Jacqui DeVeneau (left) argues with Nick Blanchard during a protest and counter protest in Portland's Congress Square on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. Both sides claimed to be anti-racists. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — “White lives matter” demonstrators shouted through bullhorns and a counter-protester hurled tomatoes across Congress Street on Friday as squabbling over the flying of a controversial flag two weeks ago showed no signs of stopping.

Nearly 100 intermingled demonstrators occupied the four corners of bustling Congress Square, shouting and waving signs in a chaotic scene. Richard Ward, a former Portland city council and school board candidate whose sign instigated the strife, stood largely to the side, looking pleased with the discord.

“If this keeps up, I’ll be ready to run for governor,” Ward said.

The trouble started on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month, when Ward stood in Congress Square flying an “it’s OK to be white” flag. It led to City Councilor Victoria Pelletier speaking out online against Ward’s action, calling it a racist dog whistle intended to intimidate people of color.

Portland’s Richard Ward surveys the mayhem of protests and counter protests swirling around his “its OK to be white” flag in the city’s Congress Square on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. Ward has run for both school board and city council and the past year. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Pelletier, who is Black, said then received online threats. At last week’s council meeting, several citizens showed up supporting Pelletier, as did other city councilors. A large anti-racism protest in Tommy’s Park followed, on Feb. 10.

But Ward and his banner were back in the square on Friday. A handful of out-of-town supporters also stood with him. An even larger group of counter-protesters gathered across the street, with one hurling fruit before he was convinced to leave.

“Last time I did this, someone threw a potato at me,” Ward said. “I’m just glad they’re not rocks and nobody is getting hurt.”

Several counter protestors then crossed the street and stood in front of Ward’s flag, blocking it from view.

Wearing an American flag as a cape, Tina Moon of Scarborough shouts “white lives matter” through a bullhorn in Portland’s Congress Square on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. Moon was part of a rally supporting Portlander Richard Ward and his “its OK to be white” flag. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Nick Blanchard of Augusta, who gained attention in 2021 when he threatened to protest outside the homes of Waterville school board members who supported COVID-19 mask mandates, came to support Ward and said he saw nothing wrong with the flag.

“He stood up here with this flag and all the media around, and the local city councilors, called him a white supremacist,” Blanchard said. “It’s not true.”

Another one of Ward’s supporters, Tina Moon, wore a “white lives matter” T-shirt. Moon marched across Congress Street, stood among the counter-protesters, and shouted her T-shirt’s slogan through a bullhorn.

Jess Falero of Munjoy Hill stood in the crowd there, chanting “Black lives matter” to the beat of a trombone. Falero said they thought Ward had a good heart but was misguided.

Counter protestors block Richard Ward’s “it’s OK to be white” flag in Portland’s Congress Square on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. Critic’s say Ward’s banner, first flown in the square at the start of Black History Month, is nothing but a racist dog whistle. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“He doesn’t understand how much that flag affects some people negatively,” Falero said. “It’s unfortunate.”

Ward said he had no intention of giving up and was already making plans with his cadre of supporters to fly his flag elsewhere.

“Maybe off some overpasses or something,” he said. “I just want this to get more attention.”

Many opposing him and his banner across the street on Friday said they’d show up and block it no matter where he tries to fly it in their city.

“He’s not a bad person, but he just gets so many things wrong,” Falero said.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.