Thousands of Vermonters attended protests and rallies over the last month to stand in solidarity with Black Americans, but not all were free from disruption. To some, this didn’t come as a surprise.
People around the state joined in national protests against the deaths of Black Americans, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, at the hands of police. Events stretched beyond Burlington, regarded as one of the more left-leaning hubs. But calls for Black Lives Matter in Vermont, with a white population of 94%, have not been openly received by all.
“I believe that Vermonters think of themselves as very enlightened advocates of racial equality,” said Stephen Wrinn, author of “Civil Rights in the Whitest State: Vermont’s Perceptions of Civil Rights, 1945-1968.” The book explains “why residents’ reactions to the movement did not conform to their self-perceptions of racial enlightenment.”
He pointed out that Vermont was the first to prohibit slavery and sent large droves to fight in the Civil War.
“Despite that attitude,” Wrinn said, “I think the perception from outside of Vermont is, you know, they talk the talk. But do they walk the walk?”
Vermont history not free from racism
The state has had a fractured relationship with race through the years.
“Vermonters were very much in favor of the national Civil Rights Movement when it was an effort to desegregate the south in the north’s image,” Wrinn said, an enthusiasm that didn’t always sustain in Vermont when it came to the state changing its own laws and practices.
Wrinn pointed to racial unrest that has come to the forefront of Vermont’s history, including:
- The Irasburg Affair, a 1968 incident in which shots were fired at the house of David Lee Johnson, a Black Baptist minister.
- Gov. Phil Hoff, who served in Vermont during the 1960s, starting the Vermont-New York Youth Project, a program bringing Black teenagers from New York City to summer programs in the state. The program received push-back, “where many whites saw Hoff as importing inner-city problems to a rural state.”
- The recent case of Kiah Morris, a Black former lawmaker in the state who faced online harassment for her race.
Recent efforts to address racism have seen support across the state. But they also received some local push back last month. Examples include:
- Montpelier’s large “Black Lives Matter” mural getting defaced shortly after its completion.
- An individual arguing with participants in a Craftsbury anti-racism rally, depicted in a Twitter video.
- An individual yelling vulgarities and racial slurs at “a group of females, including some juveniles… who were peacefully protesting,” according to a news release from the Brattleboro police.
Disagreement over Black Lives Matter movement at Craftsbury rally
A video posted on Twitter showed an altercation between an individual and protest attendees at a Black Lives Matter protest in Craftsbury.
The video opens with a shot of a pickup truck, with two individuals seated in the bed. One held a Confederate flag, the other a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Someone can be heard repeatedly asking the driver of the truck if he doesn’t believe Black lives matter. The man eventually yelled that he does not.
“Is that what you wanted?” he asked. At the end of the video, he said he doesn’t have a problem with Black Lives Matter. “I have a problem with what most of it stands for.”
Pablo Coddou, one of the organizers of the protest, said he expected maybe 30 attendees to show up to the rally, but estimated the actual turnout likely exceeded 200. He wasn’t surprised the incident occurred but didn’t necessarily expect it, either.
He has since come to acknowledge that this is part of the reality. Coddou didn’t think his rally brought problems into town, but just exposed what was already there.
Montpelier ‘Black Lives Matter’ mural defaced
Hundreds gathered in Montpelier last month to create a mural replicated across the country, as large yellow letters declared “Black Lives Matter” in front of the statehouse.
It didn’t last untouched for long.
The mural got “smeared with mud, dirt and oil” that same weekend, according to police. Graffiti included messages like “Put it back call Trump.”
“Sadly, I wish I were really more shocked that somebody vandalized this,” City Manager William Fraser said.
While it might not be the majority, a current of racism exists in Vermont, he said. Fraser felt most in Montpelier supported messages like those expressed in front of the statehouse.
“But not all.”
What’s fair game when it comes to protesting and free speech?
“The First Amendment protects speech that a lot of us would find incredibly offensive,” Gene Policinski said. “There’s nothing in the 45 words that says we have to be polite, even make sense and certainly nothing that prevents us from being crude and rude and insulting.”
Policinski is the chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute, an organization dedicated to advocacy and education surrounding the First Amendment. Not all speech is fair game, including that which can be interpreted as a true threat.
Policinski offered an example: Getting into an argument with someone and saying you hope a meteor flies out of the sky and kills them likely won’t fit this standard. Holding a knife during an argument and threatening to kill someone with it, however, could be interpreted as a true threat.
“The antidote to speech you don’t like is not to try to suppress the speaker you don’t like,” he said. “But to speak out loudly with your point of view.”
The Institute defines a few other categories that are generally not protected by the First Amendment. These include:
- “Incitement to imminent lawless action.”
- Child pornography.
- Fighting words.
- “Solicitation to commit crimes.”
Contact Maleeha Syed at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-495-6595. Follow her on Twitter @MaleehaSyed89.
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