Contending with racial justice in Vermont goes back years. So does the backlash. – Burlington Free Press

Posted: July 3, 2020 at 5:47 pm


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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 beyondBurlington, regarded as one of the more left-leaning hubs. But calls for Black Lives Matter in Vermont, with awhite population of 94%,have not been openly receivedby 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?"

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 toracial unrestthat has come to the forefront of Vermont's history, including:

More: Kiah Morris: The Vermont incidents that led to a black lawmaker's resignation

The "Protest for George Floyd!" filled Battery Park, and then during a march spilled onto North Avenue and the parking lot at the Burlington Police Department.(Photo: Leonora Dodge/courtesy)

Recent efforts to address racism have seen support across the state. But they also received some local push back last month.Examples include:

A video posted on Twitter showed an altercation between an individual and protest attendees at a Black Lives Matter protestin 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 attendeesto 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.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 14, 2020, the Montpelier Police Department located spray painted graffiti applied to the city sidewalk and Vermont Statehouse walkway across from 120 State St. The messages referenced government spending and did not appear to reference the Black Lives Matter community mural project nearby.(Photo: Courtesy of Montpelier Police Department)

Hundreds gatheredin Montpelier last month to create a mural replicated across the country, as large yellow letters declared "Black Lives Matter" in front of the statehouse.

More: Black Lives Matter mural in Vermont vandalized with mud, oil

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, acurrent of racism exists in Vermont, he said. Fraserfelt mostin Montpelier supported messageslike those expressed in front of the statehouse.

"But not all."

"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 andrude and insulting."

Policinski is thechief 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 asa 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:

More: Winooski man accused of hate crime in verbal assault case involving child

More: Black Lives Matter: Burlington crowd protests for George Floyd, marches to police parking lot

More: Black Lives Matter flag in Milton torn down, stolen

Contact Maleeha Syed at mzsyed@freepressmedia.com or 802-495-6595. Follow her on Twitter@MaleehaSyed89.

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Contending with racial justice in Vermont goes back years. So does the backlash. - Burlington Free Press

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July 3rd, 2020 at 5:47 pm

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