselves. Social change is often guided by the young; as I went to two marches in five days and realized that my marching and chanting days are almost behind me, if for no other reason than how tiring they are physically. I am heartened to know that even in a state like Maine, there are young people daring to break out of the silo that society has created for them and work across racial lines to speak truth even in the face of pressure to be quiet. I salute these young people and I pledge to assist in any way that this old-head can.

Zumba and sex, getting scandalous in Maine!

Living in Maine is definitely an experience at times, after all the total population of this entire state is less than the population of the city I was born and raised in. Maine in many ways is one big sleepy little town, where the degrees of separation are maybe three at best. While we aren’t completely in the sticks of society, most of Maine is still a place where you can’t find a meal after 10pm and bars close up way too damn early.  It’s a place where despite being pretty unchurched, there is still an invisible and perhaps even puritanical code that governs most of the residents.

Which is why when the story broke several months ago of a possible prostitution ring in the small and well known town of Kennebunk (no, the Bushes are from Kennebunkport which is next door to Kennebunk) it caught everyone’s attention.

According to local media reports, Alexis Wright had set up a Zumba studio on Main Street in downtown Kennebunk, but according to police reports it was a front for prostitution. Which according to my babysitter who had actually been hired by Ms. Wright to teach hula hooping classes, it was the strangest Zumba/fitness studio she had ever seen; since in the couple of weeks she worked there, hardly anyone ever came to class. (Told y’all the degrees of separation aren’t six in this state).

Now Alexis wasn’t just running the ring, she was actually the talent too. Turns out she had a business partner, a fella by the name of Mark Strong who just happens to be among many things a private investigator. Allegedly they kept meticulous records of all the clients and also videotaped them too, apparently without their knowledge. Charges have been filed against Wright and Strong and Wright in addition to facing prostitution charges is looking at tax evasion (Capone people… gotta pay the tax man) as well as charges from fraudulently taking public benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid. Now obviously taping people without their consent is a no-no, I mean what was the plan? Blackmail? Even dumber was taking government benefits, I mean considering Alexis was the only worker and according to media reports they earned $150,000 over a two year period, how much money did she need?

The big thing though is that the list of alleged “johns” is going to be released and supposedly some pretty important folks in Maine are on this list and everyone is in an uproar. In Kennebunk, the schools are on alert, after all some poor kid may soon learn his daddy wasn’t too bright. Media here is going crazy with this story, for starters on the surface Alexis Wright looks like the girl next door albeit the sexy girl door. Then you add in her partner Wright, a well-known and respected businessman and people lose their minds, after all how do people like this end up involved with this sort of unsavory business? Sorry to tell ya, if there is one business that is probably recession proof, I am guessing it’s the sex business. People are going to fuck.

Now I have been told I am not quite “getting” the story by more than one Mainer on social media sites like Twitter. What is there to get? Yes, what they did was illegal and frankly while I think it sucks that 150 guys will probably be outed and their families will have to deal with the fallout. As long as we live in a society that is uptight about such issues, these things will happen.

Unless Strong forced Wright to do this which in that case is an entirely different issue and one I would have issues with, a woman choosing this path generally knows the risks she is taking. As for the johns, well they knew the risk too, they chose to contact this woman and engage in an illegal act.

Even if this list does turn up prominent men, I am not sure why this is worthy of all the attention this case is garnering especially now that the story has made the national news. Prominent men seeking the companion of sex workers isn’t new…Elliot Spitzer anyone? If anything this story tells me that Mainers are just like other people and sometimes that means doing things they ought not to do.

That said if you live in Maine and think there is more to this case than I am getting, please, enlighten me. I admit I think that healthy adult women should be free to choose sex work if that is what they want, however I don’t make the laws. In the end for the children and partners of the “johns” I am not sure if it really matters whether these men paid for sex or if they had chosen to save money and just have an affair, in the end it’s a violation of trust. Whether one’s partner steps out with a sex worker or Sally from the front desk, it’s humiliating and it hurts.

Customers have voices too!

Back in the dark ages prior to the advent of social media, if you went to an eatery or business and the service or experience was lacking, you had few options to express your discontent. Sure you could ask for a manager or write a letter but by and large you the consumer (aside from telling folks in your personal circle to avoid the place like the plague) really had few options.

However social media has changed the game. Suddenly we the consumers have a voice and that voice can be quite loud. Many folks remember the story of blogger Dooce and her Maytag experience, now I admit I was on the fence with how she handled her dissatisfaction with their service but in the end by using her voice she was able to get the situation resolved. In the past few months I have had a few instances of service gone awry and thanks to social media (namely Twitter), the situations were resolved above and beyond what I expected.

