Skeleton in tree rattles community

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BRATTLEBORO — A skeleton hanging in a tree since before Halloween sparked outrage on social media over the weekend, but the woman who hung the skeleton said the outrage was misplaced.

"To me, this feels like a modern day witch hunt," said Stephanie Coleman Givens, owner of West Village Motel on Western Avenue.

The social media firestorm started Saturday with posts on Facebook, one of which stated "This is not a Halloween decoration but an effigy with blackface. It is racist, violent, disgusting and not something we should tolerate in our town." That post has since been deleted.

Comments began to fly and other posts appeared on Facebook, including in the Brattleboro, Vermont group, with more than 100 comments before it was deleted by administrators, and on the page of Brandie Starr, the chairwoman of the Brattleboro Select Board.

"As a community leader, I want to briefly state it has come to my attention that one of our fellow community members has chosen to hang a scarecrow type figure appearing to be in black face from a tree in her yard," wrote Starr. "If true this is a disgusting and abhorrent display of ignorance, and I truly hope she makes the choice to remove this offense. In the meantime, please know your Town Manager and Police Chief have been made aware and are actively discussing this issue. ... Displays of racism will not be ignored, condoned, or accepted."

THE TOWN RESPONDS

Town Manager Peter Elwell said that because he has made a conscious decision to avoid social media, board members and town employees often notify him when something is brewing on Facebook or elsewhere online. Elwell said Starr advised him about the display on Saturday and he decided to see it for himself.

"I found that from the road it was a very disturbing image," said Elwell. "I made the decision to talk with Ms. Givens and let her know how it was disturbing to me and other people in the community. Even after I had seen up close that the display was not what it seemed to be from the street, I still believed it would be in everyone's best interests, hers and the community, for it to be removed."

On Saturday, Elwell visited West Village Motel with Brattleboro Police Capt. Mark Carignan and they told Givens about the social media posts. Givens said she was stunned when she learned what people were thinking.

"They said 'Do you realize that people are thinking that this is an effigy and you've got it hanging from a noose in a tree?' My reaction was 'Are you kidding me?'"

Givens said she also learned that people online were planning to protest at the motel in the afternoon. She quickly gave Carignan permission to remove the figure from the tree.

A 'SHRINE' AND A 'SHAMING'

Givens insisted on Wednesday that in no way, shape or form was the skeleton racially motivated.

"This was meant to be 'ghosts of maintenance men past and present,'" she said.

About a year ago, Bob Kane, who had been living in one of the cabins and performing maintenance in exchange for rent, committed suicide. Givens, who was crushed by Kane's death, put up a memorial display that included a skeleton with one leg, because Kane used a prosthetic, propped in a rocking chair listening to a radio. The skeleton has since been removed, but a memorial of sorts to Kane is still posted to the garage on her property.

"He still has a shrine out there," said Givens. "He was a beautiful man and I put up a beautiful tribute."

Givens said she hung a second skeleton in a tree in her front yard because of a conflict she was having with a man she took on board to take Kane's place. She called that person a "conman" who caused problems, threatened her and refused to pay rent on his cabin. It took her several months to evict the man because of difficulties she had with filing eviction paperwork with Windham Superior Court in Newfane. During this process, Givens said she was so frustrated that she hung the skeleton in a black sweatshirt and prison jumpsuit, holding a sign that said "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas."

"I give housing to lots of vulnerable people in the community," said Givens. "Low-income people, others struggling with addiction, ex-convicts. I try to help. Unfortunately, it has gotten me into trouble."

She nicknamed the skeleton Skully and even after the man was evicted, she left it hanging in the tree in front of her house. Pictures began to circulate online that appeared to show a blackface figure hanging from a tree, perhaps because the hoodie had fallen over the skull due to the weather.

"I never had a complaint in four months," said Givens. "I never had anyone stop and ask me about it."

But that all changed last week when people began to post comments on social media.

THREATS AND APOLOGIES

"There were people driving by yelling and screaming, throwing the finger and eggs," said Givens. "Someone left nails and screws at the bottom of my driveway. I was so scared on Saturday, not knowing whether my house was going to be burned down or something was going to happen to my kids."

