BAR HARBOR — The national furor over the death of a Minneapolis man at the hands of police surfaced here this weekend when an anti-police epithet was spray painted on downtown buildings Saturday night and some of the speakers at a Sunday rally criticized police in a way that some felt crossed a line.
“Us and everyone else in the country are going through a really hard time right now,” Police Chief Jim Willis said Monday. “We understand that, we understand that people need to do what they need to do, and we certainly don’t want to discourage any of that. We work hard at building our relationships, and I think it helps get us through troubled times.”
George Floyd of Minneapolis died in police custody last Monday. The four officers who were present were fired from the department and on Friday one was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Indivisible MDI organized a small local vigil Friday. “This week, Americans watched a 10-minute video in which we witnessed police officers murdering Minnesotan George Floyd in broad daylight as he begged them to stop, and onlookers pled with the officer with his knee on Floyd’s neck,” the group said in a statement.
Organizers of both that event and a rally Sunday afternoon said demonstrations of solidarity should be accompanied by meaningful action.
“Although we pride ourselves on caring about these issues, we do very little to make systemic, meaningful change,” said Alex Burnett, a Mount Desert Island High School student who organized the Sunday rally.
The plan for the event came together quickly, he said. “On Saturday, I realized that we needed to show solidarity and be there for Black people and people of color in our community.”
There wasn’t time to line up planned speeches; he put an announcement on social media Saturday saying that the gathering would be held Sunday at 4 p.m. in the Village Green, and that everyone should wear masks.
Meanwhile, Saturday night, the graffiti appeared on the side of a toy store near the police station, and on buildings at the town athletic fields on Main Street. By Monday, it had all already been cleaned and painted over.
“As far as who did it, what I can say it it’s under investigation,” Willis said. Anyone with information related to the incident is encouraged to contact the police department.
Gatherings of more than 50 people are prohibited under the current state rules aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus; Saturday’s rally easily topped that, but almost all participants were wearing masks and made efforts to leave a safe distance between groups.
At the rally, Burnett said, “a couple people volunteered to speak, and after they spoke, I offered the mic to anybody who wanted to.”
Comments from a recent MDI High School graduate who has been living in Portland critical of police sparked some attendees to leave. Other speakers stood up for local police; many others have emailed or called the police department, or left gifts or meals, to express their support, Willis said.
“The graffiti sucks, nobody likes to see that,” resident Bo Greene, who spoke at the rally, told the Islander Monday. “But to focus more on the graffiti than on the murder that we all watched at the hands of someone in blue, I think is a mistake.
“I would jump in front of a train for Dave (Lt. Dave Kerns), and other officers, and I know they would for me,” she continued. “I can appreciate them for everything they do and still challenge them to stand up” and denounce police brutality. “And that’s what I do with the ones that I’m closest with.”
Burnett said the microphone was offered to anyone who wanted to speak.
“A lot of people spoke, most of them white,” he said. “Although I am super grateful for everyone who spoke, it’s necessary that, as white people, we amplify the voices of those who are marginalized. As a community we need to decentralize the white narrative and put our energy into giving power and space to Black people in our community.”
“Every white person has a responsibility to seek out resources to help them understand, recognize, and learn about the racism within themselves and built into the fabric of our society. The resources and materials are there; it is our responsibility to act and learn.
“Read books by black authors,” he continued. “Watch movies by black directors. Support black artists. Do your research and educate yourself, your friends, your family. Talk to your white peers. Redistribute our wealth; instead of buying from Amazon, buy from a black-owned business.
“There is so much we can and must do. Black people have been doing this work since the very beginning. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves on how to take down systemic racism in this country. We do that by learning from, and listening to, black communities.”
Another demonstration is in the planning stages sometime in the next two weeks, Burnett said.
Willis recalled hearing a story from a police chief who had had an officer-involved shooting at his agency many years ago.
“I remember him saying that he had to stand up in front of the community and say, ‘This is going to take your patience and trust, but we’re going to look into it.’
“And he said, ‘The key to the whole thing was when people believed me.’ And it worked out and it diffused the negative energy.
“I think we have that here” on Mount Desert Island, Willis said. “I sure hope we do. If people are feeling otherwise, I’d encourage them to give us a call so we can get together and understand each other and move forward.”