Denouncing racism and violence

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AUGUSTA, Maine – The Maine legislature ended its session last spring with an endorsement of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and began session this fall with a resolution denouncing racism and violence.

“It’s a good start,” Wayne Mitchell, the Penobscot Indian Nation’s new representative in the state legislature, told Indian Country Today.

In his first speech to the legislature, Mitchell talked about his hope for the end of institutional racism in Maine. The speech was delivered in support of a Joint Resolution Denouncing Racism and Violence.

“We are not born racists. Our soul, mind and heart enter this world pure, unstained by the twisted constructs of a human social convention such as racism,” Mitchell said in his speech.

“Sadly, racism, prejudice and hate are all learned and these unfortunate attitudes get passed from generation to generation. My hope, here today is that one day soon it will vanish from Maine society and one day our children will need to consult an historical document or dictionary to learn what the awful word racism means or for that matter be shocked that such human behavior could have ever existed.”

The Joint Resolution Denouncing Racism and Violence was introduced by Sen. Bill Diamond, a Democrat, in response to a post-election incident in a town in his senate district that provoked a national outcry of anti-racist sentiment.

Soon after Barack Obama won the presidential election, a sign appeared in the Oak Hill General Store in Standish, Maine inviting customers to bet $1 on a date when he would be assassinated. An Associated Press report said the handwritten sign ended with, “Let’s hope someone wins.”

The store owner denied any knowledge of the ‘Osama Obama Shotgun Pool,’ according to police, and the incident is still under investigation by the FBI.

There were racist incidents in the state, including the appearance of “KKK” written on signs along the rail trail in the capital, but for Diamond, the assassination pool was the corker. He introduced the anti-racism resolution on Nov. 18.

“I was proud and pleased that the Resolve was passed nearly unanimously,” Diamond told ICT. Only one representative declined to support the resolution.

“I think such a strong message from the legislature sends an equally strong message to the people of our state and to our country. We will not stand in silence when this type of hate and encouraged violence is presented.”

The resolution denounces the promotion of assassination or violence of any president, president-elect or any public officials, including via “tasteless joke” or public display of signs.

At the same time, the representatives emphasized that they “support and honor” the First Amendment’s free speech protections that ban government from regulating or abridging speech based on its message, ideas, subject matter or content.

“The people the State of Maine understand that government suppression of free speech can threaten the healthy exchange of ideas indispensable to an open and vibrant society, and we also know that the most powerful way to counteract hateful, offensive speech is through more speech and discussion,” the resolution says.

Mitchell added a historical perspective in his speech and brought the issue of racism closer to home for the indigenous people.

“While we properly denounce individual acts of violence and hate that stem from racism, we must also acknowledge institutional racism that can be far more insidious and challenging to eradicate than individual racism. We, the Wabanaki People, understand individual and institutional racism,” Mitchell said.

He reminded the assembly of the bounty the Massachusetts Bay settler colonial government placed on the scalps of Penobscots when the nation refused to join the British war against the French.

“Though I realize this proclamation was made 253 years ago, we live with remnants of that horrific governmental expression of racism today.”

He talked about the 1980 Maine Implementing Act that defined the tribes’ jurisdictional boundaries and inherent sovereignty. The tribes entered the agreement in good faith, Mitchell said, but the agreement has since been eroded by the courts, the state and corporate actions, Mitchell said.

Last year, the judiciary committee stripped away a bill of amendments to the act that were recommended by a Tribal-State Work Group empowered by Gov. John Baldacci.

Mitchell told the legislators he looked forward to working with them “in the spirit of justice, embodied in this resolution, to fix the broken Maine Implementing Act of 1980 and to restore its original intent.”

Diamond said Mitchell’s speech was warmly received.

“Representative Mitchell’s floor speech was passionate and made us all proud as I’m sure he did for his constituents as well. He and I had talked prior to the day of his speech and I encouraged him to talk from his heart and state the importance of the meaning of the Resolve to his constituents and to us all.”

Diamond said he could not speculate as to how the resolution against racism and the endorsement of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be translated by the state legislature into actions to improve the lives of Maine’s indigenous people and its other “non-white” and immigrant populations. The resolution supporting the Declaration was introduced last spring by former Penobscot representative Donna Loring.

“However, it is clear that we are starting with a common belief that we will speak up when needed and we will do so boldly,” Diamond said.