In the first instance an e-coupon via Foursquare at the local Goodwill was not honored, in fact the clerks seemed clueless about the coupon and flat out refused to honor the five dollar off deal. (It was five dollars off any purchase of twenty five dollars or more) Now it wasn’t a huge deal to me but I did tweet about it and in the end Goodwill contacted me, compensated me more than the original coupon was worth and I was happy and will continue to patronize Goodwill of Northern New England. While the store clerk may have been clueless it was clear that they have social media savvy folks on staff who understands the value of social media in business.

In the second instance it’s an ongoing issue so I won’t get into all the details, but I will say a month or so back our car needed some work and we took it into our local shop which is a fairly large New England chain. Up until earlier this year we had a great relationship with the shop but the manager left and was replaced by a fellow who clearly is not as focused on keeping customers happy. Considering that the repair was just done a month ago, it took longer than we were told and it cost more, so you can imagine that I wasn’t feeling too happy when it became clear recently that the issue was obviously not resolved. So I took it to Twitter and it turns out this chain does indeed have a presence there and let’s just say they are working to make this a happy ending.

Now one might get the idea that maybe I like to be a rabble rouser, while that is true in some areas of my life I generally recognize that store clerks and restaurant servers are front line workers who basically deal with a lot of shit and make little money. So for all the times I am rubbed the wrong way and sadly I must say sometimes just my presence seems to be a factor, I generally let things roll off my back. Life is too damn short to get bent about every slight…in the end it’s just not that serious.

However I had an experience today while hanging out in Portland that well….pissed me the fuck off. Let me set the scene, the family and I went to a cool little arts festival, the type of thing I adore, and of course we didn’t eat lunch figuring we’d grab something there. But the choices were limited and the six year old is a picky eater which means by extension we are picky eaters, no allergies or sensitivities, she is just incredibly picky and will starve rather than eat what she does not want. I didn’t want to argue about food today, so I said screw it let’s find something she will eat. So off we go.

We walk over to the Old Port which is a cutesy touristy part of Portland with the types of shops that when I first moved here I went gaga over but now that my income is in line with the average Mainer and not the income we used to have, I generally avoid such cute shops. Y’all know the type…they scream “SPEND MONEY!” So we came upon a new eatery The Thirsty Pig, let me say I am married to a man that though he was raised in California he was born in Minnesota and I am convinced his Midwestern roots comes through in his eating. He is meh about sushi but loves a good sausage and beer. So when we spied The Thirsty Pig and saw it was basically sausages he was happy and hey they had hot dogs for the little one. Now I will be honest and say neither of these choices made me want to break into a song and dance but the kid was loudly letting us know she was hungry so I said cool let’s eat here.

From the moment I walked in the vibe felt off but as a mother with a hungry picky eater, I brushed it aside. Though the servers seemed frazzled and frankly the lackluster service pissed me off from the get go…hello! Of course I want to order, I have been sitting here ten minutes with a hungry kid! So we place our order, I decided on the lobster roll since it was the one item that spoke to me and I like a good roll and I figured with a price tag of $15.50, it would probably be a fantastic lobster roll!

That lobster roll was the nastiest things I have ever tasted, the rolls seemed a tad heavy, the lobster meat was very cold and had a very fishy taste and the mayo or whatever was at the bottom of the roll was just meh. To be honest the sandwich was so unpleasant and the fishy flavor so overpowering which concerned me that I left most of it on the plate. Instead eating my salt and vinegar chips and pickles….by the way I like salt and vinegar chips but many don’t including my picky eater, why not offer a plain chip too?

I know I am getting long here but hang with me kids, so the server came and asked was everything fine. I had that split second mental debate where I think do I say something or not, while my brain was debating my mouth said “No, it really wasn’t good”. Oops it seems my mouth got ahead of my brain. The server responds “Well let me get your check.” No offer of can I get you something else, I am so sorry just let me get your check. Look I didn’t expect her to take lobster roll off the bill thought it would have been nice but damn, what about asking if I would like something else? Shit at that point I would have taken a lettuce leaf or something but nope she brings me my check and that’s that.

I admit I was stunned and if it had not been for the presence of the wee one I might have asked for a manager but the kidlet is her explain everything to me stage and I just was not in the mood. So I say to The Thirsty Pig: a less than pleasant meal I can live with but a questionable meal combined with lackluster servers who clearly did not give a damn is just too much.

(Oh, and my husband’s BBQ banger sandwich wasn’t all that and a box of cracker jacks, either. It tasted OK but really, for $6.50 it could have been a little bigger and maybe had a casing on the sausage that wasn’t somehow both tough and slippery)