One of the protesters arrested during Thursday’s protests sits on a police van outside Sen. Susan Collins’ Portland office at One Canal Plaza. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

A group of nine religious leaders protesting Sen. Susan Collins’ support of the tax reform effort were arrested by Portland police officers shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday.

Police waited inside Collins’ office at One Canal Plaza, Suite 802, while the group prayed and streamed their protest live on Facebook.

Officers explained that they would handcuff the protesters and take them out in groups of about five in order to fit in an elevator. Group members sang, “We are gentle, loving people, and we are singing for our lives,” as they were led away.

Maj. Heath Gorham of the Portland Police Department said in a statement that there were 10 protesters in Collins’ office, but only nine were arrested and charged with criminal trespass. They were all transported to the Cumberland County Jail and were released around midnight after each posted $60 bail.

“The senator was in Washington and did not meet in person with the group. The protesters were peaceful, but refused to leave the building after the office had closed for the day,” Gorham said.

Collins is considered a key vote to pass the tax reform bill. She announced she would support the tax plan after winning several concessions from Senate leaders. However, leaders in the House of Representatives have made no commitment to support the provisions that won Collins’ support. The Portland sit-in came three days after five people were arrested in Bangor after refusing to leave Collins’ office.

“While none of us really wants to be arrested, it’s a pretty minor inconvenience when compared to how this bill is going to devastate peoples’ lives,” the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, a United Methodist minister who also serves as vice president of the Maine Council of Churches, said on the live stream shortly before he was arrested. “This is not a stunt, but it’s clear the senator is not ready to stand by a no vote (on the tax reform legislation).”

Nine members of the clergy, including Martha Soule, left, a Buddhist from Readfield, and Rabbi Joshua Chasan of Portland, center, are arrested Thursday night at One Canal Plaza during a protest at the Portland office of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

‘WALK WITH THE DISENFRANCHISED’

Members of the group, which included several ministers, a rabbi and a Quaker minister, then kneeled and prayed before Portland police officers started to handcuff them.

During their prayer, members of the group said they were in Collins’ office to represent “the poor and disadvantaged” who they believe will be harmed by the tax bill.

The clergy said that Jesus taught spiritual leaders to “walk with the disenfranchised and to stand against the tax collectors.”

The group had planned to spend the night in Collins’ Portland office, refusing to leave when the senator’s staff departed for the day and locked the door behind them Thursday afternoon.

Collins, who was in Washington, D.C., on her birthday, talked to the group via cellphone for more than half an hour and explained her position on the Republican proposal in a conversation that “Moral Movement Maine” streamed live on its Facebook page.

From left, Jim Gertmenian, a retired pastor, Susan King, a former clergy member, Molly Brewer, student minister at First Universalist Church of Auburn, and Joshua Chasan, with Bend the Arc Greater Portland, join in prayer with more than a dozen other people during a sit-in protest at U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ Portland office on Thursday. Many of the protesters were with Moral Movement Maine. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

After their conversation with Collins, who ended the call to take another call, group members said she was making an effort, but they remained skeptical that her efforts would be enough to counteract what they consider the negative aspects of the Republican tax bills.

“Bottom line is she’s doing great work . . . but it’s just not enough,” one member can be heard saying on the Facebook video.

During the day, more than a dozen people were crammed into the small waiting room outside the office on the eighth floor of One Canal Plaza, where they had been since 11 a.m. The group had been live-streaming their peaceful sit-in throughout the day, and people responded by sending them pizza and chocolates.

Ewing-Merrill, of HopeGateway, said the group appreciated the senator’s work to block Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Now, they’re calling on her to do the same to the tax bill, which would remove the individual mandate – a move that many fear would unravel the federal health care act.

“We’re here because our faith compels us to be here,” Ewing-Merrill said. “We think this tax bill is immoral and unjust and harmful and we’re here to wait for Sen. Collins to commit to a no vote on this bill.”

‘A MASSIVE REDISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH’

During the afternoon, staff in Collins’ Portland office referred all questions to the senator’s communications director, Annie Clark. She issued a statement in the afternoon.

“Senator Collins meets with thousands of Mainers every year,” Clark said. “She appreciates hearing from her constituents and respects their right to protest.”

Members of the clergy sing while staging a sit-in at the Portland office of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins on Thursday. Visible are Jim Gertmenian of Cumberland, Molly Brewer of Auburn and retired Rabbi Joshua Chasen of Portland. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

Ewing-Merrill said about 25 people circulated through the office throughout the day, with their numbers never dropping below a dozen. The group passed the time praying and singing. At around 4:30 p.m., eight people raised their hands when asked who was willing to stay after the office closed at 5 p.m. and risk being arrested.

The Rev. Jim Gertmenian, a retired United Church of Christ minister who lives in Cumberland, criticized the tax bill as being “a massive redistribution of wealth” that would be dangerous for the country.

“It gives away huge amounts of money to those who need it least and takes money from those who need it most,” he said. “It’s that simple equation that is part of a massive of redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top that we think is dangerous to our democracy and our country, and it’s an affront to God who cares most for the needy.”

The group called on supporters to gather in Canal Plaza at 5 p.m. for a candlelight vigil.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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