VT Digger | November 6, 2015 | Column by Morgan True
BURLINGTON — Racist fliers delivered to the homes of at least two black residents have sparked an outpouring of frustration over persistent racial inequality in a predominantly white state that views itself as a bastion of liberalism.
Close to 200 people attended a rally Thursday night on Church Street outside City Hall to speak out against hatred and demand a greater focus on racial justice. Vermonters of color who spoke said racial bias is replete in their interactions with institutions and individuals in ways that are overt and unintentional.
Unequal treatment for people of color is evident in employment, housing, education and most visibly in their interactions with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, they said.
Mark Hughes, with the advocacy group Justice for All, pointed to figures collected by the state showing that while blacks are just 1.2 percent of Vermont’s population, they account for 11 percent of prisoners. Data on traffic stops show black people are also more likely to be pulled over, he said. Figures collected by the Vermont State Police show black people are more likely to be ticketed and searched than whites.
Hughes, who is black, called on all Vermonters, but especially white people who wish to be allies in the fight for equality, to make a “social and political investment” in racial justice. He urged them to pressure elected officials to require more and better data be collected at decision points where racial bias can be a factor so that information can be used to craft policies that promote equality.
Several speakers questioned the legitimacy of a police force that doesn’t recognize those racial disparities, and was initially dismissive when a resident’s father reported one of the fliers promoting the Ku Klux Klan.
A dispatcher told him that a crime had not occurred, and that the police couldn’t help him. After a local community organizer called the state’s attorney, who notified the Burlington police chief, the incident was investigated and police identified a potential suspect. However, police say it’s still not clear posting the fliers amounts to a crime.
Alyssa Chen, with the group Rights and Democracy, said during a meeting with a Burlington police officer involved in the investigation he made the argument that distributing the fliers is covered by freedom of speech by analogizing the situation to a person of one religion posting a flier promoting their religion to the door of a person of another religion.
She asked the crowd to consider whether that is the response they would want from an institution set up to protect and keep them safe, and suggested community organizers begin thinking of alternatives to traditional policing.
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo, who attended Thursday’s rally, said that was a “poor” analogy by one of his officers, but he has heard the same freedom of speech rationale articulated in regard to this situation by civilians.
Del Pozo said he was not concerned by the anti-police sentiment voiced at the rally, saying “the legitimacy of American policing has dominated the discussion for a year-and-a-half, and it penetrates every corner of the country, even here in Vermont.” He said, in general, he welcomes calls for transparency accountability and oversight.
Senowa Mize-Fox of the United Electrical and Machine Workers of America said that if the politicians and institutions they govern aren’t equipped to respond to this incident, her union will step in to deal with a “white nationalist terror group” attempting to intimidate residents of color.
“Whatever our police and politicians say or do, they are bound by their own rules of office and the murkiness of politics and favor. We union workers are not constrained in these ways,” Mize-Fox said. “Our message to the Klan is simple: if you start something the union will finish it.”
The rally began with roughly 30 young UE members gathering at the top of Church Street wearing black with red armbands. Chad McGinnis, a field organizer who was running the show, told them to form columns in rows of three and prepare to march down Church Street to City Hall.
Trailed by other protesters, the UE members chanted “What’s the plan? Smash the Klan” and “KKK get off our streets, the union will tear off your sheets.” The marching union members drew puzzled looks from diners on Church Street enjoying Thursday’s unseasonably warm weather. Many grabbed their smartphones and snapped pictures.
Asked if he saw any irony in wearing uniforms, marching in formation and chanting slogans to “protest facism,” as he had put it to his fellow union members, McGinnis said “not at all.” There is a long tradition of unions organizing into citizen defense guards to protect the community from “organized fascist terror groups” like the KKK, he said.
Kristin Conners, another UE member who participated in the march, said she thought it was an interesting question. “I do see the irony, but I also think it’s a way to stand in solidarity with each other,” she said.