A group of residents charged with rooting out systemic racism in Maine’s largest city held its first meeting Monday, choosing its leaders and beginning to chart a course forward.

Although the inaugural meeting was largely organizational in nature, it was significant for at least one member, given the fact that Maine is one of the whitest states in the nation.

Deborah Ibonwa, an attorney and policy advocate for Maine Equal Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income Mainers, said she was brought to Portland 20 years ago as a refugee and is now a naturalized citizen. She was moved by the fact there were other people of color willing to work on issues of inequity and racial injustice.

“It’s always good to see other people of color in Maine that I didn’t know existed,” Ibonwa said. “My heart is full right now.”

The council formed the Racial Equity Steering Committee in July and appointed its 13 members earlier this month to examine the expanding role of policing in Portland and recommend changes to any policies that have a disproportionate affect on communities of color.

The group, whose members were appointed by Mayor Kate Snyder, decided to meet on a weekly basis for about 90 minutes in order to deliver its policy review and recommendations to the City Council by late January.

“I’m invested in this work and I’m eager for Jan. 22 when we receive your recommendations and I am grateful for you all,” Snyder said at the beginning of the meeting. 

The council voted to form the steering committee less than two months after George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man, was killed on May 25 after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Other officers failed to intervene, despite Floyd saying several times, “I can’t breathe.”

The incident sparked protests against police brutality and racial injustice around the country, including here in Portland, that continued throughout the summer and into the early fall, as other instances of racial injustice were captured on video.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Portland and throughout the country after Floyd’s killing to protest police brutality and systemic racism, which produces poorer outcomes for Black people in areas like health, education, housing, criminal justice and more.

Protests on June 1 and 2 in Portland were largely peaceful, but became confrontational later in the night. Police, including officers from Portland, Maine State Police, country sheriffs and surrounding police departments, emerged in riot gear and fired pepper spray after protesters threw bottles at them. More than two dozen people were arrested for failing to disperse, but the district attorney declined to file charges.

Councilors have included $75,000 in funding for the equity committee and an independent review of the police response to the protests in the current budget. The council also approved $7,800 in stipends, which amounts to about $600 per member. It’s the only volunteer board that receives a stipend in the city, which councilors said reflected the difficult and emotional work they were undertaking.

The equity committee is charged with drafting a mission statement “regarding institutional racism and structural inequities” and to make recommendations to address and respond to systems, policies and procedures that perpetuate it.

The resolution charges members to examine the role of police in city life, and more broadly, to evaluate what structures and policies disproportionately affect Black people and people of color, and recommend changes to those structures to improve the lives of minority community members, improve community relationships and root out systemic racism.

The work comes as data has shown that Black people are arrested in Portland at twice their proportion of the population. Black people comprise 8.3 percent of the city’s population, but accounted for 16.9 percent of the arrests in 2019, according to the department’s data. That mirrors trends nationwide.

The coronavirus pandemic is also having a disproportionate affect on Black people. As of June, Maine had the highest racial disparity among COVID-19 cases in the entire nation, with Black communities contracting the disease at a rate more than 20 times of white residents.

The members of the equity committee are Abdul (Ali) Ali, At-Large City Councilor Pious Ali, Leila Deandrade, Kate Knox, Merita McKenzie, Peter O’Donnell, Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck, Niky Dwin Watler Amaris, Lado Lodoka, Suheir Alaskari, Deborah Ibonwa, Jerome Bennett and Louis Pickens.

Councilor Ali and Deandrade were selected as co-chairs of the committee.

During the next meeting, the committee will discuss hiring a facilitator and identifying subtopics under its three main charges: examine the role of and resources dedicated to policing in Portland; reviewing how the city interacts with other community groups to enhance public safety; and recommending changes to policies, structures and procedures that disproportionately affected people of color with the specific aim of “improving community relations, establishing mutual trust and respect, and rooting out systemic racism.”

The formation of the committee was criticized by some activists, who instead wanted councilors to simply adopt issues promoted by Black Lives Matter Portland, including defunding the police and firing City Manager Jon Jennings. But the 13 members of the committee, which includes three white people, made it clear that they appreciated the opportunity to delve into issues of systemic racism.

Merita McKenzie, who was born in Portland, attended city schools and does equity work at Lyseth Elementary School, said she was grateful for the opportunity. She hoped that her experience in the schools would aid the committee’s efforts in identifying ways to make public safety policies and procedures more equitable.

“I hope that I can bring a positive light to some of the issues that are so difficult,” McKenzie said. “This is the right time to have this committee and do the work that needs to be done.”

Jerome Bennett, who has lived in Portland for 10 out of his 15 years in Maine, said he’s been working on systemic changes in public health, criminal justice and education for about eight years.

“I’m glad I’m able to support the work of this committee and I appreciate the leadership the city of Portland has taken in our state,” Bennett said. 

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