Anti-immigrant sentiments run high after Knox Street brawl kills Lewiston man.

Editor’s note: This story contains hate speech and crude language, and could be disturbing to readers.

LEWISTON — Immediately after last week’s fatal brawl near Kennedy Park, the comments started rolling in. On Facebook. On Twitter. Posted to news stories online.

“They are a stain on our way of life.”

“Send the foreigners back to where they came from. . . .”

“. . . . maybe them jumping someone carrying (a gun) is what needs to happen. Put a few holes in some of them and maybe, just maybe they will learn something.”

Days later, a group of white young adults milled around Kennedy Park and screamed, “We’re going to kill those f***ing Somali n***ers!” and “We’re going to get justice for Donnie!”

Since Donald Giusti, 38, of Lewiston, was beaten to death when his group and another clashed near the downtown park last week, ethnic tensions have surged in this city that has a history of uneasy feelings toward immigrants.

Although police have not publicly identified anyone involved with Giusti’s death, they have acknowledged that the opposing group included two dozen high school and middle school-age children and that they are working with the immigrant community as part of the effort to track down everyone involved.

That’s been enough to fuel rumors that a Somali youth killed Giusti, a white man, and to fuel the prejudiced sentiment that all Somali residents are to blame.

But as some people name-call and threaten violence, others — including Giusti’s family — have embraced the area’s immigrant community.

They have called for calm and cooperation.

“‘It’s like, ‘This is my town,’ ‘This is your town,'” said Giusti’s uncle Jim Thompson after one of several gatherings he attended to promote peace this week. “We all live together. This is everybody’s town.”

‘A MOMENT IN HISTORY’

Lewiston has been home to immigrants — including waves of Irish families and French Canadians — for centuries. With each new group there was a surge of unease, if not outright bigotry, expressed by earlier residents unhappy with their new neighbors’ lifestyle, religion or language. (See related story.)

That immigration trend continued in 2001, when the first Somali families — predominantly poor, black, Muslim and often still learning English — began moving to the city. In October 2002, then-mayor Larry Raymond wrote an open letter to the Somali community asking them to stop coming, saying their influx was putting too great a strain on city and school services.

The letter and ensuing media coverage publicly revealed stirrings against Somali families in Lewiston and led members of the white-supremacist group World Church of the Creator to plan a rally in Lewiston.

On a January day in 2003, a handful of spectators gathered in a small meeting room near a Lewiston industrial park — the only location allowed by the city — to listen to speakers from the World Church of the Creator. Meanwhile, across town, 4,000 to 5,000 people gathered at Bates College for their own rally to promote tolerance and embrace the Somali community.

Since then, thousands of Somali immigrants have moved into Lewiston. While Somali families remain the largest immigrant population in the city, families from other countries have joined them in recent years, including people from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Sudan, among others.

“I’m hearing 30 or more nationalities now that live in the community,” said Phil Nadeau, who retired last year after 18 years in city administration. He worked closely with the immigrant community for nearly two decades.

Since 2001, Lewiston has regularly made national and international headlines for its mix of native and new Mainers. This week, Netflix optioned the book “One Goal” about Lewiston High School’s team of native-born and Somali refugee soccer players who won the 2015 state championship.

Bates anthropology associate professor Elizabeth Eames called the mayor’s letter and the community’s response “a moment in history.”

“If there was a moment when this could have gone badly, that was one of the moments,” she said.

She believes Giusti’s death is another.

“It’s one of those moments in the history of a city where tensions are rising and it could go either way,” Eames said. “I think the efforts of the leaders, the elders, the faith leaders, city hall have been trying to keep it under control, but I do worry that it still could spiral.”

On social media, often a magnet for anonymous hate postings, there was a spiral and it was immediate.

“…deport the somalis. ALL of em,” commented Savannah with the handle @dobermanmamma on Twitter in response to a story about a uniform Kennedy Park curfew.

“…f*** all you sugar coating idiots..PLAIN AND SIMPLE IT’S THE F***ing SOMALIAN YOUTH who are the problem and have been the problem for many years,” wrote Matthew Drake in a comment to a Sun Journal news story on the fight.

