AUGUSTA, Maine — In the shadows of the Maine State House well more than 1,000 protesters peacefully gathered and marched, demanding an end to systemic racism and police violence in the United States.
Sunday’s protest was the first for the capital city since the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a black man who died as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. In the wake of Floyd’s death, Black Lives Matter protests have filled the streets of cities and towns across the nation, including large protests in Portland and elsewhere in the state.
With Augusta being located in the middle of one of the least racially diverse states in the nation, many people who spoke highlighted the racial issues that need to be dealt with not just on a national level, but on a local level as well.
[image id=”2983600″ size=”full” pos=”center” /]
“I’ve seen both sides of this community. I have been treated differently because of the color of my skin,” Yasmine Wadleigh, 17, of Augusta said. “My family was scared for my life to come out here and speak today, and that is a fear that white people in America will never have.”
Wadleigh, the daughter of an African immigrant mother and white father, organized Sunday’s protest with Jordan Snell, 18, and Patrick Webber, 21. The organizers felt protesters’ voices needed to be heard in the city where Maine laws are made.
Watch: Protesters chant “Black Lives Matter” in front of the capitol
The protest, which twice traveled around Capitol Park to the Augusta Police Department, was peaceful and had very little visible police presence. Police closed down the roads surrounding the state house and the park, isolating the protests from potential passersby, a point that irritated some of the protesters.
At one point, the entire street in front of the state house ― stretching around a corner to the police station ― was a sea of bodies, as protesters laid on the ground with their hands on their backs for nine minutes.
There were a couple moments of tension when the crowd asked for people of color to speak, rather than continue to listen to white speakers.
[image id=”2983603″ size=”full” pos=”center” /]
Augusta Mayor Dave Rollins was unable to finish reading a proclamation passed by the city council, outlining the city’s efforts to bolster equality. After several people in the crowd yelled “hand off the mic” a chant of “Black Lives Matter” ultimately caused Rollins to step back from the crowd and hand off the microphone to the Rev. James Varner, 86, a longtime civil rights activist from Bangor.
Varner, who co-founded the Bangor chapter of the NAACP and later was president of the Maine Human Rights Coalition, emotionally recounted the last moments of Floyd’s life as he called out for his mother while telling the police officer kneeling on his neck that he couldn’t breathe.
“I want you to think about Dr. Martin Luther King,” Varner told the crowd. “I want you to think about his dream that he had for this country, where little white boys and black boys, and people of all races could sit down at the table of justice.”
Varner and other speakers urged attendees not just to protest but to vote.
[image id=”2983601″ size=”full” pos=”center” /]
“This is not only about George Floyd. It’s about every instance of police brutality that was never filmed,” Lewiston City Councilor Safiya Khalid said. “We cannot only go to protests. We have to do more […] I was not elected to be silent.”
Watch: Protesters march through Augusta with their hands up