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Their names in chalk

Local groups join Black Lives Matter to remember those lost to police violence

The web version of this  story has been edited to correct errors in the preferred pronouns of two of the sources. The Commons honors individuals’ preferences in reflecting gender identity, and we regret the error.

BRATTLEBORO—The names, scratched on the sidewalk in chalk, stretched in both directions along the west side of Main Street. And in front of Brooks Memorial Library. And on Flat Street. And along the Whetstone Pathway in front of the Brattleboro Food Co-op.

One hundred and forty four names.

In less than a week, six more names of black people killed by police were added to the list of those killed since January.

Brattleboro’s silent evening protest was one of many events nationwide as part of the Movement for Black Lives Collective Action for Justice on Thursday, July 21.

Members involved in the event represented Vermont Black Lives Matter, Vermont People of Color Caucus, Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, Vermont Workers’ Center, Brattleboro Solidarity, Lost River Racial Justice, and Green Mountain Crossroads.

Along with writing the names of the black people killed by police this year, participants answered community members’ questions and encouraged them to take part.

Participants also collected signatures for a letter-writing campaign aimed at Vermont officials. The letters called for an increase in the number of people of color providing community oversight of the Vermont Police Academy’s curriculum. The letters also requested the state fund implicit bias training for officers.

Community members were encouraged to attend a July 27 event on policing in Brattleboro. “The Town Hall Meeting: A Community Conversation on Policing in Brattleboro” will take place at the River Garden from 5 to 7 p.m.

People strolling Main Street on July 21 stopped to read the names and speak with volunteers. Many said “how sad,” or “how horrible,” or “something must be done.” A few signed letters.

Camille Robertson, a member of Lost River’s leadership team, said they returned to the area after attending college.

The area they love, however, isn’t always inclusive for people of color, Robertson said, nothing that others’ ability to live with dignity is connected to one’s own dignity

Robertson wants “to see this place I love so much be racially just.”

Local racial-justice organizations don’t want to focus on police to the exclusion of other forms of racial injustice and white supremacy, Robertson said, adding that policing affects some community members — black people, LGBTQI, the poor — more intensely than others.

Referencing information from the Vermont Partnership, Robertson said black people in Vermont are targeted in traffic stops by police officers more often than white people. The incarceration rate of black people in Vermont is higher than that of white people, Robertson continued.

Robertson, expressing gratitude that Vermont police don’t kill civilians as often as in other areas of the country, still hopes Vermont officers would join the Black Lives Matter movement and call on their fellow officers to stop the killings.

At Brooks Memorial Library, Alex Fischer, a participant, principal of Open Bookkeeping, and member of the Root Social Justice collective, paused from writing a name to speak with a man walking past.

The passer-by didn’t like what Fischer had to say, accusing them of committing a “macro aggression,” and walked away.

Nancy Clingan and her young grandson, Paolo, responded differently. They stopped and took turns writing names.

Paolo said that justice to him meant helping people who need it and stopping people doing bad things.

Fischer paused from writing. “It’s a visceral experience to write this many names,” they said.

Racism within a police force means more than dead bodies, they said.

When people leave a community because of death or incarceration, the community is disrupted, Fischer continued. Families are torn apart.

There’s no reason Vermont can’t be a leader in changing the way officers operate, Fischer said. Vermonters of color are saying this issue is important to them.

According to Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald, his department has included anti-biased policing as part of its core training for many years. Fitzgerald said last week during a Black Lives Matter rally that the department also maintains a fair and impartial policing policy, a citizens’ complaint process, and use of force policy and training [“Calling for change,” July 20].

Fischer noted that on July 21, communities participating in “Write Their Names: A Collective Action for Justice,” each chose events that reflected what their community needed from police. In some communities, people are protesting at police stations. Some communities are sitting down with officers for conversations.

In Brattleboro, the community already has conversations with the police department, Fischer said. But other communities can’t and thus take other actions.

When asked about reasons for participating in the July 21 event, Fischer — a white person in Vermont — described the feeling of watching people of color make bold and risky protests because their lives depend on it.

“This is the least I can do,” they said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #367 (Wednesday, July 27, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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