And then there’s Facebook.

Heidi Sawyer, a longtime community member who started the group Lewiston Rocks a few years ago to promote all things good in the city, saw the reactions roll in.

“There’s a vocal minority that is making a lot of noise that makes it look bad on the entire city,” Sawyer said. “Everybody has that digital courage to say what they want. There’s no fear of repercussions.”

Soon after Giusti’s death, Sawyer closed the Lewiston Rocks Facebook group so that only its 3,200 members could interact on the page.

“There were people who were coming to the page who weren’t members,” she said. “They weren’t coming to the page intending to engage in healthy dialogue. They just wanted to like and laugh at comments that fueled their own hate and discontent. I didn’t want to leave members open to that.”

Around the same time, Sawyer received a private message. The sender called her a “race traitor.”

“Why not change the name from Lewiston Rocks to We love Somalians?” the message said.

Some people turned to another Facebook group, LA’s Journal. There the posts and comments that appeared in the wake of the fight and Giusti’s death a few days later were largely anti-immigration, anti-Muslim or anti-Somali.

“I’M A RACIST. . .  THEY TURNED ME THIS WAY, SOOOOO. ONLY against the salamis,” wrote Joyce Williams, using a derogatory term for Somalis.

Reached by Facebook message, Williams said she didn’t want to talk about her comments.

She wrote back: “I do not live there anymore, nor would I EVER notice back. It’s a 3rd World Country thete. I’m smack dab in Florida, and we don’t even live with that BS here. Not interested. The press and government is all corrupt, bias, and DON’T care what the US Citizens say or want. OPEN YOUR EYES . Until I see Valid proof of otherwise, I refuse to have anything to do with that crap. I will NEVER go near that part of town, unless I am armed to the hills to PROTECT my ‘Racist ‘ as they like to call us now, white ass. Sorry.”

Pearl Benner, the Facebook group’s founder, did want to talk.

“They’re nasty people,” she said by phone of Lewiston’s Somali immigrants. “Go take a walk down where they live. They’re gross. Guys are building all these new homes for them; they’re just going to trash them. That’s where they come from, Third World countries. They should be happy to be here, not taking lifes.”

Benner, 54, said she lived on Knox Street in downtown Lewiston 30 years ago and now lives in Auburn. She started LA’s Journal a couple of years ago, she said, because moderators removed comments from another Lewiston Facebook group she’d been part of and she wanted a place where people could speak their minds.

Sentiments like Benner’s are nothing new to LA’s Journal. Facebook has repeatedly suspended or banned some of the group’s 3,000 members for violating hate speech rules. Members joke about it — calling suspension “Facebook jail”— and consider removal a badge of honor. They share tips for getting around the hate speech rules, including creating multiple and fake Facebook accounts.

In the days after the park fight, posts and comments against Somalis ratcheted up in the group.

“Pig roast time,” wrote Mike Cribbin.

IN REAL LIFE

While social media has been the go-to place for such comments, anti-Somali sentiment has seeped into some real-life interactions as well.

Days after the park brawl, an Auburn woman went to Kennedy Park with a friend to play guitar. She said while they were there, a group of white young adults milled around the park yelling about killing Somalis and getting justice for Giusti.

“They were screaming ‘Somali n***ers!'” said Kim, who asked that only her first name be used because she feared reprisal. “They were screaming and yelling and carrying on.”

A couple of days after that, white park-goers stopped an African immigrant walking through the park and asked if he were Somali. The man said no and walked away, but the confrontation had its effect.

“He said he wasn’t really feeling comfortable walking alone in the park,” said Hamza Abdi, skill development and language services manager for the Lewiston-based Immigrant Resource Center of Maine.

Abdi himself feels a change in the city. There’s more anger, he said, more hatred.

“Things are not like they were from before,” he said.

Some in the immigrant community are afraid that anger will turn to violence.

“A lot of people are scared,” he said.

Abdi was quick to condemn the park fight and Giusti’s death: “The person who commits the crime is a criminal,” he said. At the same time, he emphasized it was not the fault of an entire ethnic group.

“If a white person killed an immigrant person, I wouldn’t say all white people are bad and target all white people in speech,” he said.

