Lelia DeAndrade was in downtown Portland one Friday last summer when Black Lives Matter marchers passed by. People of color were among the crowd, yes, but she was surprised — and heartened — to see they weren’t the only ones demonstrating.

Multi-racial herself, she was well aware that racism existed. She also believed that many white Mainers thought racism hadn’t really been a problem for years.

“For me, I wasn’t sure there was that depth of support. I knew that there was some, but I always suspected I lived in this bubble and I’m privileged to live around people who understand and know,” said DeAndrade, vice president of community impact for the nonprofit Maine Community Foundation.

But watching the march, “I just stood there in tears to see so many people of so many different races chanting ‘Black lives matter!'” she said. “I still get chills thinking about it.”

Lelia DeAndrade, vice president of community impact for the Maine Community Foundation, recalls the impact of a Black Lives Matter march in Portland last summer. “I just stood there in tears to see so many people of so many different races chanting ‘Black lives matter!'” she said. “I still get chills thinking about it.” Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

In a year already besieged by a pandemic and beset by political unrest, the Black Lives Matter movement took Maine, the country and the world by storm: massive demonstrations, attention on police brutality, a renewed focus on racism.

But questions remain: What lessons have we learned? Was there any real progress? What will the future bring for civil rights?

It all makes this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance feel a little different.

“It feels more urgent, it feels more vital, more critical, more necessary,” said Andrew Baker, an assistant history professor at Bates College in Lewiston and co-chairman of the college’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day planning committee. “My hope is that the urgency, the vitality, the necessity of Bates’ MLK Day will be felt by everyone who attends this year, in a particular way. I certainly am already feeling it as I’m watching what’s happening on my television screen. . . I am feeling that urgency like I have never felt before.”

BLACK LIVES MATTER

Black Lives Matter formed in 2013 in response to the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. But it was last spring, after a series of racist, sometimes deadly incidents, that protests grew. The May death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police — video showed an officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes as Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe — catalyzed protests. Millions of people demonstrated across the country, including in Maine.

Andrew Baker, assistant professor of history at Bates College in Lewiston, is co-chairman of the college’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Planning Committee. Given the events of this past year, Baker, above right, said the observance this year “feels more urgent, it feels more vital, more critical, more necessary.” Photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen, Bates College

“Like all those who took to the streets of cities and towns across Maine and all across America last year, I was horrified by the murders of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor and so many other people of color, often at the hands of officers of the law,” Gov. Janet Mills said. “Their devastating deaths further revealed the widening chasm in American society between how people of color and those who are white are perceived and treated, a chasm that is painfully felt and lived every day by people of color in this country and in our state, a chasm that speaks to the long and troubled history of systemic racism in our nation.”

Some experts believe the movement is the largest in American history, larger even than the civil rights protests of the 1960s that made Martin Luther King Jr. famous and ushered in a host of societal changes.

“This last year it was so clear that something needed to be addressed,” said Georges Budagu Makoko, who moved to Maine from the Democratic Republic of Congo 18 years ago and is an author and publisher of Amjambo Africa, a free monthly newspaper focused on new Mainers from Africa.

But addressing systemic racism and police brutality isn’t easy. Makoko tried to hide the news from his 12-year-old son and hesitated to talk with him about it at all — he seemed too young and the topic too horrific.

“What do you tell him? That ‘Just be careful. There are people out there who will attack you just for who you are’?” he said. “I have not found the right way.”

It’s too soon to tell what the country will take away from the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, but there are lessons that people hope have been — or will be — learned: Racism still exists and is dangerous; America has a long way to go in treating all people fairly; racial bias can be both overt and insidious.

Georges Budagu Makoko works in his South Portland office this past summer. He has struggled to talk to his 12-year-old son about racial violence. “What do you tell him? That ‘Just be careful. There are people out there who will attack you just for who you are?'” he said. “I have not found the right way.” Aimable Nduwayezu photo

“The need to listen to one another feels like it has never been more obvious,” said Joel Furrow, executive director of The Root Cellar, a nonprofit that serves Lewiston and Portland neighborhoods that are among Maine’s most diverse.

