Rutland County NAACP, Tabitha Moore addressing crowd at Black Lives Matter rally in Vermont, June 2020. Photo credit: Hannah Dicton

Black Lives Matter in the whitest state in the Union: Part 1. Protest and paradise lost

13 mins read

When George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the country erupted. Hundreds of Black Lives Matter protests popped up across the nation, including in Vermont. But that was to be expected. It is considered a liberal enclave in New England. However, the backlash from anti-BLM Vermonters showed a more troubling side of the state.

An Ark Republic reporter’s exploration of a BLM demonstration uncovers a complicated history of race in Vermont. What is unveiled is a past that has been sugar-coated within a re-imagined identity. This three-part series delves into current efforts pushing Vermonters to explore racism in their communities, and their past, in which their attitudes derive. The first part releases today with the following story running for the next two Monday’s.

The Protest  

Early June 2020, a peaceful protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement took place at Main Street Park in Rutland, Vermont.  Between 500 to 1,000 people held signs, some donning black shirts with the words, “I can’t breathe.” Throughout the demonstration they chanted, “No Justice, No Peace!” and “Say Their Names!”   

Passers-by joined by honking car horns and shouting along.  Even though Vermont is the whitest state in the nation, with less than 4 percent of the population being people of color, the crowd was more diverse. 

The event was part of a wave of demonstrations across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder at the hands of Minneapolis Police.  Floyd was killed weeks before on May 25, 2020.  

In the days following, the would-be organizers of Rutland’s protest began planning a large event to rally the community.  Aris Sherwood, Maddy Thorner and Kjersti Conway, three young white women, reached out to the Rutland County NAACP chapter for their support.  Tabitha Moore, the local chapter’s president, was happy to help.  

Regarding her role, Moore said she primarily acted as support for those who coordinated the rally.  She recalled, “Aris Sherwood reached out to me and said, ‘I’ve never done anything like this before, with racial justice organizing, would you be willing to support me through the process?’”  Moore agreed to speak at the event, as well.    

With only a week to organize details like location, guest speakers, and security, planning came together quickly.  The organizers took logistical inspiration from a silent vigil held just days after Floyd’s death.  The smaller display of solidarity was attended by about 200 people, and was also held at Main Street Park.  Castleton Indivisible, a student organization at the local state university, sponsored that event.  

Protestor holds sign at BLM Rally. Photo credit: Hannah Dicton

The planners of Rutland’s protest invited three young Black students to address the rally-goers:  Makeiya Hendrickson, Ella Norton, and Domonique Thorne.  During their speech, the trio spoke about their experiences of racism, as reported in the Mountain Times.

Hedrickson remembered some of many instances of casual racism she experienced among her peers. Once, a friend informed her that her skin looked like “dog poop.”  Hendrickson asked the audience to “imagine every time you step out of your door, there is a target on your back.  This is what it is like for Black people in America.”  

“If you are not Black, then you really truly do not understand the frustration we deal with on a daily basis,” said Norton.  She also expressed that when she is upset or passionate, she is seen as “a mad Black woman instead of a mad person.” 

| Read: A white pocket in Queens shaken by Black Lives Matter protests

Thorne hoped that if young people of the future are taught history more accurately then “maybe one day, racism won’t be as bad a problem as it is today.”

Later, more attendees of the public gathering told their stories.  Nikki Stone recalled  being the only Black student in her all-white school while growing up:  “I didn’t stand up for my people … because I didn’t know how.  It’s only today, 45 years later, that I’m actually taking a stance.”  

Terrohn Richardson told of being profiled in Rutland, and believes many people automatically see him as an out-of-stater, drug-dealer, or predator.  He said, “This is my community, and it doesn’t feel good to walk outside and feel separate from it.”  

Richardson told the gathering, “It’s not just Black, this is all of our fight.  If you don’t like what this crowd looks like then you should probably live elsewhere, because this is what it’s all about.”  His words were met with a roar of applause and cheers.  

