YARMOUTH — My name is Garrett Stewart, I am 50 years old, I live in Yarmouth and I have been a Maine resident my whole life.
Last Wednesday, I went to a town hall meeting in my town to ask Gov. LePage why he keeps making divisive racial comments. I explained to him that when my children and I hear these comments on the news, it is hurtful. He apologized to me, and I thanked him for his apology. I hope he really understood what I was trying to tell him.
My grandparents came to Portland during World War II, when my grandfather was sent to work at the South Portland shipyard. My family planted strong roots in Portland, and you may have met them throughout the years. They are business owners, law enforcement officers, ministers, pro athletes and laborers like you.
In the 1960s while Jim Crow laws were dividing the South, my father, Willie Stewart, was a regular on “The Dave Astor Show,” performing side by side with local white teenagers. At that time, a young black man dancing with a white girl was unheard of, but week after week teenagers in Maine looked forward to seeing him on the show.
Growing up, I encountered racism here and there, but for the most part my family was accepted and well loved. When I was in high school, my father bought a home in Naples and I graduated from Lake Region, where we were the only black family. I’ve worked as a deputy sheriff and as a meter reader; now I am a structural fitter at Bath Iron Works, where I have been for 14 years.
Over the past six years, I have heard comments made by Gov. LePage that have greatly disturbed me. Many of his statements are meant to stereotype and divide. These race-driven and divisive comments have affected my family and me. They have affected my whole community. They make people less safe in their own communities.
African-American Mainers are like everyone else. We work every day. We take care of our families. We have children and grandchildren who watch the news. We deserve the same respect and dignity as everyone else. We are not going to stand for this anymore.
I was at home watching the news when I heard the governor insult U.S. Rep. John Lewis. This was the final straw. I knew I had to do something. Lewis is a civil rights icon who has stood up for his beliefs his whole life. He put his body on the line in the fight for equality. With his comments, Gov. LePage misrepresented history and did a great disservice to our state. Having the leader of our state – and now the president of our country – talk like this has a ripple effect, and I see it more than ever.
Never before in my life have I encountered the level of racism I have in recent years. I have seen people become more bold and direct with their statements. Posts on social media, comments on news reports and everyday looks, remarks and actions have increased my awareness of the effect statements like the governor’s have on our society. I have heard people make disparaging remarks toward me, insinuating that my 14 years working as a structural fitter at BIW, which I am proud of, are just a result of affirmative action and nothing to do with my work ethic.
Using racially divisive language is not a mistake or an accident. Political leaders are intentionally invoking racial fear to divide working people. This is a deliberate strategy. It’s also the oldest strategy in the book. Call it divide and conquer, scapegoating, or what you like. You pit one set of people against another so that a very small elite benefit.
There’s been a clear strategy used by too many pundits and politicians – like our president and governor – to try to convince white folks that “undeserving minorities and immigrants” are getting all the benefits, while they struggle to get by. The reality is most of us are struggling to get by and our economy and our government are increasingly working for those at the very top.
There’s also almost always a link between divisive, racially charged rhetoric and policies that hurt working class people and people of color. When the governor rails against immigrants or asylum seekers, or calls people of color “the enemy,” what usually follows is more tax cuts for the wealthy, underfunded schools, rollbacks of workers’ rights and an effort to kick more people off healthcare. Scapegoating rhetoric that divides us leads to policy that hurts most all of us.
I’m involved with my union, Machinists Local S6. As union members, we know that unity is our power. It’s everyone standing together that makes us strong. We know that an injury to one is an injury to all. When we unite around a common purpose, using our differences as strengths, we can win. We need to figure out this unity among the whole working class and in our broader society so that we can build a state that works for all of us, not just those at the top.
I am glad Gov. LePage listened to me, and I accept his apology. I hope we will see a change in his final two years in office – in his comments and his policy. If he really meant his apology, he will stop making these false and racially divisive comments. Enough is enough.