Portland city leaders heard calls for a tougher response to a recent neo-Nazi rally, first at a protest that drew nearly 100 people to the police station Monday afternoon and then at a packed City Council meeting at night.

Residents said they feel unsafe in the wake of the Nationalist Social Club rally April 1, that police did not do enough to hold the group accountable for its role in a fight and that they want to see the city take action.

City councilors said they are interested in moving the city forward and want to look at what next steps they can take. Councilor Victoria Pelletier expressed frustration with the police response, taking a more critical stance than most of her colleagues and saying she is “pretty disappointed and disgusted with this entire display.”

“I’m so upset with this entire thing and the fact we’re just going through these motions, talking about racial equity and we’re just going to go forward with the meeting after two hours of people saying they’re scared to live in Portland,” Pelletier said. “That’s a problem for me.”

In response to an earlier question from Councilor Andrew Zarro about what the city’s next steps would be, interim City Manager Danielle West said she would be working with interim Police Chief F. Heath Gorham to review a series of recommendations from District Attorney Jacqueline Sartoris.

Those recommendations include ensuring accountability through investigations and charges, even when victims are not identified; considering the formation of a hate crimes unit; ensuring adequate outreach to vulnerable populations who are likely targets of hate crimes; and following other best practices to fight the rise of hate.


Sartoris, who last week criticized the Portland Police Department’s response and said charges could have been possible even without named victims, said in a statement Monday that her office plans to identify one lead prosecutor to be the point of contact for all criminal conduct informed by hate, to ensure that connections are made across the county and that trainings and strategies can be consistently shared.

West said she also will be working with Umaru Balde, the city’s new director of justice, diversity, equity and inclusion. “He is going to help me try and figure this out and navigate this, and find ways we can move forward,” West said.

And the council will have an opportunity to address next steps as it goes through the hiring process underway for a permanent chief.

Leo Hilton tells the Portland City Council about his experience of the altercation he and his friends experienced with the Neo-Nazi group that marched around Portland two weeks ago on Monday. Hilton helped organized the demonstration in Portland before the council meeting that night. They spoke out against the group and the Portland Police Department’s handling of an incident of violence that occurred at the demonstration. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“That’s one immediate action step the council has, is deciding who the next chief of this department is,” said Councilor Roberto Rodriguez. “That chief, I believe, is due to have some kind of strategic plan to address some of the things that have come up.”

Gorham spoke briefly to the council Monday night, saying he supports the decisions of the officers that were on scene April 1 and that the police department rejects the beliefs of the group that rallied.

In an earlier memo to the council, he said the officers did not see how the fight started, and that victims did not want to give statements. He said Monday the role of the police department during rallies and protests is to facilitate the First Amendment rights of those participating.


“These are tricky situations,” Gorham said. “We try to be the person in the middle not taking sides. Whether or not our views are completely apart from them, we cannot express our views. Our job is to facilitate their First Amendment rights.”

Many of those attending the council meeting were among the roughly 100 people who gathered on the steps at police headquarters on Middle Street  Monday afternoon to protest against neo-Nazis and other groups that foment hatred, letting them know they are not welcome in Maine’s largest city.

The protesters also used Monday’s peaceful rally to criticize the police department, which made no arrests of any of the masked neo-Nazis who marched through downtown holding a banner that said “Defend White Communities” and giving passersby the Nazi salute.

Protesters demanded to know why police allowed members of the Nationalist Social Club to walk away without being questioned after a fight broke out on the sidewalk in front of Portland City Hall.

One of the rally organizers, Leo Hilton, 25, of Portland, said he was targeted by members of the group when he and three friends held a rainbow pride flag in front of the group.

Hilton, who is Jewish and identifies as queer, grew up in Portland and is angry that a neo-Nazi group was allowed to walk the streets of downtown Portland and not be held accountable for its violent actions. The group, which he described as a bunch of thugs, jumped him and his friends, punched one friend in the face, and knocked Hilton and the others to the ground.


Hilton said one police officer eventually intervened, drawing a weapon and ordering the neo-Nazi group to kneel down. However, no one was arrested or asked to remove their masks. Following the altercation the neo-Nazis left City Hall without facing any repercussions.

“They wanted to scare us, but I’m not as much scared as I am angry. What they did was an act of intimidation. This is my hometown. I’ve lived here since I was 3 years old and what they did makes me really angry,” Hilton said.

At the rally, Hilton and other speakers said the Nationalist Social Club and other fascist groups like them are bound to return. Hilton said Portland needs to be ready to stand up to them.

Max Bachvarova listens to a speaker at a demonstration against the Neo-Nazi group that marched around Portland two weeks ago on Monday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“They are not done here. They will come back to spread their hateful ideology,” he said. Though the April 1 altercation did not end well for him or his friends, Hilton said he still feels proud of standing against them.

“I feel proud because in the end, we achieved our goal,” Hilton said. “They left, they didn’t hurt anyone else, they didn’t hurt anyone worse. We won a temporary reprieve to organize ourselves better for the next time they come. And while getting beat up is no fun, a blow to your ego, a little bit of trauma that I will be carrying with me for months to come, I’d do it again in a heartbeat if that is what it takes to get them to go away.”

After Monday’s demonstration outside the police station ended, protesters walked to City Hall, where they expressed their concerns to members of the Portland City Council.

“To watch one of my fellow community members violently assaulted and have their civil rights violated in front of police officers in front of City Hall, and those people were not detained, identified or arrested – it’s shocking,” Madison Raymond said.

Raymond called on the council to hold the police department accountable, and said public information requests should be filled and body camera footage from the rally released.

“I’ve lived in this city for seven years and I want my loved ones, my friends and my community to feel safe,” Raymond said.

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