For former rep, words of Martin Luther King ring true

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BRATTLEBORO — "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice" are oft-quoted words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"He said those words a lifetime ago but here we are with worse inequalities than in those times," former state representative Kiah Morris said Monday at Centre Congregational Church United Church of Christ during an event honoring the birthday of the civil rights leader. "How long is this arc supposed to be?"

The 11th annual event, sponsored by the Brattleboro Area Interfaith Leadership Association, was called "a wonderful opportunity for people of all ages, faiths, races and ethnicities to come together to remember the work of King, to celebrate all that unites us and to learn about local community organizations working against racism," according to a press release. Donations were set to be split between the Root Social Justice Center and the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.

Morris served as state representative for the Bennington-3 district starting in 2016. She resigned in September, citing racial harassment. Last week, Attorney General TJ Donovan announced at a press conference that she had been victimized but he would not be pursuing criminal charges.

Morris' husband James Lawton said that press conference at a synagogue was supposed to help with healing but the man who predominately harassed his wife showed up wearing a shirt with a racist symbol on it and carrying a gun.

"You know why he could? Because it was his right," Lawton said. "It was his right to say hurtful things to my wife. It was his right to terrorize us for two years. And in a moment that was supposed to help us move on to some degree, he took that away from her because it was his right and nobody in the law enforcement community including our attorney general — and I'm not bashing him — nobody could come up with a way to stop him. That's gotta change. Everything was under the guise of political dissent."

Lawton said the man could call his wife a racial slur as long as the man said he did not agree with her politics.

"I'm not even going to grace this place with his name, the man who has been intimidating, harassing and putting my family in danger for two years and brought the attention of neo Nazis and white supremacists from everywhere from all over the country," Lawton said. "I tell people, it's not him we're so afraid of. It's the stuff he's bringing us."

Morris told attendees of Monday's event that she wasn't there "to recount my pain, the trauma my family has endured or the repugnant injustices that are on our minds." She said oppressed people have never been given the luxury of time "so when we come to you and say the work must begin, you must move beyond any apprehension or personal fear to do what's necessary and what your conscience requires."

"You cannot let this happen on your watch," she added. "The time is now."

Earlier in the day, Morris tweeted that she didn't "want to see your clever MLK memes today. Doesn't mean a damn thing if you aren't having this conversation year round. These adrenaline shots of social justice [conversations] on this day are detrimental when the works of your hands are empty for the other 364."

Rep. Nader Hashim, D-Windham-4, was introduced as a state trooper who was born in Boston to parents who emigrated from Egypt and Iran. After earning a degree in political science and international relations from Clark University, Hashim moved to southern Vermont with his daughter in 2011 to begin his career with the Vermont State Police, where he has served since.

"When will we have a society that includes equality and compassion as the most fundamental values embedded in its foundation?" Hashim asked, adding that attendees and those who share their beliefs can create a better future in which people of color do not have to worry about harassment. "The most powerful thing you possess is numbers and your voice. Use that voice and never let the sound of hate drown you out."

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He noted the pews were "packed" with people.

Rev. Lise Sparrow said the annual service began 11 years ago in response to "very hateful" incidents in Brattleboro.

"And I think we had high hopes that if we reminded people of Martin Luther King Jr., we would rise out of some of these acts in Brattleboro," she said.

Antonio Ricardo of Youth4Change, an initiative within the Root Social Justice Center in Brattleboro, said life was "just so complicated" — being a person of color and trans.

"I was adopted over Christmas break," Ricardo said to applause. "And it didn't hit me until after what I was permanently staying in, what kind of town I'm staying in. And it really hurts when you think about it."

Ricardo claimed to be racially profiled by a cop while walking to therapy two weeks ago.

"I've never been more scared in my life," Ricardo said. "And this is every day. Not necessarily by a police officer but by my peers, by ignorant white people who look at me and automatically call me a [racial slur] because they don't care to get to know me beyond my skin color."

Ricardo asked attendees "to look deep into your hearts and try to find the trust in us youth, us POC, us trans youth, us queer youth, and just remind yourself that we are the future."

Peter Elwell was introduced as Brattleboro's town manager, a white male and member of the Community Equity Collaborative. He urged people to "recognize systemic racism and work to eliminate it."

Elwell described Morris' resignation as a tragedy because the state would lose her leadership. She had been the first person of color to represent Bennington and the second woman of color in the state's Legislature.

In a Huffington Post video played during the event, Morris said she received death threats against her and her family that made it no longer worthwhile to continue to serve.

"We can and we must do better," Elwell said, adding that Morris came out to help the community understand more clearly the imperative of this movement and the need to work on social and racial justice initiatives in Vermont.

Rev. Sandy Daly invited attendees to chat with each other about how to make change.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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