At least 200 people demonstrated at the University of Southern Maine campus Thursday night in opposition to a lecture on immigration by Rep. Lawrence Lockman, a Republican lawmaker known for making divisive and polarizing statements.
The crowd held banners and signs that said “Resist Hate.” In the lobby of the Abromson Community Center, just outside the lecture hall where Lockman was making his remarks during a talk titled “Alien Invasion: Fixing the Immigration Crisis,” protesters chanted “no hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here.”
During his remarks, Lockman argued that refugees coming into Maine are using public benefits that should be available only for citizens and, in some cases, refugees are threatening American lives.
Lockman’s lecture was aimed at supporting a bill he has sponsored in the Maine Legislature, L.D. 366, that would require state and local governments to comply with federal immigration law and withhold state funding from cities that provide a haven for illegal immigrants.
“We know that the federal vetting process is badly broken and lets terrorists slip through the cracks,” he said.
Kristen Cates, a first-year student at USM who attended the protest, hadn’t heard of Lockman before his talk was announced, and doesn’t like what she’s learned since then.
“I think he is just spreading hate and destigmatizing really important issues like rape culture and racism and xenophobia,” Cates said. “It is not fair that he can just come to our college campus and spread hate like this.”
Activists had urged USM to block Lockman from speaking and warned that the “dangerous viewpoints” of Lockman and Young Americans for Freedom, a small campus group that invited him to talk, had the potential to incite violence against people in the USM community.
USM President Glenn Cummings said the university would not allow violence, and would ensure that Lockman had the opportunity to speak in a safe environment.
The university initially told Ben Bussiere, chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom, that the group would have to pay to hire additional security guards or police for the event, but later said the university would shoulder the cost of security. There were at least five police officers at the lecture. Last year Bussiere and another student resigned from the Student Senate after they were criticized for how they handled anti-Muslim graffiti found in the student government offices.
Protest organizers from the Portland Racial Justice Congress asked demonstrators to adhere to a media blackout and said they would release a statement Friday. The group has organized other demonstrations in response to the police killings of unarmed black men, including a July protest in Portland during which 18 demonstrators were arrested for blocking traffic on Commercial Street. Organizers at the USM protest declined to give their names, but said none of the people who were arrested in July attended Thursday’s demonstration and that the opposition to Lockman’s lecture was intended to be peaceful and not lead to arrests.
“As we face the rise of fascism and white nationalism, which now has a seat in the White House, we intend to build a bigger and bolder resistance,” the Portland Racial Justice Congress said in a statement posted on Facebook.
“We are among millions of people across the United States and world who are taking to the streets and putting our bodies on the line to defend ourselves and our communities against a multi-pronged assault. We assert our dignity and right to movement, assembly, and freedom, and we know that no bans or walls can stop this groundswell. Now more than ever, it is vital to proudly declare that black lives matter and we are not backing down.”
BILL LIMITS NEWCOMERS’ BENEFITS
The Thursday event coincided with the Day Without Immigrants protest, a national strike by immigrant workers and business owners that shut down stores and restaurants across the U.S.
About 100 people sat in the lecture hall for Lockman’s talk, divided evenly between those who agreed with his views and opponents.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine opposes Lockman’s bill, saying it capitalizes on anti-immigrant fervor and “amounts to racial profiling by singling out people perceived to be ‘foreign’ for different treatment.”
As evidence of his belief that some refugees are threatening American lives, Lockman cited a case in which two men allegedly came to Maine “posing as refugees” and later joined radical Islamic groups in the Middle East. It was lucky the men joined overseas groups rather than stealing a truck and mowing down pedestrians on Congress Street, Lockman said.
Lockman didn’t name the men, but he could have been referring to Adnan Fazeli, an Iranian refugee who became radicalized while living in Maine and died fighting for the Islamic State in Lebanon.
SHOUTS AND INSULTS IN CROWD
Lockman also said that the state and country needed to toughen up on illegal immigration to prevent murders like the case of Freddy Akoa. Three men, Abil Teshome, Osman Sheikh and Mohamud Mohamed, were charged with killing Akoa in 2015. Prosecutors still don’t know the immigration status of the three men, Lockman said, but all had prior criminal convictions.
“These guys should have been deported long before they beat Freddy Akoa to death,” Lockman said, to applause from the crowd.
Lockman said his legislation is a “common-sense measure” and he is surprised at the controversy it is generating.
“This isn’t complicated for me, as far as I am concerned we need to get our priorities in order,” he said. “We cannot afford to offer public assistance to anyone who is not a U.S. citizen.”
Lockman’s remarks were met with jeers from some in the crowd, and applause and cheers from others. Tension mounted during the question-and-answer session, with opposing sides trading taunts and insults, and shouting at each other to remain quiet. Arguments continued after the lecture, but some people introduced themselves and struck up conversations with opponents.
Bussiere repeatedly reminded the crowd to stay civil and at one point interrupted a questioner and shouted at him to sit down.
Speaking to Lockman, Margaret Schoeller said men like Fazeli who become Islamic radicals are radicalized online in the U.S., partially because of exposure to the type of charged rhetoric he uses.
“You are part of the reason violence is happening,” she said. Another questioner asked Lockman why he was so focused on immigration in the Portland area instead of pursuing economic development to help impoverished families in his own district in eastern Maine.
Others, however, said they supported Lockman’s approach and were sick of seeing public funds go to able-bodied adults.
In an interview after the lecture, Bussiere said he thought it went well, but he could have controlled the crowd better. His group wants to expose students to different viewpoints, he added.
“In the classroom, it is hard to get both sides of the story,” Bussiere said. “Students hear what their professor says, and they take that as truth.”
Lockman has been a lightning rod for controversy. In 2014, he apologized for denigrating comments he made about gays, rape and abortion in the 1980s and 1990s, including the charge that progressives worsened the AIDS epidemic by “assuring that the practice of sodomy is a legitimate alternative lifestyle, rather than a perverted and depraved crime against humanity.”
In 2015, Lockman called Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin an “anti-Christian bigot” in a Facebook post and last year a conservative group Lockman is president of was fined by the state ethics commission for not disclosing a political flier that targeted state Senate candidate Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan with charges his polices allowed Islamic State terrorists to receive welfare benefits in Maine and described Portland as an “ISIS incubator” and haven for Islamic terrorists.
Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: