Hannah Faesy, a student advocate for New Hope for Women, speaks in favor of the proposed open community resolution. (Photo by Andy O’Brien)
Hannah Faesy, a student advocate for New Hope for Women, speaks in favor of the proposed open community resolution. (Photo by Andy O’Brien)
Over 100 people packed into Rockland City Council chambers Monday night in support of a 434-word, non-binding resolution promoting “an open healthy community” that celebrates “difference, diversity, and individuality among residents, workers and visitors” including “ability, race, creed, national and cultural origin, immigration status, color, age, religious beliefs, class, neurodiversity, sexuality, gender identification, and gender expression.”

 The non-binding statement of values — which was drafted by local citizen group the Woodstove Alliance and sponsored by Councilor Ed Glaser — also states that the city will be proactive in “reducing poverty, homelessness, climate change, the criminalization of addiction, sexual assault, racism and domestic violence” and “improve health care access, fair wages, affordable housing, addiction treatment, ... increasing accessibility for people with disabilities and to gender-inclusive bathrooms” among several other provisions. The proposed resolution has been endorsed by 32 local organizations and businesses. 

Speaking in favor of the resolution, resolution co-author Becca Glaser reminded residents that the resolution is an aspirational statement of values and is not legally binding.

“I think of it more like a gesture that the city is making to its residents, its neighbors locally, and around the world,” said Glaser, who is the daughter of Councilor Ed Glaser. “It’s like setting up a signal that we support the environment and diversity in all its forms. These are gestures at things that we would like to do and be, but nothing in the resolution obligates us legally.”

About 30 members of the public testified in support of the measure and many referenced the uptick in harassment and violence against minority populations following the election of President Donald Trump. In a recent survey of 10,000 teachers, counselors and school administrators conducted by Southern Poverty Law Center following the November election, 80 percent described heightened anxiety among marginalized students such as immigrants, Muslims, African Americans and LGBT students. In the month after the election, SPLC documented 1,094 racially motivated acts of bias across the country. 

Daniel Quintanilla, who is originally from Mexico, says he has lived in Rockland for eight years and he and his wife have always felt that the city is a “safe place” where his family can come visit. However, he said he was alarmed after there were several reports of the Ku Klux Klan leaving fliers in towns across the state.

“This … really troubles us because it does kind of make us question whether we’re welcome here, whether people like us really are part of the community or not,” said Quintanilla. “I think it’s a simple gesture that it’s a welcoming community to the diversity of everyone.”

Speaking on behalf of the Rockland-based LGBTQ youth advocacy group Out Maine, Executive Director Jeanne Dooley said that local LGBTQ youth have recently told her that they have witnessed more and more acts of verbal harassment in the schools and in the community.  

“They feel like they can now say whatever. The bandaid has been ripped off,” said Dooley. “There are comments about Trump taking care of the gays the way that Hitler took care of the Jews.” 

Dooley noted that the rates of suicide ideation and action are three to four times higher among LGBTQ youth and Knox County has one of the highest rates of suicide in the state. 

RSU 13 teacher Nancy Killoran, who has taught English language learners in the district for the past 10 years, said the resolution would send a positive message to the immigrant students and families she works with. She said that the school has become a much more welcoming place than it was 10 years ago when many of her students felt marginalized. During that time the number of English language learners in RSU 13 has increased from 12 to around 40. 

“Every day it’s amazing to work with these families,” said Killoran. “They just want to be here, want to participate and want to feel like they’ll be safe just like the rest of us, but we all take it for granted. We can walk around and feel safe every day and the people I work with, they don’t feel the same way.”

But while the vast majority of speakers spoke in favor of the resolution, the measure was opposed by a handful of conservatives including the Knox County Republican Party. Former Republican House candidate Don Robishaw opposed the measure, fearing  that the resolution would be the “first step” to turning Rockland into a so-called “sanctuary city,” a loosely defined description of municipalities that welcome refugees and immigrants. In January, President Trump signed an executive order to ban federal funding for sanctuary cities that don’t assist federal immigration officials in rounding up undocumented immigrants. Rockland does not have a sanctuary city policy and the proposed resolution would not create one. There are about 1,000 undocumented immigrants in Maine, or about 0.2 percent of the population, according to the Pew Research Center.

Cushing resident Steve Young, pastor of the Penobscot Family Church in Thomaston, said he opposes the resolution because he opposes homosexuality and he believes that there is “only one right for the illegal alien and that is the right to be deported.” 

“I have handed out significant quantities of literature on the streets of Rockland declaring that Jesus sets people free from the life-shortening shame of homosexuality,” said Young. “Here is a question: will I end up being marginalized in Rockland? Will I end up being ostracized because I don’t cling to the ideals of the Rockland resolution?” Young later sent a parody resolution to the City Council that celebrated “the diversity and individuality” of the Ku Klux Klan. 

Leslie Spiers, who owns the Myrtle Street Tavern in Rockland, also spoke against the resolution. “Rockland does not need to be on any list stating it is a diverse city,” said Spiers. “I don’t believe there’s a problem here, and I don’t believe anyone should be looking for one.”

However, Belfast resident Jacob Fricke, who identifies as queer and works at a downtown bookstore, said he has often experienced harassment on the streets of Rockland. 

“It usually doesn’t occur to me to report it,” said Fricke. “People drive by in a truck, honk their horn, and shout out slurs.” He compared his experience to that of women who often experience street harassment, but never report it. “It’s so every day, it’s so normalized. There’s no formal statistical channel for representing the degree to which it exists.” 

Shelley Kushner, president of Adas Yoshuron synagogue on Willow Street, said that several weeks ago someone shot at the windows of the building with a pellet gun. She said the incident wasn’t reported because they didn’t know how it happened or if it was an incident of religious bias. 

Rockland Police Chief Bruce Boucher said that two-thirds of hate crimes are not reported, so it’s difficult to know how prevalent these cases are in the community. He said serious acts of harassment and violence on the basis of race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, religion and ethnicity are referred to the Maine Attorney General’s Office. Other incidents don’t rise to that level, but are kept as evidence for the future. 

“What I’m hearing tonight is that there are a lot of incidences that you are aware of that we’re not,” said Boucher. “We cannot do our job without you assisting us.... Without you giving us this information, we can’t do our job and get an accurate representation of what’s going on in our community.”

He said four of his officers are trained and certified as civil rights investigators by the AG’s office and that all of the Rockland police officers have attended training on policing culturally diverse communities, hate bias policing, and interacting with people with autism and other developmental disabilities. 

Councilor Ed Glaser said the diversity resolution could be the “first step” in making people feel more comfortable in making reports. Councilor Valli Geiger said she would support the resolution “in a heartbeat,” although Councilor Adam Ackor said he was still trying to understand the meaning behind some of the language. Councilor Will Clayton expressed hesitancy supporting the measure as written and drafted an alternative resolution before the meeting which removed the terms “class” and “gender expression” and that the city will work to improve health care access, fair wages, affordable housing, addiction treatment and creating accessibility to gender-inclusive bathrooms, among several other provisions. Clayton also removed language that pledged to take action on poverty, homelessness, climate change, the criminalization of addiction, sexual assault, and domestic violence. Clayton added language that pledged to provide law enforcement and emergency assistance providers with the “necessary means to carry out their work” in cultural diversity civil rights and other areas of concern. 

The council may take a vote on the resolution, which needs at least three votes to pass, at their meeting on Monday, March 13.