State of Maine: There’s work to do in our own communities 



On we stagger, wondering what will become of us as the reopening plan for the hospitality industry goes from Keep ME Healthy to Keep ME Guessing to Driving ME Crazy. But just as many were feeling all is lost, the tourists began to find us.   

It is nothing like a normal season, but almost overnight something changed. There are people on the streets lapping ice cream cones, babies cooing in strollers, kids running in circles screaming wherever there is grass, and teenaged posses on the hunt.  

In a few weeks we will know whether Governor Janet Mills’ slow, step-wise reopening was too much, too soon or just right. No matter what she did, someone was bound to be unhappy. Some business owners wanted to fling wide the doors while others supported a slower approach. Some gave lip service to safety precautions, displaying “No mask, no service” signs at their doors but permitting both customers and staff to remain mask-less. Most were working diligently to be sure that the customers they had stayed healthy. 

The Catch-22 for anyone responsible for public health decisions is thatwith luck, all the effort goes unheralded. If a governor gets it right and the result is a very low caseload, plenty of armchair quarterbacks will be saying, “See? We knew it wasn’t a problem!” Failure to exercise enough control is manifest in sickness and death. Then it’s oops, maybe she was right.  

After months of 24/7 coronavirus coverage, horrifying video of a black man being murdered by a police officer shifted the national attention to racial injustice. It is long overdue. Huge protests flooded the streets of every major city, and the names and stories of so many other victims of police brutality were no longer possible to ignore. 

Though it may seem largely an urban issue, rural areas are by no means free of social injustice. In a state like Maine with a largely white population, racial inequity might seem like something that happens somewhere else, but we are quickly learning that is not the case. 

In Hancock County, as in most areas of Maine, people mobilized in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, coming together publicly to express their opinions and advocate for change. We didn’t always like what we heard. In rural Maine, where it is easy to believe that “we’re not like that,” it turns out that sometimes we are. 

Personal stories of everything from discourtesy to hostility to humiliation made it clear that we have some work to do in our own communities. Police and sheriffs in our small towns are generally known to us, maybe even related to us, and not people we see as threatening. Many communities are wondering whether that holds true for newer Mainers. 

 

In the early ‘90s, “community policing” was implemented as an effort to develop better relations between police officers and the communities they serve. Emphasis was placed on police being on the streets, participating in athletics and going into the schools to develop personal relationships with local youth. Remember Officer Friendly? Now many are arguing that that is not the right answer, or at least not the whole answer.   

It is disingenuous to suggest that the shortcomings of our system of law enforcement are the fault of the police. We ask our police departments to intervene not only in criminal behavior but also in a host of societal ills that may or may not involve lawbreaking. The police are who we call when anything – anything -happens in our community that we do not like. 

Noisy neighbors, errant animals, wallets lost and found, disappearing bicycles, dead deer, footloose groundhogs, a person who “seemed strange,” someone sleeping in a car – call the police. 

A conversation is emerging about diverting policing resources to other social services and activities. It is a conversation worth having. This is not a call to “defund” the police, but rather to consider whether we are deploying the resources we have in the best possible way for the good of the community. We are fortunate that in many of our towns the police will be willing partners. 

Lack of funds is often an argument against better programming, yet every social challenge seems to develop its own marketplace overnight. With coronavirus, it is everything from the multi-billiondollar race to develop a vaccine to high-fashion masks, herbal therapies and colloidal silver. The cause of racial injustice was quick to develop “protest gear,” T-shirts, video games and this actual online ad: “Check out our racial injustice selection for the very best in unique or custom, handmade pieces from our clothing shops.”   

Before you start shopping for racial injustice apparel, think about spending those dollars on finding a way to bring full and fair equity to every person in Maine.  

 

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Retired nurse and former independent Maine State Senator.

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