He's declined to apologize so far...but Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald is under increasing pressure to account for a series disparaging remarks he's made about the Somali community. This morning several dozen Somali residents and their supporters protested on the steps of City Hall. And as Susan Sharon reports, they are calling on the mayor to apologize or resign.
Thursday, October 04, 2012
Not since 2003 when a white supremacist group was shouted down and sent packing by hundreds of protestors in Lewiston have so many Somalis gathered to denounce what they say is hateful and divisive speech. Carrying signs that read "Lewiston is better than this" and "We are stronger together," they called on Mayor MacDonald to change his ways.
Crowd chants: "What do we want? An apology! When do we want it? Now!"
Recently the mayor was quoted as saying that African immigrants should "accept our culture and leave your culture at the door." And in a local newspaper column he described how "submissive Somali women turn into obnoxious customers at the grocery store cash register." Somali advocate Nimo Yonis (left) says such comments reflect poorly on the mayor and the entire city.
"The remarks made by the mayor over the last few months were clearly racist and anti-immigrant statements that do not reflect the sentiments of this all-American city," she told the crowd. "We demand an apology, and plan for this office on how he will work to reunite the city and not further divide it. Thank you."
Yonis herself was about eight years old in 2002 when the mayor at that time ignited a similar firestorm, complaining in an open letter to the Somali community that the city's first wave of refugees was straining the city's limited resources. The statement was embraced by a white supremacist group that threatened to make trouble in Lewiston. But only a few members showed up and their effort was quickly snuffed out by an outpouring of support for the new Somali residents.
Still, Yonis says, it was a scary time. Back then she says she was dealing with alot of racism in school. She felt alone, "and unwanted. Everytime I sat in the classroom I felt like I was - not wanted to be there."
Yonis says life gradually improved as her classmates and the people of Lewiston got to know the Somali culture better. City officials estimate there are between 6,000 and 7,000 Somalis living in the greater Lewiston area. They own more than two dozen local businesses. They rent apartments in buildings that had long been vacant. They pay taxes and, like Yonis, attend college in the area.
Yonis says she wants to be a surgeon. But for every positive step her community makes, Yonis says sentiments like those expressed by the mayor are a setback. Ward 5 City Councilor Craig Saddlemeir agrees, and says that's why he joined the Somalis in a show of support on the steps of city hall.
"To anyone who ever was made to feel bad because they're different, you have allies in Lewiston," he told them. "You have allies in Ward 5, and we're here to support you to the end. Thank you. "
For some, the mayor's suggestion that Somalis should assimilate is reminiscent of the way Franco-American and Irish immigrants were treated when they settled in Lewiston to work in the textile mills. Mayor MacDonald himself is Irish. And Somali community member Abdi Musa says that makes the mayor's statements that much more bizarre.
"Either there's something wrong with this guy mentally, or he's a total embarassment for the whole community of Lewiston, even whites, blacks, you can name it," Musa says. "All the different groups who live in Lewiston area basically are disappointed, and it's embarassing, attracting attention."
"Thank you all so much for being here," Gen Lysen of the Maine People's Alliance told the crowd. "We did successfully deliver the petitions signatures to the city administrator who will pass them on to the mayor.""
Petition organizers say more than 1,400 signatures asking the mayor to apologize or resign were delivered to city hall. There is no provision in the city's charter to officially recall the mayor. But speaking for the seven-member city council, Council President Mark Cayer says members are encouraged by the mayor's statement at a recent council meeting that he is willing to meet with members of the Somali community.
The mayor himself did not return a telephone call seeking for comment for this story.