Newfane urged to make statement on anti-BLM graffiti

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

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NEWFANE — Community members are at odds over how to respond to graffiti found on Route 30 two months ago.

Discussion at Tuesday's Select Board meeting held remotely was sparked by correspondence from residents who want the town to issue a public statement and those who don't believe it's the responsibility of the town to do so.

"Since the beginning of July, racist graffiti has been spray painted throughout Windham County including in Newfane, where 'BLM is racist' was painted on the street," states a letter to the Newfane Select Board written by a group of community members and signed by more than 100 people. "The vandalism has escalated with each subsequent attack with more inflammatory language stating, 'White is Right,' and 'BLDM,' standing for Black Lives Don't Matter, as well as swastikas."

Roads were painted overnight in Newfane, Jamaica, Dover, Rawsonville, South Londonderry, Putney and Brattleboro, with at least three incidents targeting homes of people of color or biracial families, according to the letter.

The group said Newfane cannot allow racism, threatening or bullying. They noted Dover and Jamaica have already issued statements on the issue.

Their recommended statement says in part that Newfane "respects and cherishes all of its citizens regardless or race, gender, sexual preference or socioeconomic position. We do not see these racist incidents as just an attack on a particular people in our town. We understand they are an attack upon us all and we pledge to respond as an entire town in a manner that heals the damage and works to prevent it from reoccurring. Any citizen who is the target of public ideological attacks that instill fear or intimidation will receive all possible support within the town's capacity to repair damage caused. We pledge, as possible within our purview, to hold the perpetrator or perpetrators accountable in the most appropriate way whether that may be encouraging criminal investigations, instituting restorative justice or other meaningful methods of restitution."

In a letter to the board, Cristine A. White of Newfane said "one isolated event with no idea of the perpetrator is not a reason to create a resolution." She encouraged those who wanted the statement to build a coalition to reach out to the disenfranchised and educate citizens on ways to respond to racism and discrimination.

"We need to stop looking to government to fix our ills," she wrote, urging the board not to create precedent by issuing a statement.

In a letter to the board, Erica Walch of Newfane said to write "BLM is racist" is equivalent to crossing out BLM and making the road read "Trump is racist," which is what happened on Route 30 before both statements were cleared.

"Neither of these statements contains a threat — they are both political opinions and are constitutionally protected free speech," she wrote. "It is not government's job to protect citizens' feelings but it is the government's job to protect citizens' free speech along with all the other rights found in the state and United States Constitution."

During discussion, Walch said she objects to the statement's language regarding town support for damages.

In a letter to the board, Toni Powling of Newfane said "a kneejerk reaction to an isolated incident is not good policy."

Sidney Johnson of Newfane said for him, the Select Board is an administrative body — not an enforcement agency, church or social organization.

"I see absolutely nothing wrong with all of the people in Newfane communicating loudly about how they feel about prejudice, bigotry, hatred, etc.," he said, adding that he does not believe the board should make a statement for the town.

Dan DeWalt of South Newfane called the spray paint incident "an offense to all and an act of intimidation to those of us who are not white." He urged the board to make a statement showing "acts of racism and seclusion would not be tolerated by the town."

"It's pretty much what we agree with but I mean, like I said, we're here for all the people in town — we work for all the people in town," board member Mike Fitzpatrick said. "None of us condone violence or anything like that but some stuff you have to do on your own, as private citizens."

The town could create policy regarding vandalism on town property, Fitzpatrick said. He noted that Route 30 is owned by the state and State Police said they would investigate the incidents.

NewBrook Elementary Principal Scotty Tabachnick said his hope is to add new families to the school's roster, reduce the tax burden in town and have positive impacts on students.

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"As I do this work, I promote the school as a place where all kids move forward, where all kids feel comfortable, safe and included in our programming and our school community," he said, encouraging the board to issue a statement. "I realize this a very difficult spot to be in for the Select Board, however, I do think this is a moment where people can step forward and make a mark."

Rev. Rob Hamm of First Congregational Church of Newfane described the statement as a way for the board to take "moral leadership."

Wichie Artu, who introduced himself as a Black and Brown neighbor living in Athens, said people of color are paying attention and deciding where to live based on what communities have done for them. He suggested the board make a statement like the other communities or allow a mural to be painted in town like Putney is planning to "send a message to Vermont and Vermonters of color about who Newfane actually protects."

Board Chairwoman Marion Dowling told participants the board appreciated their attendance and sharing. The next meeting is on Sept. 21 and the statement is anticipated to be on the agenda.

"We are not going to dismiss this," Dowling said. "When you run into any of us on the street or at the store, you are speaking to a resident. We have no authority or power unless we are here as a whole unit."

'RACE AWARENESS'

Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told the Reformer that members of his branch had gone to vigils following the graffiti incidents. His group asked and received approval from the Putney Select Board for a street mural to read, "Black Lives Matter."

As for the statements from towns, Gillom said his group would support anything that empowers and justifies Black lives.

"We appreciate the race awareness," he said in an interview before the Newfane meeting.

Asked about a project in Brattleboro to find a facilitator and appoint a committee to review public safety, Gillom said his group is "totally in support of a restructuring of the system and the community's involvement in that."

"We definitely support these efforts and we strongly encourage that this committee be full of people of color and people from other marginalized backgrounds," he said.

Gillom said he very much appreciates all the momentum of such efforts right now and described being "so happy" his group can be involved.

"Structural reform really is our wheelhouse," he said.

Gillom estimated the Windham County branch has close to or more than 200 members, which he said is large for a county of its size. He said hundreds more support its actions.

Still, efforts don't go unchallenged. Gillom said local officials and residents can be reluctant to change.

"I think what we are seeing right now is a resistance to a shift in power and voice," he said. "And there's a resistance to the uplifting and highlighting of the minority and marginalized voices."

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