Signs of the times in Portland, Maine

In Gaza, hundreds of women, children and other innocent civilians were being blown to pieces by an Israeli military armed and funded by our tax dollars. World leader like United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon were denouncing Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of homes, schools and hospitals as a “moral outrage” and a “criminal act,” while witnesses inside the territory, described as the world’s largest open-air prison, spoke of dead bodies left in the streets being eaten by animals.

Meanwhile, in Portland, Maine, a local newspaper ran a front-page story with a banner headline and a big picture of protesters waving Palestinian flags in Monument Square. One city councilor declared he was “very disturbed” by the news and “troubled” by numerous unanswered questions regarding what appeared to be an egregious abuse of power. The chief of police of Maine’s largest city spoke out, and Portland’s city manager and press spokesperson tried to address the outrage before it got out of hand.

What exactly was this local scandal about? Well, apparently City Councilor Kevin Donoghue used his authority to have “anti-trespassing” signs removed from the small patches of grass at the base of the Our Lady of Victories statue, in the middle of Monument Square, simply because he enjoyed eating his lunch there and was tired of being hassled by cops telling him to get off the turf.

According to the July 31 story in the Portland Sun, the signs were posted around the Civil War monument years ago to deter “littering, loitering, aggressive panhandling and poor public behavior in general.” The presence of the signs gave police the power to issue “criminal trespass papers” to anyone who refused to get off this hallowed ground.

“Does Kevin’s desire to eat lunch trump protecting public property?” asked Bayside neighborhood activist Steve Hirshon, an investment broker who hosts a weekly morning show on radio station WMPG called “Hukkin’ a Chainek” (Yiddish for, loosely, “stirring the pot,” or inciting debate), and whose office overlooks the square. The removal of the trespassing signs “invites bad behavior” and “opens [the monument] up for defacing,” Hirshon told Sun reporter Marge Niblock, who broke the story.

City Councilor Ed Suslovic told Niblock he was “very disturbed to hear a decision was made to remove the signs” and “somewhat troubled by the way these decisions were made” – i.e., apparently at the request of only one councilor. Suslovic said the matter raises a slew of important questions that demand answers. He wants to know why a host of organizations and officials – from veterans’ groups to law enforcement – were not “consulted” before the signs were taken down.

“The signs give police the ability to be proactive protecting the monument,” Portland Police Chief Mike Sauschuck told Niblock. Furthermore, according the city spokesperson Jessica Grondin, there’s an irrigation system under the grass that could be damaged by criminals trespassing on the turf.

Notwithstanding those concerns, the longtime head of Portland’s public works department, Mike Bobinsky, told Niblock he could not recall any problems caused by people treading on the grass. When the turf there now was first installed and needed time to grow, Bobinsky said his department made an effort to keep people off it, but, “the grass is now mature and the concern about the turf is minimized.”

“The Department of Public Services wants to facilitate the enjoyment of public spaces,” Bobinsky added.

Now, I consider Marge Niblock a friend and a respected colleague. Portland would benefit from more of the type of neighborhood-watchdog journalism she’s done for the smaller papers around town. I was honored when she asked me to DJ her 75th birthday party at the Holiday Inn By the Bay a couple years ago. The police department likes and respects her, too. There were so many cops at her party that I wondered who was out there “protecting [our] great city.”

But the circumstances of her article’s publication are what troubles me. Niblock notes that a pro-Palestinian rally was recently held in Monument Square after the signs were removed, but, curiously, she does not mention that numerous protesters climbed up onto the grass beneath the statue – a fact apparent in two pictures that accompany her article. It’s hard to believe this brewhaha is really about Councilor Donoghue overstepping his (or the city’s) bounds, or about the efficacy of signs to deter public nuisances. And it’s harder still to believe a petty matter like this is worthy of all the time and attention it’s been given, especially when real crimes – war crimes – are being perpetrated on our dime.

But that’s the allegedly “progressive” city of Portland for you. As Niblock reported, the “anti-trespassing” signs went back up last week.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.