There have been some early signs of lessons learned.

“I was touched by seeing some policemen apologizing and saying that, ‘Look if these men did that, I hope you don’t believe we are all the same,'” Makoko said.

“You could see they have come to realize this is not right and something needs to be done.”

PROGRESS?

The country saw sweeping changes with the 1960s civil rights movement. Some say that momentum didn’t last.

Steve Wessler, Maine human rights educator, trainer and advocate, sees mixed progress. “We had Barack Obama as president … and other people of color in political offices. So, yeah, there are changes,” he said. “But has racial bias among white people dramatically decreased? I don’t see that.” Submitted photo

“I’m not so sure that it has changed anywhere near as importantly in the years since,” Steve Wessler, a Maine human rights educator, trainer and advocate, said. “That doesn’t mean there haven’t been changes. We had Barack Obama as president . . . and other people of color in political offices. So, yeah, there are changes. But has racial bias among white people dramatically decreased? I don’t see that.”

Has the Black Lives Matter movement sparked new progress? Will it?

Furrow sees progress, at least locally, as people at The Root Cellar work together.

“You learn their name, you learn their story,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to dislike that person or come up with an idea about that entire group, one group or another, when you have a name and you have a story to go with that name and there’s a level of understanding and there’s a relationship.”

Joel Furrow, executive director of The Root Cellar, stands with staff members, volunteers and students. Furrow sees progress when real connections are made between people. “You learn their name, you learn their story,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to dislike that person or come up with an idea about that entire group, one group or another, when you have a name and you have a story to go with that name.” Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Safiya Khalid became the first Somali American to be elected to the Lewiston City Council. “We still have a long ways to go, even after all these centuries, for racial equality,” she said. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

On a wider scale, Baker, at Bates, sees progress in the fact people are having deeper conversations about racism. For him, that recognition equals progress.

“But what we have not yet seen, in any sort of mass way, is policy change,” he said.

Safiya Khalid, Lewiston’s first Somali American city councilor, has seen progress, at least in the last election.

“I think progress has been made in terms of voting (Donald) Trump and his divisive, hateful rhetoric out of office,” she said. “We still have a long ways to go, even after all these centuries, for racial equality.”

DeAndrade saw hope in the diversity of Black Lives Matter marchers last summer. But she also has concerns, and those concerns have only grown in recent months.

Donna Loring, Penobscot Nation tribal elder, says achieving equality for the descendants of Maine’s first residents has a long way to go. “Sovereignty is key to the healing of this embroiled nation. We must strengthen our roots by recognizing sovereign rights. Other rights will follow and this country can move forward with all its citizens.” Submitted photo

“The problem is the way racism and civil rights violations work, they’re slippery. There were poll taxes and there were standards for what people needed to do to be able to vote that excluded BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) people,” she said. “But now we have rejection of voting outcomes and we have people being forced to stand in lines for hours and hours, having their ability to vote rejected. It’s not the same and it’s not as overt and labeled in racial ways as it was before, but the same kind of thing is happening.”

THE FUTURE

So what will the future bring for civil rights?

“Nobody knows,” Makoko said. “But I believe in work effort, of changing things when they need to be changed. I really believe that. And I think America has the social and economic capacity to do that.”

Donna Loring, a Penobscot Nation tribal elder, knows what she’d like the future to be.

“Sovereign rights of our First Nations were trampled and destroyed. The very roots of our democracy are rotten and weak,” she said. “Sovereignty is key to the healing of this embroiled nation. We must strengthen our roots by recognizing sovereign rights. Other rights will follow and this country can move forward with all its citizens.”

Others see reasons to hope — in a new presidential administration, in more people of color filling leadership roles both in Maine and nationally, in a younger generation just coming of age.

“The energy among youth from what I can see is phenomenal,” Wessler said.

DeAndrade has her own hopes.

“Despite how horrible things have been, I am kind of hopeful that how bad things have been might help us move in more productive ways in the future,” she said. “It was a year of revelation, and so hopefully having so many things revealed will help us move. At the very least, many, many people aren’t living in the dark cloud that they used to.”


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