A group of about 25 protesters disrupted Gov. Paul LePage’s town hall meeting Tuesday night at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus, with individual members of the group standing up at random to interrupt LePage before exiting to chants of “black lives matter.”
“I would say that all lives matter,” the governor told the audience at one point.
LePage’s town hall started off like nearly all of his meetings, with the Republican governor reiterating his view that excessive taxation and high energy costs are hurting Maine’s economy.
“Since the November election, hundreds of people have left our state and continue to leave every day. They all feel that state government has gotten too greedy,” LePage told an audience of roughly 100 people.
LePage only got about 10 minutes into his presentation at USM’s Hannaford Hall when a protester seated in the audience stood up and shouted an obscenity at him. Police moved toward the man, but he decided to leave and exited to a chorus of “black lives matter.”
One by one the other protesters – who were seated throughout the audience – stood up at random intervals to interrupt the governor, with some calling him a racist, and then exited the auditorium to chants of “black lives matter.”
After leaving the auditorium, the roughly 25 protesters gathered outside Hannaford Hall and engaged in a peaceful demonstration. Holding signs that read, “Black Lives Matter,” the protesters chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Paul LePage has got to go,” and “You’re a racist, Paul LePage, get your ass off the stage.”
The protesters were not allowed to re-enter the building. About a dozen Portland police officers were present, but no one was arrested, police said.
Iris Sangiovanni, a senior at USM, said the protesters accomplished their goal, which she said was to disrupt the governor and to demonstrate to university officials that their right to free speech would not be deterred by the threat of arrest.
Sangiovanni is a member of Students for USM’s Future, a group concerned about President Trump’s immigration policies, which LePage has said he supports.
“The university would rather threaten removal by police to anyone who disrupts than acknowledge the violence in allowing LePage to speak in the first place,” Students for USM’s Future wrote on their Facebook page.
Sangiovanni said that allowing controversial political figures such as LePage and Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, to speak at the university is concerning because it makes people think that their views are the norm. LePage and Lockman were both invited to speak by Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative campus organization.
Lockman appeared at USM in February, making a presentation titled “Alien Invasion: Fixing the Immigrant Crisis.” During his presentation, Lockman argued that refugees coming into Maine are using public health benefits that should only be available to citizens.
Lockman’s appearance provoked demonstrations by Students for USM’s Future. More than 200 people protested.
LePage supports Trump’s immigration policy that would temporarily ban immigrants from six mostly Muslim countries. In a tweet this year, LePage said, “AG (attorney general) Mills speaks for herself on immigration order. I fully support @realDonaldTrump exec action to protect all Americans.”
Concerned that Tuesday’s town hall meeting could get out of control, USM President Glenn Cummings sent an email to students before the governor made his appearance. Cummings urged students to be civil and told them that he expected there to be peaceful protests as well as challenges to LePage’s position.
But Cummings added, “I do caution people to not cross the line from peaceful protest to disrupting the event or attempting to shut it down. The Portland Police Department, who will be providing security along the USM police force, has been instructed to remove anyone who crosses that line.
“Denying the governor his right to speak, or denying others their right to hear what he has to say, is not free speech, runs counter to our student code of conduct, and flies in the face of a core USM principle, that hearing differing points of view sharpens our own critical thinking,” Cummings said.
LePage seemed unfazed by the attacks. After each interruption, he calmly continued with his presentation.
“You know, folks, it’s one thing to scream and holler, but you need to get your facts straight,” LePage told a student, who accused him of reducing the university budget to a level that would harm educational programs.
At one chaotic period of the town hall meeting – one person shouted that Black Lives Matter was a terrorist organization as the crowd chanted “black lives matter” – the topic of racial profiling came up. LePage was criticized last year for maintaining a three-ring binder of photos that he claimed shows that 90 percent of the drug dealers arrested in Maine are black or Hispanic.
The 148-page binder included news releases, newspaper clippings and jail booking and courtroom photos of people charged with trafficking drugs. The existence of the binder came up in January 2016 during a town hall meeting in Bridgton when the governor said, “These are the guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty – these types of guys – they come from Connecticut and New York they come up her, they sell their heroin, they go back home.”
LePage told the USM audience that Smoothie is on trial for killing two people. “You can say what you want, but Smoothie killed two people,” he said.
It’s not clear who the governor was referring to. David W. Marble Jr., whose nickname is Dee Money, is accused of killing Eric Williams, 35, and Bonnie Royer, 26, on Christmas 2015. Marble is scheduled to go on trial in the fall.
As the meeting was drawing to an end, LePage commented, “Thank you all. Despite all the commotion. I survived it.”
Kaitlyn Budicky, a member of Young Americans for Freedom, helped moderate the event. Budicky said she thought the governor handled the criticism “reasonably well.” She declared the meeting a success.
“Everyone got the chance to express their feelings, and that was our goal,” Budicky said.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: