A crowd of about 1,000 people poured into the streets, sidewalks and the plaza in front of Portland City Hall Wednesday afternoon to demand an end to institutional racism and police brutality.

It was the fourth consecutive night and the fifth day in the past six that protesters flooded the streets of Maine’s largest city to march and chant “black lives matter,” “hands up, don’t shoot,”  “I can’t breathe;” to kneel together on the pavement; and to prostrate themselves with their hands clasped behind their backs.

The powerful gestures and words resounded around the city and nation as millions of protesters took to the streets after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with second-degree murder, kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes while Floyd, a black man, could be heard telling police that he couldn’t breathe.

More than 9,000 people have been arrested in connection with the unrest, and at least 12 deaths have been reported, though the circumstances in many cases are still being sorted out, The Associated Press reported.

Protest organizer Hamdia Ahmed speaks to the crowd at Portland City Hall on Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Hamdia Ahmed, who helped organize Wednesday’s peaceful demonstration, was joined by several city officials including Mayor Kate Snyder, City Councilor Jill Duson, School Superintendent Xavier Botana and Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts. They took a knee together and urged the crowd of protesters, who were mostly dressed in black clothing and wore masks, to fight against institutional racism.

Ahmed, a refugee and activist, told the crowd that when she came to the United States as a child people told her it was the greatest nation in the world. Instead, she said, people of color fear the police and know the constant presence of institutional racism.

“Living in that kind of fear is not living at all. I want black people to be treated like human beings,” she said.

Ahmed said no person of color should be terrified if they are pulled over, while driving, by a police officer, but she said she has had to coach others on what they should say and how they should act if stopped by police.

“I want every black child … to be safe, to live without trauma and to live like human beings with dignity and respect,” she said to cheers.

Wednesday’s rally at City Hall was promoted as a peaceful protest following massive demonstrations Monday and Tuesday that moved through the city’s downtown and ended in clashes with police and a total of 33 arrests.

The crowd at Wednesday’s protest spread across City Hall Plaza and Congress Street, and down Exchange Street. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Ahmed and other organizers were joined on the steps of City Hall by Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and members of the City Council.

Botana told the crowd that our country is reluctant to address the issue that we are a racist nation at our core. “I am profoundly ashamed that twice as many black children in our schools are disciplined as white children,” Botana said.

The protest formally ended shortly after 6 p.m., although crowds lingered in the downtown area and it was not immediately clear if other demonstrations would form.

Wednesday’s protest was much different from demonstrations on Monday and Tuesday, and Ahmed condemned the recent violence by people the police have labeled agitators.

“This is just a small group of people. They do not represent the movement,” Ahmed told the protesters. Ahmed and another activist, Ali Ali, issued a statement on Ahmed’s Facebook page Wednesday that explained their intentions.

“We are responding to the systemic oppression of black people in this country. It’s not about police officers or police departments. This is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed,” their statement said. “We want the people in positions of power to create laws in support of those who they are governing. We want you, as in America, to fix the issues you’ve caused in the past and recent years. Systemic oppression is real and the protests are just responding to the oppression.”

Law enforcement officials joined the crowd at Wednesday’s demonstration. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The protests on Monday and Tuesday in Portland did not go as smoothly. A crowd of more than 1,000 protesting police violence against people of color marched through Portland Tuesday evening.

Activist Devin Moore of Bath helped organized Tuesday’s protest and was among the leaders who urged protesters to go home. Moore told News Center Maine that Tuesday’s protest was supposed to end peacefully.

“It just kills me when the violence drowns out the message,” Moore told News Center Maine. “It’s not a fight against the police, it’s a fight against racism.”

“We’re here to be unified, we’re here to bring peace to all of us, it’s our home,” Moore said.

After Tuesday’s protest was called to an end in Congress Square by organizers around 9 p.m., a smaller group of people returned to the police station and “almost immediately began engaging in unlawful behavior,” police said Wednesday morning.

Police arrested 10 people late Tuesday after fights broke out between peaceful protesters and agitators, the department said Wednesday.

Protesters cheer a speaker at Wednesday’s rally at Portland City Hall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Just after 10:15 p.m. someone in the group began setting off fireworks, which created an initial panic and some of the protesters began scattering. At this time a dispersal order was given to the group as officers and police headquarters were pelted with rocks, bottles, bricks and fireworks,” Lt. Robert Martin said in a news release.

At 10:42 p.m., officers fired pepper balls – projectiles that contain pepper spray and burst on impact – at people who were throwing objects at police. Five minutes later, police began to make arrests.

Martin said police issued multiple dispersal orders and attempted to meet with and seek compliance through the remaining group leaders.

Police arrested 10 people for failure to disperse, a misdemeanor. They were all taken to Cumberland County Jail and released on bail.

“The organizers of this protest engaged with us in organizing and implementing a meaningful and lawful protest in support of sending their message to the community,” Chief Frank Clark said in a statement Wednesday. “We appreciated those efforts and are disappointed with how the criminal behavior of the few has the capacity to drown out that message. We remain committed to maintaining open lines of communication and meaningful dialogue, which is more likely to result in mutual understanding and respect.”

A similar protest drew 1,000 demonstrators Monday night, and 23 were arrested when protesters clashed with police.

Police said Monday’s demonstration also resulted in damage to some Old Port businesses, including several that had windows broken. Many properties were defaced with graffiti and four businesses were burglarized, including Old Port Wine and Urban Outfitters, police said.

Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this story.

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