Sherwood echoed Richardson’s sentiments when she told the crowd:  “This event isn’t for any white person that showed up today.  This is for every single person of color in the state of Vermont.  The rest of us?  We are here to show our support, uplift them, and let them know that we hear them, we see them, we stand with them.  If a Black person speaks, you listen; if a Black person leads, you follow.”  

Katelyn Loomis, another participant from West Rutland, told VTDigger  that she was there “to support [her] half-Black sons, and make sure they are not next.”

A fight for Black lives

Originally, the event was scheduled from 10:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night.  But, it was shortened to a midday four-hour window due to multiple threats of violence posted on Facebook by opposing parties.   

Moore recalled the posts as “horrifying,” with some individuals threatening to bring bullets and guns to the protest.  According to Moore, a few posted under the guise of protecting local shops and landmarks from looters and rioters.  She told us that one threat in particular was affiliated with a white supremacist group.

In February of this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report showing that there are currently 838 hate groups operating in the U.S. One hate group is listed in Vermont, but a total of 30 were identified in the New England region.  

For the safety of its participants, the event was planned in cooperation with the Rutland City Police Department.  As well, the NAACP provided additional security.  Moreover, organizers did not want Rutland’s event to experience what some other protests across the nation had been met with: police brutality and violent counter-demonstrators. To their relief, the protest went peacefully as planned.

Demonstrators march on Route 4 in Rutland. Photo credit: Hannah Dicton

After the speeches, a large group led by Taylor Torres marched on the sidewalk, down Main Street to Woodstock Avenue-US Route 4. Next, they headed towards Rutland High School, where a Black Lives Matter flag flies.  The flag, which was hoisted in April of 2019, was due to come down in June after 400 days. Symbolically, the time frame represented 400 years of slavery in the United States.   

Moore told Ark Republic that in the weeks prior to the protest, the city engaged in “conversations about whether it is time for the BLM flag to come down.”  However, between the recent murders of Black folks at the hands of police and demonstrations in response, Moore felt it was “very clear that we’re not ready to take it down.”  As a result, the school district stated it will not be removing the flag at this time.  

While at the flagpole during the march, demonstrators sang “Amazing Grace,” then returned to Main Street Park.  There, the group kneeled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the amount of time former police officer Derek Chauvin pressed on George Floyd’s neck.  The rally ended around 3:45 p.m.  

Trouble in Paradise

Along with carrying the record for being the whitest state, for decades, Vermont has earned a reputation as the most liberal in the nation.  However, at first glance, the state is an unlikely candidate:  rural, 96% white, with some of the least-restrictive gun laws in the US.  These features are normally hallmarks of GOP territory, and, indeed, current Governor Phil Scott is a particularly moderate Republican.  

Despite those traits, Vermont seems to be progressives’ dream:  the first state to abolish slavery in 1777; the first to legalize civil unions in 1999; and the first to legalize marijuana use through the legislature in 2018.  It is also the birthplace of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, the hometown small business duo turned philanthropic, multinational giant.  

In a liberal litmus test, The Green Mountain State is held up as the gold standard, and even the closest thing to a progressive Utopia possible in the United States.  To the rest of the nation, Vermont’s left-leaning tendencies can even seem extreme.  

Cue Bernie Sanders, the Democratic-socialist senator.  He began his political career as a civil rights activist in the 1960’s and became mayor of Burlington in 1981.  While he was instrumental in the creation of Vermont’s own Progressive Party, Sen. Sanders  is too independent to be shackled by party loyalties himself.  

In his tenure, Sen. Sanders has pushed progessive stances, including the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and healthcare reform throughout his career.  In the case of free public college, the politician has become practically synonymous with the issue.  Over time, Sanders himself has become synonymous with the state he represents.

Bernie Sanders at a New Green Deal Rally with supporters and New York congressional official, Rep. Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez. Photo credit: Bernie Sanders Flickr page.

Vermont’s motto is “Freedom and Unity,” emblematic of a certain “live-and-let-live” attitude common there.  Everyone is welcome and accepted into the fold and free to do as one pleases:  be a pro-choice Republican governor, a scrappy entrepreneur starting a small business from scratch, or a political enthusiast who rejects the two-party system, even vote while imprisoned.  

