BRATTLEBORO—Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan stopped in town last week to hear from community members about how his office can better address incidents of bias and hate crimes.
Approximately 50 people, including representatives from social justice organizations, converged in the Oak Grove School gym on Oct. 17 for the two-hour forum, where several community members shared their experiences of being the targets of bias and hate.
Etan Nasreddin-Longo, co-chair of the state’s Fair & Impartial Policing Committee and co-organizer of Donovan’s visits around the state, helped moderate the forum.
Longo noted that the number of bias incidents and hate crimes have increased in the United States, including a high-profile example in Vermont: the harassment of Kiah Morris of Bennington, who resigned as a state representative in the aftermath of racial harassment.
The AG’s office needs to hear from communities about what bias and hate look like at the local level, Nasreddin-Longo said.
“The point of the event is for members of the community to basically provide testimony,” he said. “Please, speak out.”
A theme quickly emerged.
While the AG’s office has mechanisms in place for people to report incidences of bias and hate, speakers said those mechanisms aren’t working. Specifically, the systems aren’t meeting people’s needs for access, accountability, and follow up, they said.
For example, what happens when an act of bias or hate doesn’t include a crime? Often, those incidents are reported to law enforcement which doesn’t deal with non-crimes.
In those cases, the report ends where it started.
“We’re not here to speak, we’re here to listen and to hear stories that are happening to folks that, frankly, we’re never going to hear about in Montpelier for a variety of reasons,” Donovan said.
“What we’re trying to do is understand how pervasive the issue of racism is and how it impacts not just people of color, but the entire community,” he added.
Donovan said, ultimately, the goal of the AG’s office is to “treat everybody fairly, to protect everybody under the law, to make sure people who have not been heard are being heard, to validate people’s experiences, and to find a path forward to address these issues of hate and racism that exist.”
What constitutes a hate crime?
“If it’s not a crime, it can’t be a hate crime,” said Julio A. Thompson, director of the civil rights unit of the AG’s office.
Under Vermont and federal law, for an act to fall under the heading of a hate crime, it must first include an underlying crime, he explained — for example, vandalism, assault, or burglary.
That crime escalates to the level of a hate crime if the underlying crime “was motivated by bias against an individual on the basis of a number of different categories that includes race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age, and veteran status,” Thompson said.
The AG’s civil rights division also deals with employment discrimination for issues such as sexual harassment that aren’t considered crimes but violate civil laws.
A third class of bias-related incidents fall into a gray area where no laws are violated. This area involves constitutionally protected free speech that is upsetting to the community and might place people in fear.
Thompson pointed out that in some cases, communities have more power than the government to regulate behavior.
When it comes to negative — but not illegal — behavior, he continued, the government has the least amount of power. The community’s response, in contrast, carries far more power and influence, he said.
Gaps in the system
Shela Linton of the Root Social Justice Center said that the reporting process is murky, citing a number of questions: Whom should people call? Do reports go to people who are at the local level or the state level? What happens if that initial report goes nowhere? Who is accountable for following through on a person’s report?
Because a hate crime can violate local, state, or federal laws, Donovan said the state has a bias reporting system that overlaps with other agencies and organizations such as local law enforcement and the state’s Human Rights Commission.
He also acknowledged that the system had gaps.
These gaps, according to people in the audience, were biggest when the act of bias or hate was frightening but does not constitute a crime.
Linton said the state needs to do a better job of clarifying “where the buck stops.”
She noted that the system outlined by Donovan appears to include a phone tree where several officials discuss an incident, but no one ends up speaking to the person most impacted by the negative act.
“Right now, if I was to have a situation like this, I would probably go to my state’s attorney if it was a local issue because I have a relationship, but that’s only because I have a relationship,” Linton said. “I would not necessarily readily go to that agency, or know to go to that agency, or feel that I have access or equitable access to that agency.”
Brenda Siegel, a former gubernatorial candidate from Newfane, shared that earlier this year she was harassed online and was sent multiple anti-Semitic messages.
She said that Donovan suggested at the time that she contact the Vermont State Police, but, Siegel said, the trooper who answered the phone responded, “Well, what do you want me to do about it?”
“I think everybody in this community knows I don’t easily back down — and I didn’t want to call back,” she said.
So she again contacted Donovan.
“I wouldn’t have called back if I wasn’t encouraged to call back,” said Siegel, who believes that part of the system’s flaw is that it relies on people contacting the police.
“I think it’s easy to be shut down by a police officer,” she said.
Wichie Artu highlighted how important communication from the town is for him as a person of color.
For example, recently a town employee raised a Blue Lives Matter flag on a town building. The symbol, ostensibly in support of law enforcement, emerged as a backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement and is perceived by many people of color and their allies as inseparable from race.
