HALIFAX — When knocking on doors as a candidate for Vermont State Representative for Windham-6, the most common question I get is, “Why are you running?”
I love to talk and listen on the issues, but that's only one part of the equation.
“What is your moral compass?” is a question I've been mulling over even more. Here's an answer to that - a story about a national tragedy and a hero of mine who has taught me a lot about showing up.
* * *
My level of alarm about racism in our society hit a new high after I watched the videos of George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, 2020.
We can debate the wording of slogans and the actions of protesters. But what I see and hear is that Black Americans, and indeed all Americans, are asking for dialogue and progress on undoing the generational effects of structural racism and unconscious bias that is often invisible to white people.
Despite hearing this call, I've struggled with the topic. What can I do, as a white person in rural Vermont, to confront racism?
Talking about these issues in public has felt hard. I don't need to tell you what the climate for political and cultural “dialogue” has been like. But despite the fears and unknowns, I've felt that my duty as a writer is to stretch and cover the topics that matter most.
Conversations with Sage Mason, a Black guest on my farm, brought the racism of Brattleboro's Civil War Monument to my attention. (Thanks, in turn, to students and others who had researched and raised questions about the statue.)
I later visited the monument with my 10-year-old son. We play-acted the various positions on the statue, including the kneeling, subjugated Black freeman. We stuck “googly eyes” on all the characters, an act that shattered my fixed perceptions of the scene.
I described what I observed from our shared learning experience in a Reformer column. Later, a letter to the editor instructed me to “Please leave the 'googly eyes' at home in the arts and crafts box, where they belong.”
That was all the motivation I needed to dig deeper.
* * *
I sat down one Sunday morning to write a brief response to the letter. Within two months I'd written a 30,000-word manuscript unpacking George Floyd's murder in the context of the birth of the Atlantic slave trade, whose 500th anniversary in Brazil we'll mark four years from now.
While doing so, I became curious about the experience of one of the bystanders, Genevieve Hansen.
Hansen was walking home from a community garden when she saw and heard the commotion. Hansen, a 26-year-old EMT, was off-duty but still wearing her base-layer turnout gear.
Hansen felt that something was very wrong. But she kept her cool and, with professionalism, approached Officer Tou Thao, one of the officers restraining Floyd and since convicted of violating Floyd's civil rights.
“I'm a firefighter from Minneapolis,” Hansen told Officer Thao.
“Back off,” Thao yelled.
On Thao's bodycam, you can see Hansen recoil. But she doesn't back off.
“I'm a firefighter from Minneapolis,” she told him again. At this point, Floyd hadn't moved for several minutes.
“You're from Minneapolis?” Officer Thao asked Hansen. “Then you would know,” he tells her.
Thao pointed to the sidewalk.
Hansen was a rookie firefighter and the only woman in her station. She'd spent the first year on the job being hazed into the hierarchy. That's how it's done. She knew that despite her training to offer medical support to a man who didn't appear to be breathing, she had to move to the curb.
In February, I reached out to Genevieve Hansen. I told her I was a Vermont writer who wanted to bear witness to her experience. I was shocked when she called me. But in the hour we talked, I discovered far more than I would have imagined.
* * *
Joined by my friend Turner and puppy Oliver, I took a road trip to Minneapolis in April to visit the intersection of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, better known as George Floyd Square. Hansen and I talked throughout the course of a day and drove and walked the areas most affected by the riots.
Watching bodycam and courtroom footage online, I saw Hansen's curbside experience as powerless and traumatic. I wanted to check that assumption with Hansen, and I'm glad I did.
Her answer surprised me.
“I wasn't ready to trust my instinct until George Floyd's death,” Hansen told me. “I always had a captain to tell me what to do.”
“But left to my own devices, I feel like I trust myself now,” she said.
Rather than walking by, Hansen did everything in her power to help.
And, as a result, “I went to bed thinking I'd lost my job,” she said - a job she's worked for since she was a teenager.
Hansen's chief was supportive, but other colleagues second-guessed her. She was grilled by cops who looked for some previous connection between her and Floyd. There wasn't one.
Perhaps they didn't understand that heroes don't need extra reasons to act.
* * *
I've tried throughout my life to confront racism, to confront any and all forms of bullying, subjugation, or coercion. I've stepped forward when I see others being treated as less worthy.
On a good day, I imagine that any small deed has a ripple effect. But at other times, I can feel no bigger than a drop in the ocean. Even Hansen couldn't help but kick herself for not doing enough. What if she had got up to leave the community garden a few minutes sooner, she's wondered?
But Hansen couldn't control the outcome that day in front of Cup Foods on Chicago Avenue. I can't control the outcome of most things, most of the time.
But we can still put ourselves out there. As Hansen told me in our first conversation, her actions on that Memorial Day in Minneapolis, whatever the outcome, affirmed her “people-centered” values.
I agree. Doing what I can to help others is always worth it.
“I want to protect the people I love in the city that I love,” she said.
Put “Vermont” in that sentence, and I couldn't come up with a better statement of why I'm running.