The pews were filled and people gathered in the street outside Green Memorial AME Zion Church in Portland on Tuesday evening to make a “commitment to peace” in the wake of last week’s police-involved shootings in Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas.
About 275 people attended the hourlong event organized by city leaders and hosted by the Rev. Kenneth Lewis, pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal congregation at 46 Sheridan St., in the city’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood.
“We gather together on this occasion to make a commitment to peace,” Lewis said in his welcoming remarks.
Sheridan Street was closed between Congress and Monument streets and staffed by police officers. Attendants inside the church fanned themselves in the close midsummer heat, while those outside watched the proceedings on a wide-screen TV set up on the sidewalk. The gathering was punctuated with occasional organ music, applause and audience members voicing their agreement.
Police Chief Mike Sauschuck spoke first, thanking community members for their strength and compassion, and recognizing those in attendance for their commitment “to be part of the solution.”
Sauschuck said he had far more questions than answers after last week’s shootings by police of a black man in Louisiana and another in Minnesota, and the ambush killings of five Dallas officers during a Black Lives Matter protest that followed, but that he and his department remain committed “to justice for all.”
“Know that we’re here for you, we’re here with you,” Sauschuck said, adding that he believes hope will triumph over hate and fear.
Sauschuck said he sees reason to hope because Portland’s leaders have already established strong relationships and pathways to change.
“When I see riots and out-of-control behavior across the country, I don’t see that here in our backyard,” he said. Still, there’s more work to do.
“We’ve got a long way to go as a society,” Sauschuck said. “As a department, I pledge to you that we’re going to continue to work forward. We need to do better. We need to mirror our community better. I need to have more officers of color at the Portland Police Department. That needs to happen. We’re not where we need to be today in 2016.”
Sauschuck said he can commit to the work, but he needs the community to make a similar effort.
“We can’t do anything by ourselves. I truly need you to work with us in partnership, hand in hand, as we move forward as a community,” he said. “It takes two to tango and I’m here to dance.”
LIVING BY THE RULE OF LAW
Danielle Conway, dean of the University of Maine School of Law, spoke of the need to meet last week’s injustice with justice, and to revitalize faith in democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law.
“I can be homeless and I am a man. I can be on food stamps and I am a mother,” Conway said. “It does not matter who we are if we are lawless. It does not matter how much we have if we do not bind ourselves to that thread called the rule of law and defend our way of life, our Constitution, our democracy, our humanity.”
City Councilor Jill Duson told the story of Zach Walker, a black man who was burned alive in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, in 1911, after he was accused of killing a white steel mill cop. A mob dragged him from the hospital and burned him to death in a field on the outskirts of town in front of thousands of witnesses. No one tried to stop it. No one was ever convicted of the crime.
“The story of Zach Walker is well known to my family. Zach Walker was my grandfather’s uncle,” Duson said. “I share our family story because I believe we have indeed come a long way. And unlike the citizens of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, we are not simply going to look on. Our community gathers to commit itself to act for peace, to act for love and hope, and to act for justice, and to join the struggle for justice.”
YOUNG PEOPLE CALL FOR PEACE
David Thete, 17, a 2016 graduate of Cheverus High School, represented the local youth group Kesho Wazo, which means “Tomorrow’s Ideas” in Swahili. He’s taking a gap year to do service work in Brazil. Thete spoke of the need to recognize that young people are committed to truth, justice and peace.
Halima Noor, 18, a 2016 graduate of Deering High School, represented the Martin Luther King Jr. Fellows. She’ll be attending the University of Southern Maine in the fall. She began her talk with a verse from the Koran.
“He who kills one man, it’s like he has killed all of human kind,” Noor said. “The deaths of a few affect everyone. It hurts when we see our fellow human beings being oppressed and their rights infringed on. It’s nothing we ever want to see because we could be next.”
Noor said people must work together to love and understand one another.
“We need to be there for each other and be one,” Noor said. “That’s what I thought America was when I first came here. For the last week I didn’t see that, but today I did. I see it right now. People of different colors, faiths, everything together in one room so we could acknowledge our hurt, our anger, and figure out ways to do better.”
A statement was read from Mayor Ethan Strimling, who was unable to attend.
“Here in Portland, we must stand together now more than ever. We must support and maintain our trust in each other, as well as understand and emphasize the worth and dignity of every single resident of our community regardless of race, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status,” Strimling said. “The key to turning tragedy into productive progress is that we must channel that energy towards our shared and common goal: a safe, just and peaceful community.”
‘DISCOMFORT’ DEMANDS ACTION
Rev. Lewis concluded with a call to revitalize the decades-old movement toward equality and justice.
“The truth is that all lives do matter,” Lewis said. “But to create a level of discomfort, to make one think and consider their stance, sometimes friction is required. You see, it’s easy to be comfortable and to say ‘Not in my backyard,’ but it is a lie to think that what happened outside of this state has no impact on this state. Of course there’s an impact.”
Lewis recalled the city’s motto, Resurgam, which is Latin for “I will rise again.”
“Will it take another death to make you rise again?” Lewis asked rhetorically. “Will it take another officer being gunned down for us to rise again? Will it take another black man to die for us to rise again?
“What’s gonna make us uncomfortable enough to have the dialog and the conversation and the actions required to ensure that we have a beloved community, that we would move closer to that more perfect union?”