Black Lives Matter rally in Rutland, Vermont in May 2020. Photo credit: Hannah Dicton

Black Lives Matter in the Whitest State in the Union: Part 3. Solidarity

In the last of the series exploring how Vermont deals with race and racism, the focus explores what solidarity looks like as the state challenges itself in the midst of changes.

Outrage against George Floyd’s murder radicalized many white Vermonters into action for racial justice. For some, this moment was a first foray into race-conscious thinking.  Maddy Thorner, an organizer of the Rutland protest, told us she felt moved to act by the pervasiveness of racism in day-to-day life in Vermont.  

She called signs of racial injustice on a daily basis “evident,” even to her white eyes. Thorner asked of white folks, “If we are doing nothing to help these people, what kind of people does that make us, just standing by and watching?”  

Rutland’s march in 2020, is an example of that new radicalization. It was organized by three young white women under the mentorship of an experienced Black activist.  And by all accounts, it was a success: up to one thousand people attended and the event hosted a rich variety of speakers. Plus, the event was covered by the media statewide.  

However, this scene may seem incongruous: why are white women the face of a Black Lives Matter protest?  

Though Vermont is home to many people of color, the state is still overwhelmingly white.  This raises a dilemma: Can and should white people take leadership roles in the BLM movement? Jorja Lamb, a biracial woman from Rutland, was conflicted, “You have one part that says this is Black peoples’ movement. But another part says to give them a break.” 

Her ultimate position expressed the idea that leadership depends on the situation, but emphasized that either way, “white people need to pick up some of the slack.”    

Overall, Lamb thought that the role of white people and people with privilege at BLM protests should be one of support. 

“It’s important [to participate] – you should not be silent.  But you need to be silent when Black people are talking. You need to give them their platform, and when they’re talking about their experience, just don’t in any way try to make it about you.”

| Read: Black Lives Matter in the Whitest State in the Union, Part 1. The Protest and paradise lost

 

In Lamb’s experience, even devoted allies tended to redirect the focus back on themselves, rather than the issue of racial justice at hand. Sometimes, they recount a semi-similar experience from their own lives or attempt to qualify a Black person’s story with their own worldviews. A popular deflection is historical discrimination against Irish Catholics, which many believe is not on par with the centuries of chattel slavery Black Americans experienced.  

Lamb also wanted to address what she sees as the worst complication of white activism: performative allyship. In this moment when the issue of race is at the forefront for everyone, she notices many peers posting “Black Lives Matter” on social media. Yet, some of the same peers who have made racist comments toward Lamb and her family in the past.  

While she believes the cause deserves as much support as it can get, this kind of allyship reads as untruthful to Lamb. She does not think people can change “without confronting the past and apologizing,” and incorporating anti-racism into their daily lives in a sincere, lasting way.  

Regarding Rutland’s protest, Lamb attended and thought the white organizers did the best they could. She liked the inclusion of Black speakers and coordination with the NAACP. 

However, she was ambivalent about the real-word effects of peaceful demonstrations by themselves. She does believe they are important, “especially in places like Rutland, because we are predominantly white.” Even so, she fears Rutland may not be capable of anything more than a demonstration of solidarity because there is a lack of people of color who may demand real changes.  

Tabitha Moore, the president of the NAACP disagreed: “If white supremacy is to end peacefully, it will be done by white people.”   

Aris Sherwood, one of the organizers for the Rutland BLM demonstration, also thought that change must start within the white community. She feels that white Vermonters should not wait to be corrected, but should be actively anti-racist.  For her, Black activists have done their part, now it is time for others to do some heavy lifting.  “Sometimes,” she began, “you have to be the one who leads by example.” Also, Sherwood told us that being an ally “should just be natural at this point.”     

Moore has said many times, “BLM is a movement that anybody can be a part of.”  White allies can join other organizations including the NAACP and Standing Up for Racial Justice, which is white-run.  

| Read: Black Lives Matter in the Whitest State in the Union, Part 2. Avoidance and denial

Even so, Moore made the point that generalized racial justice groups are different from Black affinity spaces. Non-Black people need to respect the existence of all-Black spaces. She states: “Let Black spaces be Black spaces. There’s plenty of white spaces, and plenty of ways that white people can impact racial justice.”  

Moore felt strongly that the organizers of the Rutland rally successfully incorporated Black voices in their planning. She was most in contact with Sherwood pre-protest, and considered her a proactive leader; always mindful to put voices of color “at the center.”   Moore thought her dynamic with the young white organizers was an “interesting balance” between young and old, Black and white.  

Moore observed that many older activists struggle to put their ego aside, even after years of practice. On the other hand, many young white people feel pulled to combat racism, but do not want to ask too much from the POC in their lives in terms of guidance or support. The sweet spot can be hard to find. 

On the day of the demonstration, Moore asked Sherwood to begin the chant “no justice, no peace.” Sherwood replied that she hoped one of the Black speakers could start instead, feeling it was not her place. To that, Moore told her that they were tired of leading. Instead, the effort should fall on everyone, working together. 

