ORONO – Raising hands and shouting hallelujah, a small but passionate group of University of Maine students, faculty and staff assembled in front of Fogler Library on Wednesday to denounce racism and discrimination.
The “anti-hate” rally, led by James Varner, former president of the Greater Bangor Area NAACP, also was held to show support for Sarah Norris, the latest victim of a hate crime in the state.
Norris, 21, of Trenton, who is black, was attacked Sept. 9 outside a convenience store by a 59-year-old Franklin man. Robert Dow allegedly threw a beer can at Norris, then seven months pregnant, kicked her in the abdomen and shouted racial epithets.
“Are we going to put up with this type of heinous crime in Maine?” Varner called out as he stood on the library steps looking down at the 60 or so participants in the noontime rally.
“No!” was the resounding answer.
“I’m sorry there are human beings in our midst with this kind of hate in their heart,” said Varner, adviser to UM’s Human Rights Coalition, which seeks to educate students about issues of social justice and equality.
The group also works with the Greater Bangor Area NAACP.
He continued, “I’m eternally grateful for folks here today who took time out of their busy schedules to say loud and clear that we love Sarah Norris, and we love people with different life styles and different political persuasions. We love human beings.”
Other speakers echoed his sentiment. “We are one world,” said Robert Dana, dean of students.
“You as students have every responsibility to try to help others see that there are other ways besides violence,” he told the group.
“We don’t feel discrimination stands a chance on this campus – hate crimes in particular,” said state Rep. Emily Cain of Orono.
Also at the hour-long event, Varner announced plans by UM’s human rights commission to create a scholarship for Norris’ newborn baby.
Norris, who attended the rally, said in an interview later that she was “overwhelmed” at the news.
“I wondered how I would get a scholarship for her,” she said. “Knowing that I won’t have to worry about how I’m going to pay for college is really good to hear.”
Maine people care about others and “react swiftly to hate crimes,” said state Sen. Elizabeth Schneider of Orono.
Tom Harnett, assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights education and enforcement, noted that the state has filed a civil rights action lawsuit against Dow, and is seeking a court order prohibiting him from coming within 250 feet of Norris or members of her family. Any violation of Norris’ civil rights would result in a 364-day jail sentence.
Dow is due to be arraigned Nov. 21 at Ellsworth District Court.
Harnett said that Maine has seen a number of hate crimes during the last five months. A Somali woman from Portland and a Somali man from Lewiston were threatened and insulted, a lesbian couple from Poland had their home defaced, and a severed pig’s head was thrown into a Lewiston-Auburn mosque.
“This is not the way Maine is supposed to be,” he said.
But the good news is that in each case a lawsuit was filed under the Maine Civil Rights Act, he added.
UM’s student government also has spoken up against intolerance, it was announced during the rally. On Tuesday night, the student senate unanimously voted for a resolution condemning the violence against Norris.
UM is “a microcosm of the state of Maine,” said Adam Kirkland, student government president. “We need to take a stand and say this is not acceptable.”