4,500 Mainers rebuff racists from away

LEWISTON, Maine – Thousands of Maine residents gathered here Jan. 11 to support recent Somali immigrants who have been targeted by the hate group “World Church of the Creator.”

Last November, the hate organization announced its intention to hold an anti-Somali rally in Lewiston to recruit new members. The announcement of the racist event came after Lewiston Mayor Larry Raymond publicly urged the Somali community, the vast majority of whom are American citizens, to stop their relatives and friends from moving to Maine from other parts of the country. In a heavy-handed letter to the elders of the Somali community last October, Mayor Raymond blamed the recent influx of Somalis for stresses on his city’s municipal budget, saying that the Somalis’ increased presence had “maxed-out” Lewiston’s resources “financially, physically and emotionally.”

An estimated 1,100 Somalis have moved to Maine since February 2001.

Immediately after the announcement by the World Church, a group of community, religious, labor and civil rights advocacy organizations formed the Many and One Coalition to counter the World Church’s attempts to recruit members in Maine. The coalition decided to hold a pro-immigrant counter-rally on a separate site, on the same day and at the same time as the World Church of the Creator’s event. The organizers chose the Merrill Gymnasium at Bates College, in Lewiston. “When we first decided to have the counter rally, we thought we might get 300 to 500 people, max,” said Leslie Manning, a trade unionist, civil rights activist and member of the Many and One organizing committee.

In addition, another group of pro-immigrant anti-racists planned a more confrontational rally to be held outside of the Lewiston National Guard Armory, where the World Church of the Creator planned to hold its meeting.

Despite freezing temperatures, over 4,000 people turned out to the Bates Gymnasium, which can only legally hold 3,000 people. Several hundred people who could not get into the building stood outside for hours, singing, chanting and cheering for speakers and performers from the rally who came outside to address them as well.

Inside the building, the standing-room-only crowd included delegations from a broad array of organizations, including labor groups, religious organizations, human rights groups, community organizations, student organizations and social service providers.

Representatives of the Micmac Nation of Native Americans, the NAACP, the Maine Rural Workers Coalition, the American Muslim Society of Maine and the Somali Justice Center addressed the lively and festive crowd, as did Maine’s Governor John Baldacci and two former Lewiston mayors. Maine Speaker of the House Pat Colwell read from a resolution passed unanimously by the state legislature, which says in part: “Hate and bigotry have no place in the great state of Maine.”

Also in attendance were Maine’s Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Republicans, its two Congressmen, Tom Allen and Michael Michaud, Democrats, and many other political luminaries. Lewiston Mayor Larry Raymond declined to attend. He is vacationing in Florida.

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali sent a letter saying the battle in Maine is “between those who embrace bigotry and those who embrace freedom.” Ali recalled his 1965 bout in Lewiston, in which he knocked out Sonny Liston. He blamed Mayor Raymond’s “irresponsible,” “insensitive” and “inflammatory” letter for opening the door to hate groups to descend upon Lewiston. “The Many and One Coalition has my full support” in standing against racism and for freedom, Ali said.

Nikki McLean of the Maine People’s Alliance told the World she came to the rally because “I don’t want my grandchildren to live in a world that can’t accept them for the way that they are.” McLean’s grandchildren are half Sudanese. She continued: “If everyone was blind, what would [the bigots] base their hate on then?”

Tom Sturtevant, a member of the Maine chapter of Veterans for Peace, told the World his organization was there “because we realize that wars begin in the hearts of people. We must get rid of the hate in people’s hearts.”

Across town, an estimated 500 additional pro-immigrant, anti-fascist demonstrators confronted members of the World Church of the Creator at the National Guard Armory.

Only about 25 World Church supporters showed up, only eight of whom was from the local area. According to Steve Burke, a participant in the adjacent pro-immigrant rally, the police secretly shuttled the racists away at the end of their event, without the counter-demonstrators’ knowledge. “They went out the back door and headed for the hills,” he said.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org