The incident shook Artu’s sense of safety and yet he never heard from town officials about why the flag was raised or why it was taken down, he said.
“Part of that accessibility is knowing that I can be safe in contacting the Brattleboro Police Department if that’s my first go-to,” he said.
Artu asked what kind of education has gone into “why Blue Lives Matter may be problematic.” He also wondered what efforts the police are taking to communicate to people of color what the department is doing to make the town safer.
Town Manager Peter Elwell explained that he learned the flag had been put up out of an employee’s guileless desire to show support for colleagues.
Elwell ordered the flag taken down immediately. He also acknowledged that he hadn’t issued any press release because he didn’t want the incident to become one of conflict.
“I’m trying not to — forgive me for using this term — let little things get blown out of proportion,” Elwell said.
Artu said that hearing the incident called “little” made him feel weird.
Without follow-through from the town, “there was no catharsis,” Artu said. “If we don’t know the government is working for us [people of color], we feel left behind.”
Tabitha Moore, a forum co-organizer and the founder/president of the Rutland Chapter of the NAACP, said that, when talking about gaps in the reporting system, the conversation needs to stay away from the “bad apple” argument.
There’s a culture shift that needs to happen, she said noting that people are having bad experiences because of systemic issues within the culture.
Moore noted that the state is looking to beef up the 211 call line so it can also take reports of bias or hate incidents.
Police in the community
“Sometimes I don’t like feeling this vulnerable,” said Linton. “But sometimes, depending on how you navigate the world and how people show up and the ways they show up can cause trauma as well.”
As an example, Linton said that she had provided feedback before the event that she didn’t want to see police officers attending the forum in full uniform and fully armed.
There is a problem with that presence, especially when people are sharing stories of trauma, many of which are connected to law enforcement, she said.
“Being uniformed and armed brings a presence for many people that is uncomfortable and will silence people and shut them down,” Linton said.
Moore addressed the issue with Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, who also co-organized the forum series.
The two noted that prior to the forum they had sent several community groups a questionnaire asking — in part — what the community would want when it came to police officers attending the meeting. Should they come in plain clothes? Gun? No gun?
The conversations between the AG’s office and law enforcement who wanted to attend the meeting should have happened before the forum, they told Donovan.
Linton also questioned the state’s approach to punishing hate crimes.
Referencing an incident that had happened to her within the past two years, Linton said, “When I was going through this what I noticed, and what you just confirmed here, was around punishment. That hate is a higher, enhanced level geared toward punishment.”
Identifying herself as a “prison abolitionist” who doesn’t believe in putting people in jail, she said she wanted the state to practice restorative justice.
“The same people who beat me, who I thought were going to kill me, I fought for them not to be in jail,” she said. “So when you talk about a hate crime, who I was a victim of, and you talk about this level of punishment, I wasn’t asking for that level of punishment for them to be in jail,” she continued. “I was asking for transformative justice and accountability.”
Linton added that she was never asked, as the victim, what justice meant for her in that situation. In the end, both she and the perpetrator were “punished” in a way that was unproductive to the community as a whole, she said.
The AG’s office has held similar forums across the state.
Moore said that, once all the feedback and lessons learned have been gathered, organizers hope they can return to the community for a follow-up meeting.
After the forum, Nasreddin-Longo said he wanted the community to understand that everyone attending the forum, including staff from the AG’s office, were intelligent and with good intentions and “who are wrestling with incredibly difficult things.”
He said he viewed the situation as one where different cultures are at play. The AG’s office operates in a certain way, Nasreddin-Longo said.
“It does not fit with what needs to go on with grassroots social-justice organizations,” he said. “There was a disconnect.”
Still, Nasreddin-Longo refused to be a naysayer. He said each conversation will help build the next.
“For me, it really is institutional culture, and that’s what we’re having trouble with — it’s just not malfeasance,” he said.
Reed, who is working with the local school system to attract and hire more teachers of color, said that while the night’s conversation was good, the cultural change toward a more inclusive community starts in the schools with the community’s children.
Moore said she has appreciated the stories that have come out of all the forums.
“I was deeply impressed and moved by the strength of the community,” she said. “Not just to share painful stories as others have, but to dig in.”
”I mean, it’s very clear that Brattleboro is ahead of some of us, as far as talking together as a community,” she said.
The Brattleboro conversation gave her hope for what other towns, like her home town of Rutland, could be some day. She specifically hoped the Rutland Board of Aldermen would take note.
“There is no question as to whether this [bias and hate] is happening in the mind of people of Brattleboro and people are motivated to do something about it, so for me this was intense and uplifting to see that,” Moore said.