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Racisms

The KKK took my city away

by | Nov 6, 2022

So, I have a podcast. The first three episodes are out, as of this writing. I worked on it with my co-producer, Florence Edwards (host and creator of the interview show In the POCket on WMPG), for the last year and a half. It’s called 99 Years, and the basic premise is that Maine is the whitest state and there are reasons why that’s the case. Three reasons, in particular. One of those reasons I detailed in last month’s Mainer cover story. 

In case you need a recap, Portland operates under something called the “city manager” form of government. That form of government was created by extremist white supremacists with the purpose of subjugating Black people. Locally powerful, extremist white supremacists around the country began campaigning for this system wherever they lived. Because they usually belonged to their local chambers of commerce and ran the local press, many of those campaigns were successful. 

Portland’s story is the same. The Chamber of Commerce here initiated the campaign, the Portland Press Herald hired two writers to produce daily propaganda promoting the plan, and more than 7,000 Ku Klux Klansmen marched through the city in support of the referendum to change Portland’s government. 

The campaign was successful. After the vote, the Bangor Daily News summed it up in a headline that read, “Klan Candidates win in Portland Election.” George West, Florence Stevens, Philip J. Deering, Freeman M. Grant, and Neal W. Allen were the names of the KKK-endorsed candidates who became city councilors that year. Their names still appear on streets and various other places around the city. 

The KKK in Maine was more or less dissolved by 1930, but the men under the hoods didn’t just vanish. Their white supremacy didn’t just disappear from their hearts, nor from the institutions they infected. Portland had shifted from having accountable leadership, in the form of a mayor who could be voted in or out, to an unaccountable city manager free to cover for a corrupt city council, or an inept one. 

The city manager system has never been very popular among Portland’s non-elite. There has been pushback against this system since before it showed up in the city, and resistance has continued ever since. 

In 1968, the country was imploding, and in Portland, calls to return to a mayoral system were getting louder. The City Council responded by changing the title of the Chair of the Council to Mayor. Nothing had actually changed, except the definition of the word mayor.

In 2010 it was decided this so-called mayorship would no longer be an annually rotating position, but instead Portlanders would be able to vote for their symbolic leader. Again, nothing had fundamentally changed, but many voters were fooled into believing they could now choose their city’s chief executive. Those executive powers, however, remained with the city manager, and Portland’s white supremacist form of government remained intact. 

After nearly a century, the results are exactly what the KKK wanted. Black poverty, property ownership, income growth, joblessness and homelessness in Portland are all not only worse than the national averages and Maine state averages, but disproportionately and exponentially worse than the white averages. 

None of this is a secret. The history is well documented and those statistics are readily available. This is, in part, why Portland’s recent Charter Commission has suggested an accountable mayoral plan take the place of the white supremacist city manager system.

Portlanders voting yes on city ballot Question 2 this Election Day will be voting for that change. 

Unfortunately, despite its disgusting history and criminal results, there are those in the city who are in favor of maintaining the current system. Unsurprisingly, the loudest voices are those elevated by that system. Current Portland Mayor Kate Snyder has campaigned in support of maintaining the white supremacist form of government. She says she’s not in favor of “governing by referendum,” even though that’s the only way this change could be made. 

Retired politician Tom Allen chairs Protect Portland’s Future, a group also working to maintain the racist city manager system. Allen is not only a former Portland City Councilor and symbolic Mayor, but he is also the grandson of the KKK-endorsed councilor Neal W. Allen, so he’s got some skin in the game. 

There’s also the Enough is Enough campaign, led by three-time former symbolic Mayor Nick Mavodones. The campaign’s overtly racist ads prompted Mainer editor Chris Busby to comment in last month’s edition, “These fuckers are basically Klansmen without the laundry.” This campaign collected about half a million dollars in contributions, largely from out-of-state property developers and multinational corporations. 

What you have not heard from these present and former members of Portland’s leadership at any point in their careers is a plan to change the severe racial discrepancies in poverty, property ownership, income growth, joblessness and homelessness. The system they support forbids such change, and if they win, things will stay the same, or get worse, for a long time to come. 

 

Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller. He is also a contributor to the bestselling How to Tell a Story: The Essential Guide to Memorable Storytelling, from The Moth. He can be reached at racismsportland@gmail.com.

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