Our Opinion: Listen, then act on beating racism

Nakia Adams, the organizer of the Youth Rally Against Police Brutality, uses a megaphone as she talks to the crowd gathered on Flat Street, in Brattleboro, on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.

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Racism is with us everywhere in the United States — including Southern Vermont.

It's our nation's Original Sin, committed when Europeans stole the land and its resources from its original inhabitants and bought and sold African men and women as slaves to build this country and create wealth for themselves. Our foundational documents declare that "all men are created equal," but the authors failed to confront the obvious hypocrisy of asserting the right to freedom while denying it to others.

Despite a Civil War over slavery and the fleeting triumphs of the civil rights movement, this country has been largely unwilling or unable to take a long, hard look in the mirror and confront its own racism.

It is time to do so, and time to declare that Black Lives Matter.

In our state of Vermont, where whites are 93 percent of the population and African-Americans are just 1 percent according to 2018 Census data, white homogeneity obscures racism and biases, lulling the majority into thinking that it's not their problem. But racism does exist here. This national crisis reminds us that our community is not immune, and that we must do better.

This remains a state where, according to a 2017 University of Vermont study, people of color are more likely to be pulled over in their cars by a police officer. It's a state where, according to a 2018 study, African-Americans make up 1 percent of the population, but 8.5 percent of Vermont's prisoners. It's a state where the only African-American woman in the Vermont Legislature, former state Rep. Kiah Morris of Bennington, stepped down after enduring racial harassment, and where state Attorney General T.J. Donovan acknowledged that harassment, but said he could not charge her tormenters under the law — a decision with which many strongly disagree.

So we cannot look away from our perch in the Green Mountains as people in Minneapolis and across the country stand up to protest the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. White Vermonters must listen to what their African-American neighbors are saying, and then act to combat racism and injustice here.

The pain felt in Minneapolis has spread, and it has gotten worse. White anarchists have infiltrated peaceful protests and caused widespread destruction, seemingly hoping to touch off violent revolutions or discredit legitimate peaceful protest. Alarmingly, some rogue police in cities across the country have targeted peaceful protesters and reporters with tear gas and rubber bullets. It's getting out of hand, and it's scary.

In contrast, in communities throughout Southern Vermont this past weekend, people came together in peace to protest — with the support of law enforcement. The Vermont State Police and police departments in Bennington, Brattleboro, Manchester and Winhall all released strong statements mourning the death of George Floyd and condemning the brutality that led to it. Their awareness is much appreciated.

But what is true in America is also true in Vermont: People of color here know, from their own experiences and the experiences of friends and family, that they are not always treated fairly, by law enforcement or society. They live with social alienation and the implied threat of personal danger every day.

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Most of us have no idea how that feels. It's time we listen and learn.

Gov. Phil Scott added his voice to condemnation of Floyd's death on Monday. "No one should stand for this. No one should make excuses for this. And no one should ignore this," Scott said, calling for prosecution of all four now-former officers involved. He also announced the creation of a racial equity task force which will address the racial disparity in COVID-19 infection and death rates, as well as several other assignments.

Here are more actions that should be taken:

- Vermont House Bill H.808, patterned after a new California law, would establish new requirements for police use of deadly force. At a committee hearing on the bill in January, Donovan and Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling both suggested the Legislature slow down and study how California's law plays out. It's time to speed things up.

The bill is presently before the House Government Operations committee; its chair is Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, and local members include Rep. Nelson Brownell of Pownal and Rep. Mike Mrowicki of Putney.

- Vermont House Bill H.478 would establish a task force to investigate the possibility of reparations for slavery. Vermont outlawed adult slavery in its 1777 constitution, but that didn't stop slavery from happening here. A thorough and honest accounting is overdue. That bill is also before the Government Operations committee.

- Act 54 of 2017 directed the Attorney General's office, with the state Human Rights Commission and interested stakeholders, to develop a strategy to address racial disparities within the state systems of education, labor and employment, access to housing and health care and economic development. These efforts should be priorities.

- It's also clear that across the country, civilians, under whose authority police are sworn and authorized to use force to uphold the law, should have a stronger say over that authority. Bennington is currently considering such a commission, and Brattleboro has a Citizen Police Communications Committee. Perhaps every Vermont city or town with a police force should have one.

The systematic mistreatment of African-Americans over 400 years is a national burden, not a local issue confined to "sunset towns" and the Jim Crow South. Martin Luther King Jr., in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," said it better than anyone else: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."