BLM protest

Community members from Newfane, Vt., gather at the Common Wednesday, July 22, 2020 evening to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement after someone graffitied “BLM is Racist” on Route 30 a block away from gathering early in the morning.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

NEWFANE — In response to graffiti incidents this summer, the Select Board unanimously adopted a statement condemning "hate speech, prejudice and acts intended to induce fear on any person based on their identity."

"We are a community of diverse backgrounds and opinions, and we draw strength from it," reads the statement approved at a board meeting held remotely Monday. "Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and feel safe in our beautiful town."

Newfane is the latest community in Windham County to issue a statement after roadways in that town as well as Brattleboro, Dover, Jamaica, Putney, Rawsonville and South Londonderry were spray painted with anti-Black Lives Matter messages this summer. Select boards in Dover and Jamaica have statements related to the incidents. And Putney's board created an equity and inclusion committee, and approved a Black Lives Mural that will be painted Sunday in front of Putney Central School.

"BLM is racist" was written on Route 30 in Newfane in July, prompting a vigil near the graffiti in front of the courthouse. Select Board Chairwoman Marion Dowling said the conversation about the statement started at the board's Sept. 8 meeting and more letters of support for the statement came in this week.

About 240 people signed the latest letter — up from 130 who supported the last one — calling for the board to issue a statement "condemning racist threats painted onto Route 30 and affirming this town as a place that values all of its residents." The letter states the Rev. Rob Hamm of the Newfane Congregational Church and NewBrook Elementary Principal Scotty Tabachnick along with other community members spoke in support at the last meeting.

Luke Stafford of Williamsville described himself as one of five or six members of a working group that crafted the statement and letter then distributed the document for signatures last Tuesday. Without a statement from the community, he said, "the silence would do the speaking for us."

Dowling took issue with criticism aimed at the board.

"It's disturbing to hear that people are condemning the Select Board for not acting earlier," she said. "We are a group of five people who work together and we work together very well."

The board is not perfect and will have disagreements at time, Dowling said, "but we are also very thoughtful people and we listen to everyone who comes to us." She called it "very insulting" that a letter writer responded negatively to a comment made at the previous meeting by board member Mike Fitzpatrick about the board working for everyone in the town.

"The truth is we do work for everybody and we include everybody," Dowling said. "Why is it when Mike says or we say that as a Select Board, 'We are here for everyone,' 'everyone' is a word that is dismissed and yet the same word is in your statement, which I believe is a very good thing to say?"

Fitzpatrick said he didn't see the letter, and it didn't change his position.

"We don't care what color they are or who they are or anything like that," he said. "We're here for everybody. If you don't think we're doing our job or don't like it, why don't you guys step up and do it?"

Fitzpatrick said when someone writes a message in public view, they are looking for a response and the more people respond, the more trouble it stirs. He called for the board to include in the statement a part about pursuing prosecution of anyone who defaces town property, roads and bridges.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

Board members agreed with his view but ultimately adopted the statement as it was presented in a 5-0 vote. Dowling suggested the subject could come up in future discussions as the board delves into related issues.

The statement is symbolic and not regulatory in nature, according to a legal opinion provided to the board by an attorney with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Community members stressed the important message it would send.

Those who are bullied "really benefit when bystanders actually stand up and say they won't tolerate the behavior from the bully," Diane Echlin of Newfane said.

The resolution says "we really care about each other," Dan DeWalt of South Newfane added.

Brenda Siegel of Newfane, who recently ran for lieutenant governor in the August primary election, said Black and Brown people's lives are often at risk nationally and in Vermont.

"And people do not feel comfortable moving into our state as a result," she said, calling the statement "a good first step to really making sure that people know that we are a welcoming community. There are people who are attacked by white supremacists in this state. Because I made myself a public figure, I have had that experience as a Jewish person. But I'm allowed to hide behind the color of my skin, which is something Black and Brown folks can't do."

Being Jewish too and the child of Holocaust survivors, Dowling said she grew up with and still experiences racism and hate.

Thomas Ely of Newfane, retired bishop of Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, told the board it is important for leaders to speak up when there is hurt or concerns raised in the community. Participants could be seen clapping on the screen after the motion to adopt the statement passed.

Juliette Carr of the West River Mutual Aid group, which helped organize the effort, congratulated and thanked the board "for taking this really important step." She said her group wants the town to consider taking "the next logical step" — investing in diversity training and education for all town employees and Select Board members, an initiative board members were agreeable to discussing at a future meeting.

Mamadou Cisse of South Newfane said he moved to the community in 2007 and originally lived in West Africa. He described feeling safe until the graffiti appeared.

"Those things are pretty frightening for a Black man who's been living here for 13 years now," he said. "I just want to thank you for supporting this cause because it will definitely make me feel like I'm part of this community and I think if it wasn't approved, I would no longer feel safe living here."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.

Tags