SUPPORT

But while anti-Somali sentiments have been abundant on social media and some people have taken their anger to the park, there have also been public signs of support for immigrants in general and the city’s Somali residents in particular.

Last Sunday, Giusti’s family joined immigrant leaders outside City Hall to call for peace and tolerance amid rising tensions. Since then, there has been a vigil, a rally, a barbecue or other peace gathering in the city almost every day.

“We’ve got a lot of good families in Lewiston: Muslim, Somali, American, everything,” said Thompson, Giusti’s uncle, after a gathering Tuesday. “Our kids play together, go to school together. We’ve got to learn to live amongst each other.”

At a City Council meeting Tuesday night, more than a dozen residents spoke about the state of the downtown, the fight and Giusti’s death. No one blamed Somali residents. Most actively defended them.

“My fear at this point is that we’re going to turn it into a racial issue,” Lewiston landlord Jay Allen told the council.

Resident Kim Pfusch denounced what she called “race baiting” online and said angry social media posts do not reflect the community’s true feelings.

“Don’t fall for it. Know that you’re being baited,” she told the council and the crowd gathered there.

Between the suggestions for better curfew enforcement and a greater police presence, one speaker asked the city for Somali language workshops so neighbors could more easily talk to each other.

Fatuma Hussein, founder and executive director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, said this week that she has been getting supportive emails and text messages from people throughout the state: “We’re watching this,” “Our prayers are with you,” “We also believe in Lewiston.”

She’s also felt support locally, in more informal, friendly ways.

“Many people are saying, ‘Hi! Hi!’ Total strangers,” she said.

Hussein sees anger toward Somali residents as a representation of grief — and it’s a grief she understands and shares. But she doesn’t believe everyone in Lewiston is angry at the city’s immigrants.

“Yes, people are hurt and, yes, some people are angry,” she said. “Many of us also do see the courage and the resiliency and the vibrancy our community has, regardless of cultural background and religious background.”

Even in the Facebook group LA’s Journal, some members have called for peace, admonishing other members for racist comments and maintaining that Somali residents are not to blame for the city’s ills.

“It’s funny how people think that Lewiston was some magical place before the newest immigrant population,” commented Bonnie Gallop on Friday. “I for one remember it differently.”

MOVING FORWARD

A number of people and community group members declined to talk for this story, fearing that any public comments they made would fuel tensions.

Some of that tension comes from the fact that police have not yet made an arrest. Online, people have questioned whether the police are covering for the Somali community.

Maine State Police handle all homicides in Maine and are spearheading the investigation into Giusti’s death, with help from Lewiston police. Chief Brian O’Malley told the City Council on Tuesday that the investigation is ongoing and will take time as police track down everyone involved in the fight that night.

“Somali representatives have been with us canvassing the neighborhood, interpreting for us as we go door to door to talk with folks on the one-way section of Knox Street,” O’Malley said Tuesday. “So it frustrates my officers, it frustrates my detectives when they hear (from Lewiston residents) that we’re not doing anything.”

Lewiston police have stepped up patrols in and around Kennedy Park and are enforcing a new 10 p.m. curfew in the park for everyone.

And as tensions remain high, they are also watching any threats made on social media against the city’s immigrant residents.

“It’s definitely, obviously a concern,” said spokesman Lt. David St. Pierre. “People need to take pride in their community, take pride in themselves and discourage such activity. And, of course, report it to the police.”

At the Immigration Resource Center of Maine, Hussein believes Lewiston can, and will, move forward.

“I think often you can learn from hard times,” she said. “You can grow from bad incidents. You can make a positive out of a very bad, negative situation. As a community, it’s important for us to really make this the best that we can so that we’re closer, we’re together, we unite, and we have a stronger foundation.”

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Editor’s note: We understand material contained in this story is alarming and difficult to read, but to accurately report the depth of hate we offered a small amount of the vast commentary that has risen since Donald Giusti’s death.

A still from a video that was taken shortly after a brawl near Kennedy Park in Lewiston on June 12 and circulated widely on Facebook. A 38-year-old Lewiston man was killed in the fracas.