Police Released Mugshots of Black Muslim Women Without Hijabs—and Charged Them More Heavily Than White Counterparts

Portland, Maine residents were protesting police violence when a man tried to drive his jeep into them.

By Michael Arria / AlterNet

September 23, 2016

Police in Portland, Maine have apologized for releasing photos of two Muslim women showing them with their hijabs removed, without their consent. But court records viewed by AlterNet reveal that black protesters, including the women the sheriff apologized to, were hit with more charges than their white counterparts, raising questions about whether Portland-area authorities have truly atoned for their civil rights transgressions.

In July, activists gathered in Portland's Lincoln Park to protest the police-committed killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both of whom were African American. The event, which was organized by Portland Racial Justice Congress, laid out a list of demands for police chief Michael Sauschuck: 1) release a statement acknowledging the nationwide police brutality problem; 2) increase transparency through law enforcement oversight committees; and 3) install police cameras to promote accountability.

During the action, a man drove his jeep into a group of protesters standing in the street with their hands clasped together. A protester, who asked to remain anonymous, told AlterNet, "The police department's actions the night of the protest were completely unjustified. They arrested peaceful protesters, mostly women and people of color, for blocking a road, while allowing the man who drove into a crowd of people go free."

The scene was caught on video by Nick Schroeder, the editor of Portland'sDispatch Magazine.

This man looked me in the eye as he drove slowly into a wall of#blacklivesmatter protesters in Portland, Maine.pic.twitter.com/7Wl3kR7DIi

— Nick Schroeder (@chawson) July 16, 2016

Schroeder wrote on Facebook that, "Nobody was hurt (thankfully); the cops did not stop him,” adding, “He had the option of turning left (unobstructed) or turning right, into protesters. He turned right.”

Police arrested 18 people during the protest, and two of the women taken to jail were photographed by corrections staff with and without their hijabs. Though the veil is a religiously significant piece of clothing for Muslims, police publicly released the photos depicting the women without their hijabs, and those images were published by media outlets.

Protesters alleged that four women were intimidated into taking photos without their hijabs (the other two women did not have their photos released without hijabs), and the sheriff’s office launched an internal investigation into the claims after three protesters pressed for answers at a city council meeting. 

Matthew Raymond, 21, a Portland resident who attended the protest, told city council members that, in addition to the mistreatment perpetrated by corrections authorities in jail, the Portland Police Department "targeted" people of color, punched protesters, slammed them against walls and twisted their arms. "Racism is alive and well in the state of Maine and the city of Portland, as is police brutality," he told the council.

Raymond told the Portland Press Herald, “[The four women] were promised that [jail officials] would not release photos of individuals that did not have hijabs on. In our opinion, it was a form of public shaming, and it’s a violation of their First Amendment religious rights.”

On September 14, Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce apologized for releasing the photos: “I offer my sincerest apologies to any of the individuals who were at all embarrassed that evening and to the Muslim community for the appearance that we are disrespecting their religious beliefs and practices."

Bangor Daily News journalist Dan MacLeod reported:

The sheriff’s office admitted that it violated its own policy in distributing the photographs. According to jail policy, two sets of photographs are taken for people wearing a headscarf, one with and one without the religious head covering. But only the former photographs should have been released, according to the sheriff.

Racial disparities in charges for the protesters raise concerns about whether this apology accounts for all civil rights violations inflicted against the protesters by authorities. Of the 18 people arrested at the protest, five are black, 12 appear to be either white or non-black and one is a juvenile. According to courthouse records that are publicly available, all of the black people received either three or four charges, 11 of the 12 white or non-black people arrested received two charges, and only one white individual faced three charges. The juvenile’s charges were not made available to the public.

These numbers reveal that, excluding the one white individual who received three charges, the black protesters each received either one or two more charges than their white/non-black counterparts. This data gives the appearance that there are inequities in how charges were doled out. The women whose mugshots were wrongfully released are black and are among those hit with a greater number of charges.

Despite the questions this raises, Portland mayor Ethan Strimling praised Joyce's apology. “The fact that he is taking responsibility shows true character, and I hope procedures will be put in place to make sure this will not happen again,” said Strimling.

Mayor Strimling also praised the Portland police immediately following the arrests. "Last night, the Portland Police Department was yet again on the front lines as our country’s hurt, pain and frustrations were on display,” he said in a press release. “And, as they do day in and day out, our law enforcement personnel performed with professionalism and empathy."

City manager Jon Jennings went even further, praising police for their response. “I honestly did not think I could be more proud until Friday night," he said. "The commitment and professionalism shown by every member of the Portland Police Department is a tremendous example of what makes this city great."

Meanwhile, the two protesters continue to face ongoing repercussions from the release of the humiliating photos. Once published in the media, the images cannot be scrubbed from the internet. The aforementioned anonymous protester told AlterNet, "A long-delayed apology for intimidating Muslim women and forcing them to take off their hijabs is certainly the least they could do, but the entire situation is a flagrant example of the kind of systemic racism and police brutality that this demonstration, and countless others, was protesting."

While the sheriff’s office says it will tighten up its booking policies going forward, it fails to mention that the justification for the arrests is in dispute. The investigation has not led to any firings or calls for resignation. 

Portland's Organizers for Racial Justice released a statement expressing dismay that alleged threats against their safety were not taken more seriously:

We have heard police, public officials, and news outlets rationalize that a white agitator was justified in putting our lives at risk by getting into his jeep and driving into a line of people standing peacefully with their hands clasped together, when he had the option of turning left where there was no obstruction.

After the arrests, police gave a different version of events. Police chief Sauschuck claimed protesters had draped their bodies over the hood of the car and began kicking it, escalating the situation.

Despite the fallout they have faced, protesters declared in their statement, "We are proud to have peacefully joined thousands of people around the country and world who have taken to the streets in recent weeks to call attention to the national emergency of police killings, and vigilante violence against black people, following the state-sanctioned murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.”