Leaders of the Portland Police Department say a June 1 anti-racism demonstration sparked by the death of George Floyd was unprecedented in size and violence, forcing police officials that night into a crisis management mindset for which they were not fully prepared.

Chief Frank Clark, Cmdr. James Sweatt and Maj. Heath Gorham walked city councilors through an extensive, moment-by-moment dissection of the demonstration and used video from officers’ body cameras, surveillance tapes, still photos and audio from emergency dispatchers to show how police responded to the protest, which lasted more than five hours, resulted in 23 arrests and drew dozens of officers from 18 surrounding communities to assist.

“Although it was in a crisis mode that night, the following night we had plans in place for when we were going to deploy certain forces,” said Sweatt. “We did sort of tabletop exercises on that. Our partners have been very helpful. The state police have come down to help us build plans, and also to help (teach us to) build our own.”

Police repeatedly emphasized that many of the demonstrators that evening assembled peacefully and left the area when told to do so, and that it appeared to be a smaller element in the crowd that desired conflict, and said there had been no official complaints about police conduct.

 

But city councilors appeared divided on whether to pursue an outside, independent investigation of the police actions that night, in line with a previous request by two councilors. After nearly five hours of discussion, Councilor Justin Costa told colleagues that he did not want to lose sight of the need to address the fundamental distrust, outrage and pain that roiled the nation and Portland after Floyd’s death. Costa said he feared an investigation into one night would cloud the bigger picture of what brought demonstrators out: a growing sense that the systems of American society, justice and policing are not working for all citizens equally.

“We all saw with our own eyes, we all saw someone be murdered,” Costa said about Floyd. “And we all in 2020 continue to wonder how this continues to happen. Our preliminary data shows that we (in Maine) are not immune to the systemic biases that affect the country at large. What is it? What changed somewhere in the past several decades, where everyone agreed that we have a system that doesn’t make a lot of sense?”

Some councilors, including At-Large Councilor Pious Ali, said he suggested an outside review because he knows that the people in minority communities who do not trust government in general would not be likely to participate in a council-led process.

Councilor Tae Chong said he saw the June 1 demonstration as a boiling point that lacks a process that directly involves demonstrators and organizers.

Fellow protesters try to help Nathan Allen after he was pepper-sprayed in the face during the June 1 protest, which started peacefully but became violent as police in riot gear tried to disperse the crowd at the intersection of Franklin and Middle streets. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“The message is clear,”Chong said. “People want to be heard. Even if the outcome is the same, I think its still important to go through the process and have the report and the transparency.”

At least one demonstrator who was present that night said the situation was chaotic and confrontational, but police needed to do better at ratcheting down the tension.

Nathan Allen, 36, of Limerick said he attended the demonstration. He said he saw a 17-year-girl near the front of the police line in some sort of scuffle with an officer – Allen said the officer pushed someone – and when he intervened to help, an officer shot pepper spray into his face without warning.

Allen, who is Black, said the demonstration felt like a unified moment against the police. A lot of people came with “their chest up,” he said, and the tension was thick. While on the demonstration line, Allen said, some officers engaged with him, while others refused to meet his gaze or respond.

“They were ready for war,” Allen said. “I was talking to them. Some of them were really nice. But some of them were horrible. Some of them listened and some of them didn’t.”

The riot gear worn by some officers felt like a provocation, too, Allen said, as if the equipment communicated that police wanted conflict. Allen said he believes that communication will be crucial to have any chance at unpacking the resentment that has built up over decades.

“It starts within,” he said. “You want us to do better? What are you going to bring to the table? Show a little compassion.” He added later: “I know not all cops are bad. But unfortunately I don’t know which ones that is. I don’t know if a cop is going to pull me over at night for a legitimate reason. I don’t know if a cop is going to pull me over and pull me out of the car and put a bullet in me. I don’t know that.”

Protestors stand near a line of police in riot gear on Franklin Street in Portland early on June 2. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Police are still completing their reviews of what occurred at the demonstration, and what changes may emerge from the experience are still up for debate.

But Clark said he is already considering writing a standalone crowd-control policy to address how officers should respond in similar situations in the future, and has already modified orders department-wide so officers communicate clearly that demonstrators who fail to leave after they’re ordered to do so will face arrest. Clark said the extensive amount of mutual aid by surrounding departments also demonstrated a need to more closely coordinate with them.