However, all that glitters in Vermont is not gold.  Currently, it carries the nation’s highest rate for Black male incarceration, and the third highest for African-Americans overall.  Even though less than 1% of Vermont’s population is Black, African Americans make up 11% of its prison population, according to research by The Sentencing Project.  

In 2019, the Vermont State Police were over four times more likely to search a Black driver than a white driver during a traffic stop.  

At times, the treatment of immigrants in the state is less-than accommodating. A majority of migrant farm workers in the state are deemed food-insecure.  According to research by professors at the University of Vermont, many fear leaving their farms, even to get groceries.  Adding to the pressure of being a person-of-color and vulnerable, migrant workers told researchers their trepidation  is because of high border-control presence in their towns and outspoken Trump-supporting neighbors.

| Watch: Minneapolis burning: Protest, theology, the Black community and the bourgeoisie in BLM demonstrations

History does not put Vermont in a favorable light, either.  The Ku Klux Klan boasted 10,000 members in the state in the early 1920s according to its own records, and meetings occurred in Vermont until as late as 1927.  When the white hate group was an active presence, Cross-burnings were commonplace.  

Throughout some of the state’s prestigious institutions, racialized events were a mainstay. The University of Vermont’s minstrel-esque ‘Kake Walk’ parade was a beloved annual event on campus until 1969.  With origins in the 1890s, the event grew to a three-day extravaganza as part of a winter carnival.  The highlight was the “walkin’ fo’ de kake” competition where performers donned “kinky wigs” and blackface to perform tricks, skits and dances to the melody of “Cotton Babes.” Later, the blackface changed to greenface. 

At Rutland Senior High School, one of the largest secondary schools in the state, a “Red Raider” has been represented as its mascot since the 1930s.  A racist caricature of Indigenous people, the mascot’s history at Rutland HS is tainted with war whoops, feathered headdresses, and much references to ‘savagery’ and scalping.  

While Rutland High School claims to honor Native culture, it falls short in accurately representing local tribes such as the Abenaki.  To worsen matters, the “Red Raider” tradition magnifies the mistreatment of Natives in the state; especially, in light of the eugenics program created in Brandon in the 1930s. The objective of this initiative was to “breed a better Vermonter.”  Until the 1960s, the program enforced sterilizations of indigenous Vermont women.   

Efforts have been made since the 1980s to change Rutland’s Raider name, with successes including the removal of the word “red” and the retirement of the once officially-endorsed headdress motif.  Currently, the city is embroiled in debate again over whether to retire the name completely and replace it.  Nonetheless, Rutland High School still retains an arrowhead as its official visual mascot.  

Paradise lost

At least two Vermont high schools utilized a Confederate soldier as a mascot.  Brattleboro Union High School, home of the Colonels, used an image nearly-identical to Ole Miss’ infamous Colonel Rebel since the 1950s.  

Members of the Brattleboro school community also burned Black effigies, proudly waved the Confederate flag, and regularly used the chant “pride of the south” — which means southern Vermont, ostensibly.  After much debate, the white plantation owner’s image was finally retired in 2004.  Yet and still, Brattleboro, named after a real colonel of the Revolutionary era, retains the Colonel’s moniker to this day.  

In 1961, South Burlington High School’s inaugural class chose “Rebels” as their mascot.  In the years immediately following this decision, the name faced pushback from members of the community, who insisted it had racist connotations.  Even so, a Confederate flag often accompanied by strains of “Dixie” was common on South Burlington’s football field.  

After years of contention over South Burlington’s Captain Rebel, it was retired in the late 1990s, but the name remained until 2017.  At the behest of a student activist group and national media attention, the School Board voted to find a new mascot.  Later that year, South Burlington High School was rebranded as the Wolves.  

In June of this year, a Black Lives Matter sign was slashed by vandals at a middle school in South Burlington.

