The crowd of thousands watches the fireworks display from the Eastern Prom in Portland on Thursday night.
Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
The fireworks were first-rate. So was the Portland Pops concert. But when I look back on Thursday’s July Fourth festivities on the eastern end of the Portland peninsula, one moment long will stand out above all the others.
It came right after music director Eckart Preu led the Portland Symphony Orchestra through a rousing salute to the armed services, during which veterans of each branch proudly stood while their respective anthems were played.
As the applause subsided, emcee Lee Nelson of News Center Maine (WCSH/WLBZ) acknowledged a group of asylum seekers, all recent arrivals to Portland, sitting a short distance up the hill from the stage. He asked the massive crowd to welcome them to this annual celebration of freedom and independence.
And welcome them we did.
Thousands of people stood, faced the newcomers and cheered. And in that moment – actually, several moments – we showed what it means to be a true American.
We live in a time when it’s easy, some might say even mandatory, to pick sides. Nowhere was that more evident Thursday than in Washington, D.C., where the Independence Day observance diverged into two gatherings separated not just by the sprawling National Mall but by an ever-widening chasm in our body politic.
At one end, standing before the Lincoln Memorial, President Trump spoke glowingly, if not entirely accurately, of our rich military history. To underscore his point, two M1 Abrams tanks stood parked nearby and several military aircraft flew overhead, all punctuation marks on Trump’s “Salute to America.”
At the other end, by the U.S. Capitol, the annual “Capitol Fourth” celebration drew an entirely different crowd. The Washington Post spotted only one MAGA hat in that throng, while “Baby Trump” balloons bobbed everywhere.
“Each side even had its own fireworks show largely invisible to the other,” the Post reported, “along with plenty of rhetorical firecrackers being tossed where the two sides mixed.”
Not so here in Portland. The thousands who packed the grassy hillside overlooking Casco Bay, faced with honoring our veterans and welcoming those from away who came here seeking the same safety and security that we too often take for granted, didn’t see it as a binary choice.
They applauded both.
Standing there clapping, I wondered how it must feel, only days after stepping off a bus in Portland, to be treated as guests of honor at such a dazzling birthday celebration.
Not to mention the picnic earlier in the day at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, where volunteers who answered the Facebook call from Amy Regan Gallant of South Portland treated 150 asylum seekers to kite flying, face painting and tables brimming with food.
Wewe Manta, who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her two little girls, described the picnic as “a beautiful and wonderful gesture.”
“They are very welcoming,” Manta said, speaking through a translator to Press Herald reporter Kevin Miller. “Everybody is very friendly and we feel welcome in the city.”
There are those among us, to be sure, who look askance at this migration from the Mexican border to a place called Portland, Maine, where the people are said to be kind and ready to help the displaced in any way they can.
Some Mainers express concern over where we’re going to put them all, how we’re going to feed and clothe them all, what we’ll do if they keep on coming.
Others gripe about how this influx is changing the fabric (read: color) of Maine and how the newcomers are jumping the line on our homeless, our seniors and yes, our military veterans.
Yet at the same time, countless others have demonstrated, from the more than $500,000 in private donations that have poured into the city of Portland, to the legions of volunteers lining up to help in any way they can, that this isn’t about picking one group over another.
It’s about understanding, as our founders did 243 years ago, that we are all endowed “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It’s about remembering that somewhere in our past, our own ancestors came here seeking those same blessings.
It’s about being human.
Several times during Thursday’s revelry, I checked my phone to see what was happening down in the nation’s capital. The journalist in me, I admit, was looking for signs of trouble – thankfully, beyond the occasional push and shove, there was none.
But as I read about the sweltering heat and humidity, the rain-dampened crowds and – at least at the Lincoln Memorial end – the supremely ironic cramping of Trump’s supporters into cage-like enclosures for security purposes, I couldn’t help but feel fortunate to be here and not there.
And as we all cheered – first for the veterans, then for the asylum seekers – I couldn’t help but feel proud to call this place my home.
Later in the program, as Maestro Preu (who comes from Germany) led the musicians through a moving rendition of “America the Beautiful,” my wife found herself tearing up at the thought of all those asylum seekers, still not quite believing they’re here, watching the fireworks as the music wafted over the Eastern Promenade.
A woman next to her, whom she’d befriended during the intermission, noticed the tears.
“Are you crying?” she asked.
“I am,” my wife replied, wiping her cheeks.
“I am too.”
“We are so lucky,” my wife said.
The woman nodded in agreement.