The Black Lives Matter movement has been fueled by determination to break the silence over injustice toward people of color. So it’s fitting that a proposed settlement of charges stemming from a local Black Lives Matter protest last summer will give both police and protesters a chance to speak their piece.
The demonstration — organized by the Portland Racial Justice Congress in response to police shootings of black men — took place the night of July 15. Carrying signs and calling out slogans, the 150 participants marched through the Old Port to Commercial Street, where they blocked a busy section of the street for several hours.
Police said they broke up the protest after some demonstrators climbed on top of a vehicle that was trying to reach the street from one of the wharfs; 17 people were arrested and charged with obstructing a public way and other misdemeanors.
It’s not news that this case will likely be resolved without a trial. Most criminal cases are. But the terms of this deal are unusual: One of the conditions for dropping charges is a mediated meeting where protesters and Portland police officers will talk about the confrontation and how it was handled by officers.
Known as “restorative justice,” the approach gives those affected by an offense get a chance to ask questions and explain how they’ve been harmed, while defendants take in the impact of what they’ve done. The goal is for the sides to work together to figure out consequences that are in line with the seriousness of the offense.
If a judge signs off on the deal Jan. 26, Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Ackerman told the Bangor Daily News, this will be the first time restorative justice has been used in a Maine civil disobedience case. And it’s a wise decision, given that both restorative justice and Black Lives Matter see the vast shortcomings of our criminal justice system. Restorative justice offers a way to hold offenders accountable and give victims a voice, without resorting to the measures rightly denounced by racial justice activists: punitive sentences that do little but drive up an already sky-high incarceration rate.
The deal is also in line with statements made before the protest: Organizers called for Police Chief Michael Sauschuck to affirm the value of black lives, and urging more transparency and civilian police oversight. Sauschuck said he was committed to racial equity in law enforcement but questioned why he didn’t hear about the event until it was too late for a dialogue. Both sides are trying to be heard — fostering mutual understanding rather than imposing punishment is the right approach to meeting this goal.