The three Rutland organizers felt it was vital to use their privilege as white people for change. Kjersti Conway feels she can do her part by “elevating oppressed voices.”  She acknowledged that stepping out of the spotlight can be a new and uncomfortable feeling for white people. 

Sherwood agreed: “It’s hard to recognize your privilege, and recognize that, whether you like it or not, you are biased.”  She clarified that white people need not make the act of protesting all about themselves: “It’s about standing in solidarity with POC in our state, and letting them know that we stand by them.”  

Thorner told us, “I can get away with sticking my neck out because it’s the ‘little white girl’ helping minorities. I’m not labeled automatically as an angry woman.”

Rather, Thorner believes she is seen as a selfless person trying to help others – and she has received a mountain of praise and little pushback for her work. To her, the compliments are ironic: Thorner told us she feels she did the “bare minimum.” However, she thinks that, unfortunately, appreciation from the community would not be so forthcoming if a Black woman were in her place.   

Changes

Moore suspects that unless white Vermonters are willing to turn inward, confront their intolerance and examine how they perpetuate racism, then their participation in protest is “almost meaningless.”  Just as black squares on Instagram did not necessarily precipitate meaningful gestures outside the virtual world, protest is not a magic bullet to end racism.  

Everyone agreed that demonstration is only the beginning. Thorner hoped the protest would be “a stepping stone, a means to get some actual laws made or changed.” She felt that people in power simply cannot ignore demonstrators’ physical presence:  “It’s easy to scroll past Instagram pictures, it’s hard to walk past a park full of people.” 

Fair point, but what steps come next?

Now that the demonstration is over, Moore believes that certain measures must follow: “After we raise the awareness, then is the time for action.” She stressed that the current moment is critical, and worries that protests are a fad that might soon fade away, taking momentum with them. She told us, “You can’t have a protest without having a list of demands or a list of actions that you want to take place.  Otherwise, it can be a demonstration of solidarity, but is ultimately useless.” 

Moore is glad that activists piqued the community’s attention. Now, she relays, this is the time to give folks knowledge to make powerful and lasting changes. Through her work with the NAACP, she plans to facilitate training for community members on white supremacy and how it manifests. She also hosts workshops on civic engagement and knowing one’s rights, as well as other activities that enrich the community.  

Other proposed action items for the future include: implicit bias training for state employees, such as teachers and police officers; the creation of a diversity council for the local School Board; placement of body cameras on all state police officers; expansion of the Fair and Impartial Policing Committee; the modification of Police Commissioner from an appointed to an elected position; and the choosing of a new athletic mascot and continuation of the Black Lives Matter flag at Rutland High School.   

These will not be easy feats. The democratic system is laboriously slow when time is of the essence. Regarding backlash against the BLM flag at the high school, Moore previously told the Rutland Herald that she “questions the motives” of those who impose bureaucracy on progressive ambitions, especially against young activists. She fears opponents may be “creating red tape for the purpose of creating red tape.”  

However, Moore has reason to be hopeful. The tide of change continues to swell. Hundreds of Vermonters gathered across the state to celebrate Juneteenth in 2020. Many for the first time. The House of Representatives passed a bill commemorating the holiday, and the Governor addressed its significance in a press conference.  

Both Mill River Union school district in Clarendon and Rutland Regional Medical Center decided to display the Black Lives Matter flag in July 2020.  

Moore announced her candidacy for Rutland County high bailiff in mid-August of last year. If she wins this coming in November, she believes that her unique position as a civilian with a background in law-enforcement will help Vermont police mend their relationship with the community, especially people of color.  

Vermont is still far from achieving racial equity, but this much is already clear: until there is justice, there will be no peace in the Green Mountain State.  

Dreams deferred, but we keep on pushing

Rutland NAACP vaccination efforts in Vermont. Photo credit: Rutland NAACP Facebook page

This piece was mostly penned during the summer and fall of 2020. Since, much has happened. Tabitha Moore left her hometown of Wallingford in September, due to racism and intimidation her family experienced for years as a result of her Blackness and outspoken activism. She told the Rutland Herald, “It’s been heating up for a while, since June.” 

Though Moore expressed interest in a September interview with VTDigger of remaining in Rutland County, she ultimately ended her candidacy for high bailiff and stepped down as president of the Rutland Area NAACP.  

In December, Mia Schultz, a biracial woman living in Bennington, VT, took over Moore’s old role. Schultz is also the chair of the Bennington Democratic Party and a board member of Rights and Democracy, a Bennington-area activism group.  

In early February 2021, the Rutland School Board affirmed a student vote to change the city’s mascot to the “Rutland Ravens.” Over half of Rutland Public Schools’ grades 3-12 students cast ballots for the avian mascot, with the School Board approving their decision in a 6-4 vote. 

Despite months of controversy, community meetings, and a final decision from the local government, some in the community are still not satisfied.  A record seven contenders competed for three open School Board Commissioner seats. Of those seven, three that ran are in support of the old mascot, in addition to three Raider-sympathetic sitting commissioners. 

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

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