VT Digger | November 1, 2015 | Column by Morgan True
BURLINGTON — At least two city residents of color had fliers promoting the Klu Klux Klan posted to the doors of their homes this week. Local activists and elected officials describe the incidents as hate crimes.
Jocellyn Harvey, 24, said when she discovered the flier on her door Thursday she thought it was a “bad joke.” When Harvey later learned that the KKK poster was posted on the home of another black person in the city, she realized it was more likely she was singled out because of her race.
“It’s scary that someone just saw me walk into my apartment and did this for no other reason,” she said Saturday before a hastily arranged news conference on the Church Street steps of City Hall. The news conference was called by activists to show solidarity with Harvey and the other victim, an activist who does not want to be identified.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan described the posting of the fliers as a “targeted act of intimidation, harassment and hate,” and said the incident is under investigation by the Burlington Police Department.
When the father of the activist called police Thursday night to report the KKK flier he was told by a dispatcher that the incident wasn’t a crime, according to James Haslam, with the group Rights and Democracy.
City Councilor Selene Colburn, P-East District, said Burlington Police previously haven’t taken allegations of racial hatred seriously. “This is not the first time this year that I’ve worked with a constituent who experienced a hate crime and got a less-than-ideal response from institutions and law enforcement,” Colburn said.
Haslam said he called Donovan Thursday night, who then got Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo involved.
Del Pozo, who took over as chief in September, said the incident was “clearly an act of intimidation” and his department will investigate who posted the KKK fliers and determine whether it was a crime. The community, he said, has a right to know if there are hate groups in the area.
“At the very minimum this is an incident motivated by bias,” del Pozo said.
At the press conference, Del Pozo said that a dispatcher who was handling 911 calls decided the incident “didn’t seem to rise to the level of a crime,” he said. “It was a father calling not a victim and she left it at that.”
“I’m not satisfied with that,” del Pozo said. “In my police department the only person who gets to decide if a bias related incident is a crime or not is the chief of police. So, I’ll take responsibility for that very curt fact-finding mission of my dispatcher.” Once State’s Attorney Donovan notified him of the incident, they were quickly able to launch a “full-fledged investigation,” he said.
Vicki Garrison, a black woman who held a hand written “Black Lives Matter” sign during the press conference, said she couldn’t accept his “excuse” for the initial response of law enforcement.
“I hear so much privilege and I don’t feel that space is being held for the magnitude of what happened,” Garrison said. “As people of color in Vermont we live with racism and discrimination every day. Our only reprieve is our home. To have someone enter the sanctity of our home is frightening. It is terrorism.”
Garrison, her voice quivering and eyes filling with tears, said she wouldn’t accept the police chief’s “excuse.”
“It took courage to pick up that phone and trust white people to protect you, and that didn’t happen,” she said.
If Haslam and others hadn’t organized the press conference, there would not have been a police response to this incident, Garrison said.
“That’s just not true, ma’am,” del Pozo interjected.
“Do you want to take my moment?” Garrison asked del Pozo. “I didn’t speak while you spoke. You want to use your privilege and come in here?”
Del Pozo apologized for the interruption and Garrison continued. Looking into television cameras she said she wanted to address whoever posted the fliers directly.
“We are not afraid,” she said. “We come as a unity of people on the shoulders of a legacy of a people comprised of all colors that stand against the hate you dispel. We are not afraid.”
She encouraged other people who may have experienced similar intimidation to come forward. Other speakers echoed that call, saying the community’s best response is solidarity and empathy for people being targeted because of their race.
Mayor Miro Weinberger said the incident is a reminder that Burlington is no better than anywhere else in the country.
Weinberger thanked Harvey for coming forward. Her bravery, he said, gave the rest of the community an opportunity to show their support.
“This terrible act is condemned by the city of Burlington,” Weinberger said. “It is particularly wrong for something like this to happen when there are so many people working to send the message that Burlington is an inclusive place.”
Haslam, who organized Saturday’s press conference, said the incident should serve as a “wake-up call” for the institutions and residents in Burlington to make sure there are avenues for the victims of hate to be taken seriously.
“There was a breakdown,” Haslam said. “What should have happened in this community, it didn’t happen, and we’re not going to let it happen again.”
Haslam and other local activists are organizing a rally Nov. 5 on the steps of City Hall.