In 1968 Waldo County residents signed a petition against gun control legislation being proposed at the time. In 1990 students at Belfast Area High School staged a sit-in after then-principal Ron Gleason stepped up enforcement of the school’s rules. And in the early 2000s people gathered during several protests in opposition to the war in Iraq.

People have gathered in the city for Earth Day, to protest the Gulf War and the Vietnam War, and to make their voices heard on other local and national issues.

Now the city is host to various gatherings for or against a proposed fish farm, Black Lives Matter, mask mandates and other issues. Many of these groups can be seen demonstrating weekly.

Meredith Bruskin, who moved to the Belfast area in the early ’80s, shortly thereafter became active in the AIDS movement, she said. She and other community members started the Waldo County AIDS Coalition. Since then she has participated in countless gatherings and protests in the city.

Resistance Corner, the corner of High and Main streets, became a frequent spot for protesters in the early 2000s, she said. She and others joined the Women In Black movement, which was started by Israeli women protesting Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Cathy Mink moved to the area in 1998 to retire, but a couple of years later found herself compelled to speak out against military action in Iraq, she said. “I’m a person who cares about what happens in the country, in the civic life of where we live,” she said.

The first gathering she attended in Belfast was one of the Women In Black gatherings, she said. At that time it was just a small group of women dressed in black.

The gatherings started as a silent peace vigil mourning victims of war and terrorism. Then in 2001 it became a weekly Sunday vigil organized by the Peace and Justice group in Waldo County, Bruskin said. They were protesting the United States’ response to 9/11, which they believed was moving toward endless war.

“Standing against the war in Iraq with millions and millions of people around the world, we were there on the corner and we had a die-in, and I think that was the only time there was nonviolent direct action,” she said.

Three people were arrested during the die-in, where protesters lie down to simulate death, for refusing to get off the crosswalks. The demonstration was an attempt to educate the public and raise awareness, she said.

Counter-protesters gathered peacefully on the other corner with signs and flags in support of the war, but there was no feeling of tension between the groups, Mink said.

“Tempers are always there when people are passionate about issues, so I won't say there hasn't always been passion,” she said. “But it’s different to me now; it’s much more aggressive.”

Rising tensions

Since 2014, when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed by Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, Bruskin and other Peace and Justice group members have been gathering frequently downtown to protest violence against Black people.

They recently moved their gatherings to Post Office Square after a confrontation with a group protesting state coronavirus mandates, she said.

“That energy of confrontation to me is new here in Belfast and in other places,” she said. It is a reflection of how people are reacting in protests she has attended nationally over the last few years.

Mink said protesters did not shout, scream or use bullhorns when she first started attending gatherings, behavior that has been observed at protests over the last year.

Bruskin said she is not on Facebook because it is not a place where meaningful dialogue can be achieved, and efforts to find middle ground between opposing groups are hampered right now because of the coronavirus, so she does not know how to mend the tension.

It is difficult to get people in one place at the same time to talk through these issues during a pandemic where you cannot ask people to gather, she said. “There is a longstanding tradition, I think a proud tradition, in Belfast of people speaking out. I don’t think until now it’s been seen as a problem,” Bruskin said.