Police showed dramatic, intense videos in which officers were swarmed by demonstrators who pounded on cruiser windows; other clips show a shower of water bottles and other items pelting officers – police said some bottles lobbed at officers contained urine. One clip showed demonstrators smashing the glass door of an Old Port business before jumping through to steal items inside.

Police estimate that 2,500 people turned out to protest, according to the report, a number much larger than estimates at the time. Several business were burglarized and other were damaged.

Police used large, “fogger”-style canisters of pepper spray and air-powered pepper ball guns, similar to paint ball guns, to disperse the crowd, and dozens of officers were clad in riot gear and positioned in a line across Franklin Street next to police headquarters at 109 Middle St.

Portland police used overtime to deploy more than two dozen officers on duty that evening to close roads, deal with traffic and maintain demonstrator safety, but by the evening’s end, police from 18 other departments were called to assist, the city said.

A man is arrested behind a line of police in riot gear along Franklin Street in Portland near the end of the protest that drew an estimated 2,500 people on June 1. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The report says police had no advance communication with the demonstration organizers, which hampered the ability of police to respond to the changing situation. Around the country, demonstrations and protests against police violence emerged after Floyd’s death on Memorial Day in Minneapolis while in police custody.

“The June 1st protest was unprecedented in terms of its lack of advance communication, size, actions toward police, violence, failure to adhere to calls for dispersal, looting and other criminal acts,” the report says. “Because of the lack of advance communication between police and protest organizers the department was left to monitor social media to gauge how large this protest would be, what area it would cover, and whether or not its intent was peaceful.”

Floyd’s death has become a watershed moment in the Movement for Black Lives, which formed after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and has since solidified across the country and the world. Activists say the relentless demonstrations since May are unique in the number of white allies who have turned out to support Black, indigenous and people of color who are demanding a broad renegotiation of how state and local governments allocate resources and police minority communities.

The report lays out a timeline of events that night. About 500 demonstrators gathered around 7 p.m. at the corner of India and Commercial streets. By 8:30 p.m., officers took a knee in solidarity.

“While the crowd cheered briefly, many then became increasingly agitated,” the city wrote. “Protest leaders encouraged the group to show respect many times.”

The crowd grew and split into groups that moved around the city and stopped at police headquarters, City Hall, near the Central Fire Station, Commercial Street and Franklin Street. By 9 p.m., two groups, totaling about 1,000 people, converged in front of the police station.

“Protesters became increasingly violent after this point,” the report said. Police officers on foot were “impeded,” the report said. Demonstrators surrounded or blocked police cruisers, pounding on windows.

At 9:15 p.m., organizers advised the group to go home, and about half of the people on the street left the area, leaving about 500 near the police station.

Before 9:30 p.m., a semi-truck drove through the crowd eastbound on Middle Street toward the group, generating confusion among the crowd, the city wrote. An officer posted at Pearl and Middle streets was surrounded by protesters when the truck approached the area, the report said.

Police say officers near Franklin and Middle attempted to disengage with protesters, but the crowd continued to follow and engage with them. The report also for the first time describes burglaries at four Old Port business as “looting,” which is not a term used in Maine statutes, except in one obscure, unrelated law address archaeological sites.

“At the same time, as looting was observed near the group at Pearl and Middle, a Lieutenant gave the first order to disperse, and many in that group slowly left,” the report said.

In a previous statement released June 2, police did not use to term “looting,” but instead described conduct that night in terms of statutes that police enforce under Maine law.

The police in the earlier statement listed four burglarized businesses, and 29 businesses that sustained broken windows, graffiti or other property damage.

Police said the remaining group of about 100 to 200 people who congregated at the intersection of Middle and Franklin around 10 p.m. were looking for confrontation, and it was around that time that dispatchers received reports of burglaries in various businesses. Protesters were directing chants at officers, the report said, and tensions increased.

“A Lieutenant initially advises officers to let the protesters yell and not to engage, however following a barrage of bottles being thrown, an order to disperse is issued,” the report said.

“Protesters continue to throw bottles and officers and civilians urge people to go home. At this point, one burst of pepper spray is delivered via a fogger. While some begin to disperse, others continue to throw bottles. Another official dispersal warning is given. Throughout this, there are many attempts by protest leaders and peaceful protesters to stop the violence and urge protesters to go home as well as additional orders by police to disperse.”

By 10:20 p.m., police made the first two arrests. The crowd reacted by throwing bottles and rocks, and setting off “several volleys of fireworks,” the report said. The fourth arrest is made after 11 p.m., and the crowd responded by throwing bricks and bottles.

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