Group works to create dialogue on race - Rights and Democracy

Group works to create dialogue on race

Times Argus | November 22, 2015 | Staff Report

MONTPELIER — Justice For All, a relatively new organization in Montpelier, is aiming to push for transparency and dialogue on race issues in Vermont.

Mark Hughes is an African American who served in the Army and founded Justice For All in December 2014 with his partner, Allyson Sironi.

Hughes credits Sironi for getting him involved in activism.

“I didn’t used to be concerned about activism,” he said. “After 40-some years, it took an eighth-generation white woman from Vermont to tell me that activism in racial justice is important.”

Hughes said the goal of Justice For All is to identify and dismantle institutionalized racism while healing and empowering communities.

The need for the organization arose, according to Hughes, because national racial tensions are getting worse and more polarized. He cited incidents of black men being killed by law enforcement, such as Michael Brown, an 18-year-old, unarmed African-American male killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

In most of these cases, he said, there is no indictment resulting or independent investigation.

Hughes said statistics show systemic racism in the justice system.

“We say repeatedly that we want to end this war on drugs, (that) what it’s resulted in is ... 13 percent of the population of the U.S. are black and about 60 percent of the prison population is black,” he said.

Vermont mirrors the nation, Hughes said, and the numbers of those negatively affected by the justice system are disproportionate.

“We have a population of 1.2 percent black (in Vermont) and within the prison system (black people) comprise about 10 percent,” he said.

A 2014 study by Robin Weber of the Vermont Center for Justice Research backs that up.

“People of color are disproportionately sentenced to incarcerative sentences relative to white defendants,” the study, which was specific to Vermont, states.

A 2012 report from the University of Vermont’s Department of Economics stated that police pull over black people more than white people.

“Black stop rates per 1,000 black residents 18 and over are approximately double white stop rates in Burlington and South Burlington, and are 25 percent higher than the white rate at UVM,” the document stated.

Kesha Ram, a Democratic member of the Vermont House of Representatives who is running for lieutenant governor, also pointed to statistics.

“What limited data we do have demonstrates that there are still significant biases,” she said. “The data show that men of color, particularly black males, are more likely to be stopped, to be searched and they also make up a highly disproportionate number of those in prison in the state compared to their population overall in the state.”

On Nov. 13, Justice For All held a game night at the Montpelier VFW, where racial issues were discussed.

Ram was present and said the event prompted a constructive discussion.

“I told folks a little bit about myself and wove in my own personal history as a woman of color into my reflection on our work in the Legislature to reinforce fair and impartial policing as well as express (that) work needs to be done,” she said.

Ram said that Justice for All and similar organizations are trying to build trust between citizens and police departments.

Hughes said he speaks to Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos on a weekly to bi-weekly basis.

“There’s some transformative discussions that we’ve had and are going to be happening as a result of these conversations, I think,” he said. “There are things that are already beginning to change.”

Facos could not be reached for comment.

“If there’s anybody at risk around here, it’s me,” said Hughes, referring to his race. “I’m the guy who’s chosen to take that risk and sit down and have these conversations with chiefs of police and mayors. ... I don’t mind putting my body on the line every day because it needs to be done.”

He said he has personally experienced situations in Vermont that have raised questions for him, racially.

Justice For All works with other organizations, such as Rights and Democracy, Vermont Criminal Justice Reform and Black Lives Matter.

After two Ku Klux Klan posters were posted on two African-American individuals’ homes in Burlington recently, Justice For All stepped in to help.

Hughes said that the organization joined Rights and Democracy to support the people who received the KKK posters. Justice For All also assisted in planning a news conference and rally. Over 100 people gathered at Burlington City Hall on Nov. 7 to condemn the posters.

Hughes said although the community response was positive, the police response was lacking.

“We were appalled. We think the police response was inadequate,” he said.

One of the recipients of the poster called the Burlington Police Department, and that call ended with no further investigation, he said.

Hughes said the only reason anything happened was because of white men of privilege.

“I can say that with certainty,” he said.

“It was a person of color who was affected and a white male of privilege who called the county attorney who in turn turned around and made calls. That’s the only reason why this got attention. This is not acceptable. It’s good there was a response but the reaction of dispatch is inadequate.”

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo, of Burlington, has admitted that slow was a mistake, as reported by Vermont Public Radio.

“Who is watching the police? Someone should be overseeing the police.” Hughes asked.

He did note that being a police officer, especially now with all the high-profile police-involved shootings isn’t easy. “I wouldn’t want to be a cop right now. I understand they have a very difficult job. I’m retired Army. I kind of get what they’re dealing with.”

Justice For All has about a dozen members at its core, but it reaches over 100, according to Hughes. He said the organization plans to collaborate with more organizations. Though it is based and founded in Montpelier, it operates on a statewide basis.

“What we truly believe is that through relationships we can permeate change,” said Hughes. “I am convinced that the only way to make progress is for accountability and transparency in addition to difficult yet important conversations about race.”

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