Portland residents have organized an anti-racism demonstration after a man displayed an "It's OK to be white" banner at Congress Square. Credit: CBS 13/WGME

PORTLAND, Maine — Dozens of people in Portland are speaking out against a recent incident in Congress Square.

A man held up a banner there saying “It’s OK to be white,” which many took as racist.

The issue was exposed this week during a city council meeting.

Richard Ward, who most recently ran for Portland City Council in November and got 5,088 votes, went to Congress Square Park and held up the controversial banner.

“Why I held up that particular message is to expose the anti-white sentiment in our society [and] to stand up against anti-white hate,” Ward said.

When asked, Ward said he didn’t have “a genuine understanding” of why people would take the sign as being racist.

The Anti-Defamation League says the phrase “It’s OK to be white” gained steam online in 2017 and white supremacists began to promote it.

“I feel that it’s important for white people to hear that it is OK to be who you are,” Ward said.

Portland resident Harlan Baker, who has been participating in a monthly anti-racism rally in Portland’s Monument Square for years, says it’s people of color who have faced inequities and racism.

“I don’t see being white as something that’s being oppressed right now,” Baker said.

Councilor Victoria Pelletier, who represents District 2, says she was targeted after she denounced the banner online and spoke out against white supremacy.

“I spent the entire weekend receiving an influx of violent threats toward my life,” Pelletier said.

City leaders rallied behind her and now the community is, too.

“I thought we should come out here and reclaim this as an anti-racist space,” Baker said.

Dozens of people gathered for a different message right where Ward once displayed his.

“It’s really upsetting to see that that’s taking place in our community and I think that we need to fight it,” Portland resident Jordan Holmes said.

Some see it as a national trend.

“It’s disgusting and sad and it makes us want to stand up harder and longer and shout louder because that’s not normal,” South Portland resident Talia Pyzik said.

Ward isn’t deterred. He plans on still displaying his sign once again.