Saturday, July 08, 2006

Intolerance raises its head in Lewiston (again)

On January 11, 2003, the city of Lewiston, Maine held a rally and march of support for the Somali community. Close to 5,000 people attended the Many and One rally, which was held to show solidarity for the newest residents of this former manufacturing city along the banks of the Androscoggin River. They had come to Lewiston, fleeing other urban areas of the U.S., after leaving their homeland, to escape a bloody civil war. [Here's a good primer on the Somali settlement, from the Portland Press Herald, April, 2002]. Despite the city’s history and heritage as a center where immigrants were welcome (large numbers of French-Canadians had made Lewiston their new home in the 19th century, drawn by the textile mills and manufacturing of the city), Mayor Larry Raymond felt it necessary to release a letter, which basically told them to stop coming to Lewiston, as the city wasn’t prepared to handle their numbers (and color?). From there, Matthew Hale and his white hate group, the World Church of the Creator seized the opportunity to send delegates to the city to try to fan the flames of racial hatred and division that smoldered in this very-white enclave of one of the whitest states in the country.

The Somali community, currently numbering around 2,800, has tried to integrate and co-exist with a native population that has reluctantly received them. While other communities, like Portland, have received large numbers of refuges (the Vietnamese and Cambodian settlements of the late 70s and early 80s), the Somali resettlement hasn’t been a seamless one.

While there has been a three year lull since the January, 2003 rally, lately, some red flags have been popping up to indicate that there are still issues that haven’t been addressed.

One month ago, a Somalian man, died in police custody. This drew the ire of Somali leaders and they questioned the way that the local authorities had handled the situation. A rally was held across from the police station, questioning the actions of the local police force. Somali leaders asked about other incidents, which indicated that the Somali community was treated differently by the local police. Just like back in 2003, the local daily paper was filled with some angry and vitriolic letters to the editor, expressing outrage at the Somali community for daring to ask questions. Typically, writers expressed a common sentiment of, “if you don’t like our city, why don’t you just get out.” Once more, you heard the whispers about the Somalians being “lazy” and not being willing to work. Others expressed the theory that “they” didn’t try hard enough to adopt “our ways.”

Then, last Monday, during evening prayers, 33-year-old Brent Matthews rolled a pig's head into the mosque, at 123 Lisbon Street. Apparently Mr. Matthews didn’t understand the ramifications of pork and the Muslim faith. Saying it was “a joke,” it’s interesting that he chose the pig’s head for his practice of humor.

In addition to this, a new Somalian restaurant on Lisbon Street, had its plate glass store front damaged, as large scratches were etched in the glass. An upspike in vandalism targeting Somalis has occurred, of late.

There are obviously still issues smoldering in Lewiston in how the locals relate to a culture different than their own. While the incident at the mosque is being investigated by Federal authorities as a hate crime, today’s Lewiston Sun Journal indicates that police chief, William Welch, is concerned about this “spiraling into something more.” Implicit in this statement is that the seeds of hatred and intolerance that spawned this utterly moronic incident, should be ignored. Maybe it’s just me, but Welch reminds me of southern sheriffs, ala Bull Connor, in his inability, or unwillingness to understand the seriousness of incidents like this.

It was telling that during yesterday’s press conference, held at City Hall, no Somali leadership accompanied Deputy City Administrator, Phil Nadeau, and Police Chief Welch. Apparently city leaders such as Welch, didn’t feel it was necessary to invite them. According to Welch, he didn’t specifically invite them. Yet, the story said that he hoped their absence was an indication that “they feel confident in what we’re doing” to investigate the matter. Note to the chief—I think it’s pretty obvious that not inviting leaders of the group targeted by an incident that has hate crime ramifications, shows that you don’t get it, yourself! Don’t hope that things are ok with a group that already views you and your department with suspicion. Have you ever heard of getting out and proactively building some bridges with people different than yourself?

It’s hard for me to fathom the level of ignorance that perpetrates the highest levels of Lewiston city government. As much as Lewiston (and Auburn) trumpets their communities as progressive and places for businesses to come to, there is an undercurrent of ignorance and suspicion of outsiders that just won’t go away. My sense is that we haven’t heard the last of this story coming out of Lewiston.


Rikki said...

I don't live in or come from the Andrescoggin Valley, so at risk of sounding like another one of them of Portland seed tossing around values ... I completely agree with you. Sooner, the bell is going to toll for the heel draggers of Lewiston and both it and Auburn are going to modernize despite the fathers' best efforts. Leaders will recognize that Bates Mill redevelopment and attraction of new industry requires new blood, and that often isn't likely to be French or English. The greater L/A region will again thrive but only as Portland suburbanites move up as regentrifiers and folks like the Somalis continue to see the area as an afforable place to collect as a community as spark up their own version of the American dream.

weasel said...

I'm with both you and Rick. Here's the dark side of the mentality that makes a fetish out of tradition and generational ties to the state. Suspicion of things from "away" soon crosses over into the nasty realm of this peculiar form of passive-aggressive racism so prevalent among "nice" people. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the barred-window drinking clubs down by the Country Kitchen bakery ring with cries of "I'm not a racialist, but..."

And it's not just inland Maine: the theme of the Rockland Lobster Festival Parade is "Celebrate Our Heritage" (in a modern state, shouldn't "heritage" be plural?). I have a feeling we aren't going to see too many floats representing the struggles of Dunbar's Scots-Irish squatters taking on the post-revolutionary Massachusetts Squirearchy, but probably far too many stuffed with dubious Mayflower decendents and the proud great-great grandchildren of smallpox balnket dealers. Never mind that most of the midcoast's original European families decamped for Ohio and points west in the 1870s after the collapse of the limestone trade. Sigh....

Perhaps some of the Somalis (and others from the horn of Africa) should come to Rockland for the "heritage" parade, if only to remind us in which part of the world the third chimpanzee first rose from a crouch and became human as we know it.

Joe said...

I've heard a few bad stories about the Lewiston police chief. He seems like a guy who would fully embrace the "it's just a joke" defense as a good enough reason to just drop the whole thing.