Friday, January 11, 2013


Today is the 10th anniversary of the "Many and One" rally in Lewiston, Maine.  It's brilliantly sunny this morning, like that day.  With one big difference.

I remember cold.  Scary cold.  The type that makes you wonder if you’ve made a critical, frostbite-causing mistake by choosing the thin cotton gloves instead of the thick ski mittens.

Standing outside in the long, straggling line of people wrapped around the auditorium on the Bates College campus the afternoon of January 11, 2003, I worried about frostbite not only to my fingers and toes but to my kids, ages 10 and 9.  What were we thinking? I wondered to myself.  They’re going to freeze out here, and for what?  Do they really get it?

But how could we not bring them?  This was the “Many and One” rally, an enormous community effort to respond to thinly veiled threats and hate speech that had been directed at Lewiston’s Somali community by members of a national white supremacist group, the World Church of the Creator.  This was the result of the Mayor of Lewiston’s letter in the local paper, asking the Somali newcomers to “exercise some discipline” and tell their friends and relatives to stay away because Lewiston was “maxed-out.”  This was the response of the people of Maine to hatred and bigotry, the land of Joshua Chamberlain and Harriet Beecher Stowe speaking out against those haters “from away.”

This was turning out to the largest police action in the state’s history.  I’d never seen so many cops.

But the kids seemed completely unaware of the cold, the armed presence, and the “politics” which had led to our attendance that day.  They were having too much fun playing with their friends in the snow outside the auditorium.

Eventually, the long line snaked forward, and we found seats in the cavernous auditorium.  We were lucky: about 1000 people had to remain outside when the fire code limits were met.  Sound from within was piped out and hot chocolate was served and … wow.  Those people stayed.  In that bitter cold, they remained outside in order to hear what was said, in order to simply be present.

For the life of me, I can’t remember specifics about the speeches made that afternoon. There were a lot of elected officials.  There was chanting, people asking Where’s the Mayor? Because he wasn’t present.  There was serious applause when young people from the community, Somali youth, stood in front of that crowd and spoke into a microphone in a language not yet their own.  Most of all, there was a sense of wonder that permeated the whole setting.  Strangers kept looking at each other and grinning and saying, “Can you believe this?  Can you get over this crowd?”

It was a good day to be from Maine

My kids tell me they remember the big snow piles outside the auditorium that day.  I’m content that when they hear or read about the “Many and One” rally in the future, they’ll be content that their parents made sure they were there.

Of course, on the other side of town, at the armory, there was a very different sort of rally going on that day.  Members of the World Church of the Creator held forth there, and writer Crash Barry managed to “crash” that assembly and get a close look at those folks and what was said.  I post it here, for contrast:

Tonight, at the Lewiston Public Library, there’s a gathering to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the rally. It promises to be a balmy 25 degrees.  I don’t believe any police presence is required. 

What a difference a decade makes.

Maria Padian’s next novel, “Out of Nowhere,” due out from Random House on February 13, 2013, was inspired by events in Lewiston ten years ago.  It is the story of the friendship that develops between a white boy from Lewiston and a Somali refugee boy who both play on the same high school soccer team.