The top Democrats in the state Legislature are saying new laws will expand protections for civil rights, but more may be needed in response to a rise in white nationalism in Maine.

Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross did not say how the Legislature might respond in the wake of a neo-Nazi rally outside the State House on Saturday. But they cited recent efforts to protect against extremism, including a law passed in June that prohibits attempts to cause emotional distress or fear based on someone’s race, sexual orientation or other factors.

A group of masked men, shown here giving a Nazi salute, demonstrated outside the state Capitol in Augusta on Saturday, chanting “refugees go home.” Lawmakers from both parties have condemned the group. Photo courtesy of Lance Tapley

Jackson, D-Allagash, and Talbot Ross, D-Portland, issued a joint statement late Tuesday describing the rally by about two dozen members of the neo-Nazi group NSC-131 on the steps of the state capitol building and Blaine House as “an ugly demonstration of hate – complete with repugnant language and gestures that harken back to the Holocaust.” They compared it to past KKK rallies that targeted Catholics, Franco-Americans and Black Americans.

“These activities were as appalling and offensive then as they are now, and they represent an affront to our values,” they said. “More than that, they’ve left Mainers with a deep and profound sense of unease as they worry about the safety of their friends, families and neighborhoods.”

The leaders did not hint at any specific legislative responses, but they highlighted two laws taking effect in October that they say will strengthen civil rights protections in Maine in the face of increasing extremism. A spokesperson said that the legislative leaders were not suggesting those new laws would have prohibited neo Nazis from marching had they been in effect last weekend.

“We will not tolerate white nationalist groups’ ideology, intimidation or rhetoric – not in our communities, our workplaces or our homes,” they said. “Amid the recent rise in extremism, the Legislature has taken steps to bolster the Maine Civil Rights Act and better protect our communities. … We have also begun to explore whether or not additional laws are needed.”


One new law will require every police department to designate a civil rights officer who is specially trained to identify and investigate civil rights violations.

Another new law will prohibit anyone from “intentionally interfering or attempting to intentionally interfere with another person’s exercise or enjoyment of that person’s civil rights by engaging in any conduct that would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress or to fear death or bodily injury when that conduct is motivated by reason of race, color, religion, sex, ancestry, national origin, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Emotional distress is defined in Maine law as “mental or emotional suffering of the person … as evidenced by anxiety, fear, torment or apprehension that may or may not result in a physical manifestation of emotional distress or a mental health diagnosis.”

Under the law, the state’s attorney general or private citizens will be able to file civil rights claims for attempts to cause emotional distress based on a person’s race, sexual orientation or other factors. State law already allows such claims in cases of physical force or violence, threats of physical harm, property damage or trespass.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, and was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Janet Mills in June. Because it was not passed as an emergency measure, it takes effect in October.

It’s unclear how or whether that law would have applied to Saturday’s demonstration. Police and bystanders said the demonstration appeared to be peaceful, even though video shows members shouting at a vehicle with Black occupants, who NSC-13 members labeled refugees. The demonstrators made monkey noises and told them to “go home,” before doing a Nazi salute.


Attorney General Aaron Frey was not available for an interview Wednesday to discuss whether the new law would apply to similar rallies and how it would be interpreted by local law enforcement officers, according to a spokesperson.

“Any application of the law would be highly fact specific so it is not possible to say whether it would apply,” said Danna Hayes, the AG’s special assistant.

Hickman said Wednesday that he sponsored the bill after hearing from a transgender constituent who was being terrorized by people in the community. He said the woman sought help from police, but there was little they could do because nobody was making direct threats or physically harming her.

Hickman shared portions of email correspondence, in which the woman describes the blocking of her road with a pickup truck, firing weapons near her home and spraying pesticides on her property.

Hickman said Maine’s current law covers direct threats and harm, including burning crosses on someone’s property, but it does not cover other acts of intimidation, such as hanging nooses, smearing feces on door knobs or fumigating someone else’s property with pesticides.

“I wanted to make sure that I’m giving individual citizens, but mostly the Office of the Attorney General, more tools in their tool box, because what we learned from history and from the present is that what seems peaceful and what seems benign is just the first step in what will become violent and perhaps deadly,” Hickman said.


Hickman said he’s not sure how citizens or the AG will use the new law, but he hopes it could be applied to racist demonstrations, which he said have a chilling effect on people’s overall sense of safety and freedom of movement.

“If anyone says, ‘I’m preparing for war,’ I would think that would have already been covered by the Maine Civil Rights Act because you are threatening violence,” he said.

The Nationalist Social Club, or NSC-131, is a neo-Nazi group with small autonomous regional chapters around the country, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The group considers itself at war with a “hostile, Jewish-controlled system that is deliberately plotting the extinction of the white race,” the ADL said.

The group has previously held public demonstrations and marches in Portland and Lewiston. The Press Herald previously reported that one person linked to the recent rally, Christopher Pohlhaus, bought land in the rural town of Springfield last year and has been openly recruiting new members.

All of the national, nongovernmental organizations that monitor white supremacist and extremist groups agree that New England has become a hotbed.

Both Democratic and Republic lawmakers denounced the rallies earlier this week and called for additional legislation to address the rise of white nationalism Maine. No proposals have been offered and they would have to be carefully drafted to avoid infringing on other constitutional rights, such as free speech and assembly.


Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, said he would like lawmakers to consider a bill that would prohibit militia-like activity or paramilitary training, something other states have done in recent years, including Vermont and Oregon.

Laws can only do so much, Hickman said.

“The people of Maine will have to make themselves heard if, in fact, they don’t believe in this,” Hickman said. “And I absolutely know that a vast majority of Maine people do not believe in any of this.”

Hickman said he’s heartened by those who have spoken out against the demonstration.

“This cannot be tolerated here in Maine,” he said. “A person’s right to exist doesn’t mean they have a right to terrorize others people and not be held accountable for it.”

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