“Lewiston Strong”: After a mass shooting, residents emerge with courage

By | October 28, 2023

On a sparkling October morning, with flamboyant red and yellow fall foliage, Lewiston residents emerged Saturday from two long days of confinement to a city forever changed.

Stores have reopened. The sidewalks came to life. And the families of the 18 people killed in a mass shooting here Wednesday night tried to move on in a fog of grief, their losses piling an almost unbearable weight on a place that prides itself on its resilience.

Lewiston, Maine – a town of 36,000 that feels more like a small town – lies away from the picturesque harbors and favored coastal enclaves in the sprawling interior of this vast rural state. With a history marked by two waves of immigration, a century apart, and hollowed out by the loss of the textile factories that once defined its economy, it is frequently described by outsiders with hackneyed and vaguely derogatory adjectives. Gravelly. Disjointed. Blue collar. No chance.

Some bristle at terms they see as a degradation of their home, its old brickyards and three-story buildings, its deep French-Canadian heritage and its new community of African migrants. But other residents, including Kristen Cloutier, a state representative who served as Lewiston’s mayor and city councilwoman, embrace the idea of ​​Lewiston and its sister city, Auburn, as stubborn survivors.

“Scrappy and gritty are at the heart of this place,” said Ms. Cloutier, who grew up there. “People say Lewiston is badass, and it’s true. The place is authentic – what you see is what you get – and the people are dedicated to it in a deeply personal way.

That commitment, along with the city’s confidence in its own strength, will help rebuild it, she said, in the wake of the worst violence the state has ever seen.

The shooter in the mass shooting, Robert R. Card II, 40, of nearby Bowdoin, opened fire at a bowling alley and bar, killing 18 and wounding 13. Among the dead were a young, longtime bowling coach, aged 70, and his wife; a 14-year-old high school student and his father; and four deaf men playing in a cornhole league, one of them a father of four young children.

Signs of the city’s resilience emerged a day after the gunman was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, ending two days of uncertainty and fear over whose residents were ordered to take refuge in their homes. On downtown Lisbon Street, paper hearts stapled to trees bore simple handwritten messages of devotion: “To my city”; “To My Neighbor” and “Lewiston Strong” signs appeared in windows.

A family from Westbrook, 30 miles away, came to hand out daisies and carnations to strangers in a downtown park on Saturday. Eve Ali, 30, a Lewiston resident who immigrated to the United States from Djibouti six years ago, handed out stacks of donuts and cups of hot coffee to remind her fellow citizens of the love and care that reign among them.

“I want people to remember that we need to focus on what brings us together, not what divides us,” she said, standing in a corner of Kennedy Park as an unusually gentle breeze brushed the tree leaves. “We make the decision as a community, and together we can choose love and forgiveness. »

Part of the region’s harshness comes from its climate, with long, harsh winters that demand extreme endurance. The local sport of choice is ice hockey, where players risk frostbite and fights to clean the bench; Lewiston’s richest sports history is a 1965 heavyweight boxing championship in his flagship arena, the Coliseum, where Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston in less than three minutes and stood over his fallen rival shouting, “Get up and fight, you motherfucker!”

The region’s economic woes require another dose of courage, as new industries have failed to fill the gaps left by shuttered factories. In the years before the coronavirus pandemic, small businesses multiplied in the city center, creating new momentum, noted Ms. Cloutier. But the pandemic and resulting shutdown hit hard, reversing much of that progress. Tourism has also been difficult to cultivate.

Yet instead of seeing its population decline like other parts of the state, the central Maine city has become a destination for thousands of African refugees and migrants who began settling there years ago. 20 years old, driven by their search for a safe and peaceful home and accommodation. shortages in southern Maine and other areas of New England. This influx transformed the city, into one of the whitest states in the country, but the adjustment, still ongoing, has not been easyFear, distrust, and resentment among some white residents toward the new arrivals, primarily Muslim Somalis, fueled ongoing tensions.

In a sign of progress, voters last year elected Rep. Mana Abdi, a Lewiston Democrat who ran unopposed, making her the state’s first elected Somali American lawmaker. Ms. Abdi came to the United States as a child after her family fled war in Somalia.

Politically, Lewiston’s position in central Maine, between the liberal south and the more conservative north, gives rise to a complex mix of opinions and cultures, with hijab-wearing Muslim African women coexisting with burly, bearded white men , wearing work boots and camouflage clothing. The city is home to Bates College, an elite liberal arts campus with a new black president; it is also surrounded by woods, farmland and small rural towns where hunting is a way of life and the rights of gun owners are ardently defended.

It is too early to tell what political changes might occur following the fallout from the violence. A day after the shooting, Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston-born centrist Democrat and veteran, reversed its long-held position and called for a ban on assault weapons, expressing remorse.

Kerri Arsenault, a writer who grew up in Mexico City, another Maine industrial town, said Lewiston’s underdog identity reflects changing attitudes toward blue-collar work across the country, with workers with low wages being regularly reduced.

“In the past, the working class was seen as honorable, loyal and hardworking,” she said, “but that has changed. Yet work and work ethic are part of identity here, the place of honor. »

That willingness to work hard will be put to use now, she and others said, as the city navigates a different kind of darkness.

“The people of Lewiston are known for their strength and courage,” said Carl Sheline, the city’s mayor. “We will need both in the coming days. »

Sydney Cromwell reports contributed.

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