Another woman, who asked that she not be identified because she has also received threats, posted an apology to Givens on Facebook.

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"Stephanie is not racist, and did not in any way know how people were perceiving that from the road," she wrote. "The moment she found out that community members felt the way they did, Stephanie took it down immediately. The messages from various people in the community about the reasons that this may have been hanging from the tree differed wildly. And served only to confuse the situation further. At this point the only thing matters is that I believe that Stephanie deserves an apology. I do not believe there was racial intent. And I'm giving that apology to her from myself today."

Starr issued her own public apology on Facebook.

"I do apologize sincerely and deeply to Stephanie," she wrote. "I am truly sorry. And for those who feel that it is okay to reach out and threaten people including threats to Stephanie, stop it. It is wrong, and it is not legal."

Starr also wrote that she had heard from a number of community members who were upset by what they saw from the road.

"Let me be clear here: even if I disagree, I support everyone's right to free speech," wrote Starr. "I also want all of us to be able to call out what we see as harmful in our community, and so I posted the photo I took on this page and my thoughts on how I perceived it. By doing so, I hoped the owner might see how it was viewed by passersby and make a change. My intention was most certainly NOT to cause her harm."

Starr told the Reformer that in response to her original post, she also received threatening messages.

"I received death threats," Starr said. "I was told I should resign if I wanted to escape any kind of violence."

THE LEGACY OF AMERICA'S PAST

Starr said that she posted on Facebook only after receiving a number of complaints on Saturday, which included a call from a family with children of color who pass by the West Village Motel every day.

"At that moment, I thought it was my duty to say that this is being checked out," said Starr, who admitted she could have handled the matter a little more delicately and that she shouldn't have used the term "blackface" in her post.

"I am sorry and appalled at the way Stephanie was treated," said Starr, who reminded the Reformer this all happened on a weekend meant to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Starr said the hanging of an effigy in a tree, given the nation's legacy of lynchings, maybe shouldn't be done.

After the post was deleted from the Brattleboro Vermont Facebook page, Jeff Potter, one of the page's administrators and the editor of the local weekly newspaper, The Commons, wrote that though Givens' display was not meant to be racist in any way, "A figure hanging from a tree conjures one of the most shameful, one of the most sickening, aspects of our society's racist legacy. Lynching was not only state-sanctioned murder of people of color. It was a message, invoked by fear for one's life, to keep people of color in their place, quiet, subordinate. If people jumped to conclusions about this innocent decoration, they sure as hell can be forgiven."

But, noted Potter, "sometimes a skeleton is only a skeleton."

Starr insisted as an elected official she has an obligation to respond to a community's concerns, even if those concerns are misplaced.

"It's easy to avoid putting ourselves in vulnerable and risky situations. But when I decided in my heart that I wanted to be a leader and a vocal member of the community, I made the responsibility mine to not hide from issues that are not easy. To speak up on things even if I look wrong, even if I make people angry, and that's just how it has to be. ... But I think when we accept roles of leadership, especially now, that's just something that we have to be ready for."

FREE SPEECH AND SOCIAL MEDIA

Elwell noted that in a country that values the First Amendment, sometimes we have to put up with expressions that are offensive or disturbing, as long as they don't cross the line into being obvious threats. Nonetheless, said Elwell, he felt it best if the display came down.

"We handled it in a respectful, person-to-person manner in a way that achieved exactly what the outcome should have been ... an amicable removal of the item so that it would no longer be a disturbing image in our community," he said.

In response to a question about the social media postings on Saturday, Elwell noted that the town is reviewing its social media policy and plans to update it.

"The Vermont League of Cities and Towns is updating the social medial policy it recommends for municipalities," he said. Brattleboro last updated its social media policy in 2012, said Elwell, and the times have changed enough that the policy should be updated.

"The social media environment is totally different from a decade ago," he said. "We will either adopt the VLCT model policy or adjust it to meet Brattleboro's needs."

For herself, Givens said she's not ready right now to accept the apologies.

"These women racially profiled my skeleton because he has a black hoodie and is wearing an inmate costume. They marked me as a racist when all they had to do was talk to me. None of this is right or OK. A simple apology is not enough. The damage is done."

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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