Fool’s gold

Despite mascot changes, the question remains if Vermont is as forward-thinking as it claims to be.  The story of Kiah Morris, formerly Vermont’s only Black female state representative, is especially poignant.  Morris, of Bennington, was forced to step down in 2018 after facing years of racial harassment from Neo-Nazis and others.  

Morris told Vermont Public Radio that her home was invaded and vandalized, and that even the woods nearby where she walked with her family were branded with swastikas.  Along with her claims that the Bennington police were not supportive in protecting her, the legislator felt she had to resign for her own safety.  The Vermont Attorney General later declined to prosecute those officers.  

Back in Rutland, city police settled a discrimination lawsuit filed by a former Black officer for $975,000 in 2015.  Andrew Todd, the plaintiff, worked on the force from 2003 to 2011 and was the only African American.  

In the suit, Todd claimed to have experienced regular insults and racial slurs from fellow officers. He also alleged to have witnessed illegal racial profiling and sexual relationships with informants. All the while, Todd attested that department leadership was fully aware of this behavior.  Initially, Todd’s allegations were swept under the rug, but the story later attracted national scrutiny.  Since, a new Chief of Police was appointed.  

Issues of race in the classroom add to more questions of Vermont’s liberal label. During Black History Month last year, seventh-grade students at Rutland Middle School participated in a lesson that attracted complaints from several families and the NAACP.  The activity was meant to simulate Colonial trading of slaves and other “commodities” using index cards, which referred to slaves as “negroes”.  

In 2019, Rutland School Board member Michael Blow stated that “all lives matter” and used the n-word on a publicly-broadcasted meeting.  His comments were in response to a proposal to raise the Black Lives Matter flag at Rutland High School.

| Watch: Where the money resides? BLM transparency, accountability still an issue

Even Bernie Sanders is not immune.  After his unsuccessful presidential bid in 2016, the senator founded a political activism group called Our Revolution.  A former employee of the group, Tezlyn Figaro, sued in 2019.  

Figaro was brought on as a consultant to Our Revolution’s leadership the previous year, despite known past statements critiquing immigration reform.  Figaro supported some of Donald Trump’s positions on immigration because she expressed that African Americans were often left out of policy regarding their protections and entitlements as citizens. Plus, she appeared regularly on FOX News praising the President, reported Politico.  

Eventually, Figaro was fired from Our Revolution after about a year.  She claimed in the lawsuit that her employment was terminated because of her race, and as an act of “retaliation for complaining about the organization’s treatment towards her and African Americans.”  The suit was settled, and Figaro later entered into a non-disclosure agreement with Our Revolution.  

Though Sanders is not directly involved in offshoot groups like Our Revolution, his 2016 campaign was riddled with complaints of race and sex-based discrimination.  Some Black staffers claimed they were sent to do inconsequential busywork and “brushed off” by leadership.  Some women working on the campaign said they were harassed repeatedly by male supervisors, for which Sanders has since apologized.  

Everyday displays of racism in Vermont appear to be on the up-and-up as well:  white-supremacist posters and stickers appeared in Jeffersonville and many other towns over the summer of 2020, and onward.  Posters in Williston, distributed by a group known as the Patriot Front, say “Keep America American.” Included on the placards were an ICE tip line used for reporting illegal immigrants.  At rallies, the hate group is known for chanting “blood and soil.” 

Similar messages from the same organization have been found across the state for years.  These materials have been used to vandalize Pride-friendly churches, synagogues, and LGBT community centers; especially, in the city of Burlington where residents show heavy support diversity in sexual orientation.  In 2019, Patriot Front propaganda was found in Vermont 35 times, up from 5 in 2018.  Added, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s reports that hate-group activity in the area has increased. 

In light of these developments, protests against racism and police have become weekly occurrences in the state.  In one rally at the Vermont State House in July 2020, one pro-police supporter hurled a racist tirade at young Black activists, and was caught on camera.  In video footage shared worldwide, Montpelier resident Denise Simonu yelled, “Black lives don’t fucking matter to me”.  

Clearly, Vermont is not as inclusive as it seems.

From Vermont to the world, Sophia Moore Smith is an investigator, gardener, reader, and lover of language.

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