LEWISTON – One of the largest protests in decades drew more than 700 people Thursday to a peaceful demonstration to demand police reforms and an end to the killing of black men and women by officers across the country.

“We are awake and we are alive and we are strong,” said one of the event’s organizers, Shukri Abdirahman of Lewiston.

Waving homemade signs and chanting, the mostly young and racially diverse crowd surged through the streets of Lewiston and Auburn insisting that a more just system is possible. It was the third significant Black Lives Matter protest this week in the Twin Cities.

“There’s no reason for everyone to hate on each other,” said Isha Abdullahi from Lewiston, who called for everyone “to make peace together.

Perhaps the most compelling moment came as the marchers crossed the Longley Bridge, blocked off at both ends by police and public works vehicles, where nearly every participant lay down on the pavement to remember George Floyd, murdered in Minnesota last week by officers who ignored his pleas for help as one kneeled on his neck until he died.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” the marchers said in unison before going silent.

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Sophia Carson, a junior at Edward Little High School in Auburn, carried a sign that said “You Don’t Have To Be Black To Be Outraged.”

“It’s horrible what’s happening right now,” Carson said, adding that she can’t stand the ignorance of people who can’t be bothered to learn the facts.

Protesters shake hands with Auburn police officers after they kneeled down in solidarity during the Black Lives Matter protest on Thursday evening. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Lewiston police walked with the crowd, earning plaudits for their participation, while several Auburn officers briefly became the focus of the rally’s attention when marchers paused in front of the Auburn Police Department.

As demonstrators kneeled in the middle of Court Street, they called on the trio of officers standing at the door to the department to “take a knee” as well, to join their colleagues from Lewiston. For a long while, as some in the crowd grew restive and perhaps angry, the officers ignored the pleas.

Watching their refusal, Abdirahman said, “my heart was broken.”

Finally, though, someone inside the building opened the door, said something, and the three kneeled, drawing some cheers. But Abdirahman said by then, she “felt like they did it out of spite” rather than any sense of solidarity.

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The rally began at Simard-Payne Memorial Park before crossing the bridge and marching just past the junction of Turner and Union streets before reversing course and heading to the Lewiston Police Department.

Abdirahman stood on a wall overlooking the street beside the police headquarters and proclaimed, “I love this. I love all of you.”

“We stood strong and we marched,” she said.

She vowed to keep protesting as well.

“They will continue to hear our voice. This is not the end. This is just the beginning. We won’t stop,” Abdirahman said.

She praised the officers who walked and kneeled with the demonstrators, handing the microphone to one of them to offer the final word.

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“We haven’t listened enough,” said Officer Joe Phillippon, who promised the police will listen more and try harder.

“The Lewiston Police Department hears you,” he said. “We can demonstrate together.”

He said that protests don’t have to lead to violence and can, done right, bring change.

Mayor Mark Cayer, who watched it all, said at the end that he is proud of his city and everyone who participated in the protest. He said he found it inspiring.

“I’m so excited. Finally, the nation’s listening,” the mayor said.

Brandi Walton, who helped ensure a big supply of black t-shirts for the rally, said the event’s purpose was to spread awareness of a growing crisis in America.

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She said the injustice that led to the death of Floyd and many other black men and women needs to be addressed.

It’s something everyone can help with, Walton said.

“Challenge where your heart is,” she said, and change will come. “You see little victories happening” already, Walton added.

Lauren Landry said she came from Winthrop because she “wanted to play a part” in an important national conversation, to add her voice to those of so many others and “stand with our black friends across the country. We’re out here for them.”

Brandon Marx from Portland said the time has come to defund and disarm the police.

He said the money spent on traditional policing could be used more effectively to bolster disadvantaged communities and on programs to discourage lawbreaking.

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It’s not as far-fetched as it may seem, he said, pointing to the success of past efforts to end slavery and deliver rights to women.

Those were impossible, too, he said, “until people rose up.”

“For too long, black people have been killed at the hands of an oppressive system,” Abdirahman said. “Our fight is to dismantle the system.”

Another issue that unified the crowd was the assertion that President Donald Trump must be sent packing.

At one point, marchers chanted, “Trump has to go!” over and over.

Abdirahman said the president, who plans to visit a factory in Guilford on Friday, should stay away.

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“Trump is not welcome in our state,” she said.

Then she led the crowd in chanting “We have to vote.”

Khadija Mohamed, who joined Abdirahman standing before the crowd, said she came to America believing its promise applied to everyone but has learned that the golden gate is not the same for all.

Too many consider her color or her hijab a threat, she said, and that needs to change.

“We all belong,” Mohamed said, and the crowd chanted along.

“We don’t need violence to make change,” Abdirahman said. “All we need Is love.”

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