Several hundred people gathered Thursday evening in a parking lot outside South Portland High School to protest the death of black man in Minneapolis police custody and to call for an end to racism and police brutality.

Fartun Muhammad thanked everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, for demonstrating. She said change won’t come unless people of color can garner support from all Americans in the fight against systemic racism.

“Stay informed, educate yourselves. This is not going to end anytime soon,” Muhammad told the crowd.

Roughly 300 people marched from the high school down Highland Avenue to the police station, chanting “Say His Name, George Floyd.”

Abby Marshall of Bethel joins protesters in Thursday’s demonstration in South Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

After they arrived, South Portland’s new chief of police, Timothy Sheehan, sworn into office in January, asked the crowd to kneel in prayer. He said they should pray that no other acts of police violence involving a black person ever happen again.

Sheehan knelt with the organizers before standing up and giving several a hug. Sheehan said his officers have heard the protesters’ message and are listening.

“Let me tell you, racism doesn’t live here,” Sheehan told the crowd, drawing cheers from the crowd.

Thursday’s rally marked the fifth consecutive day and the sixth in the past week that Mainers have demonstrated in Greater Portland against systemic racism in the United States. Five protests have taken place in downtown Portland, attracting thousands.

Alex Bambile, a rising senior at South Portland High School, raises his fist as Fartun Muhammad speaks to a crowd gathered Thursday for a peaceful march against institutional racism. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Smaller demonstrations have been held in Bath, Brunswick, Gorham and now South Portland. Demonstrations have been held in Waterville and Augusta, and large a protest was held in Lewiston and Auburn on Thursday night.

Protesters have taken to the streets across the country and around the world since a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd, a black man, could be heard telling police he couldn’t breathe. The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder in Floyd’s death. Three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting Floyd’s killing.

Wednesday’s protest in Portland, which drew more than 1,000 people to City Hall plaza and surrounding streets, was by far the most peaceful, but Portland police said three agitators, who refused to disperse after hundreds of others had gone home, were arrested after it ended.

One of those arrested allegedly used rubbing alcohol to set combustible materials ablaze near Franklin and Congress streets around 10 p.m, while a woman was issued a summons for allegedly writing graffiti on the plaza of 100 Middle Street around 11 p.m., said police spokesman Lt. Robert Martin.

Before Wednesday night’s rally, police had arrested a total of 33 individuals for failure to disperse at protests over the past several days. Those arrests came after vandalism to downtown businesses and a few acts of violence broke out.

Student protesters march to the South Portland police station on Thursday night during a peaceful demonstration. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Given the unfortunate and dangerous events of the preceding two evenings, I appreciate the peacefulness of last night’s protest,” Portland Police Chief Frank Clark said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon. “I hope we can move forward, come together and continue to engage with everyone in our community, in order to enhance mutual understanding, respect and trust.”

The event at South Portland High School was organized by high school students, according to Superintendent Ken Kunin. The superintendent, who marched with his students from the high school to the police station and back to the high school, said the demonstration ended peacefully Thursday evening.

“Even with a mask on, and trying to maintain social distance, I admit that I am nervous about being part of a large gathering during a time of COVID-19,” Kunin said in a statement. “As you know from many decisions I have made in the course of this period of remote learning and alternative operations, I have been very averse to taking unnecessary risks, both for others and myself as I approached my 63rd birthday.”

But Kunin said students have made it clear that they are against racism, and they are demanding action be taken by South Portland schools.

“We are proud to stand with students in this peaceful protest,” Kunin said in a statement. “We are also proud that our students have been a peaceful and persistent presence at all recent protests to exercise their First Amendment rights and have their voices heard.”

Nathan Allen of Biddeford wipes tears from his eyes while joining student protesters and others at the South Portland police station on Thursday night. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Our presence is to send a clear and unmistakable message we are anti-racist,” Kunin said, adding that all students, regardless of the color of their skin, deserve the same opportunity to thrive.

The demonstration in South Portland was similar to one held Wednesday evening in Gorham. High school students organized the protest. More than 400 people participated in the Gorham rally, which was peaceful and did not result in any arrests.

“This event was a clear example of how communities can come together to shed light on and to address important issues in a manner that is safe for everyone involved. It demonstrated that we can build trust and use best practices for community engagement,” Gorham Police Chief Christopher Sanborn said in a statement.

Sanborn praised Gorham High School students for working collaboratively with the police to ensure that the demonstration was peaceful, safe and productive.

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