Year in Review: Towns struggle to overcome racism

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BRATTLEBORO — The region wasn't immune from hate messages scrawled in public in 2018.

In Brattleboro in late June, police investigated a chalk message on an Elliot Street sidewalk that read "Toten die Juden," which, in German, means "Kill the Jews."

"We investigated the leads that we had, but have not identified the person who wrote this," said Brattleboro Police Department Capt. Mark Carignan on Dec. 20. "At this time there are no additional leads that we are actively following up on."

A few weeks after the chalk message was discovered, flyers were found around town proclaiming "Blacks lives don't matter" and "The Atomwaffen Division is organizing near you."

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Atomwaffen Division is "a terroristic national socialist organization" formed in Texas in 2015 whose "greatest success appears to be attracting young men who are entranced by its fetishizing of death, Nazism, violence, and mass murder ..."

Police again were unable to identify the person who created and posted the flyers.

Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell told the Reformer it's not illegal to put up posters, and that the police have to distinguish between criminal acts that directly target groups or individuals, and constitutionally protected free speech.

Elwell also noted that "offensive expressions of an individual (or a few individuals) are contrary to the compassionate and welcoming values of our community."

In March, the Windham County Sheriff's Office investigated an incident at Putney Central School in which a young man wrote in chalk "I support the second amendment" on the school blacktop. Using surveillance images, deputies were able to identify the man and determined that there was "no suspected threat to children or other occupants of the school." No charges were filed.

Putney Central School Principal Herve Pelletier told the Putney School Board that the man hadn't been planning the graffiti. He'd just found a piece of chalk at the school and decided to express himself. "It was just something kind of dumb that he did," Pelletier said. He said that after reviewing footage of the incident, he didn't feel menaced.

"I wish he'd found another means to express himself, but there it is," Pelletier said. He said the man had reached out to some parents at Putney Central School and expressed his remorse.

In July, a hiker on Wantastiquet Mountain discovered a marker on its summit had been defaced with spraypaint. The messages included "kill cops" and "ACAB," which stands for "all cops are bastards." Other graffiti contained the four-letter expletive starting with the letter "F" before the words "USA" and "the Bratt Food Co-op."

Messages written in chalk are not necessarily considered illegal, especially when written on public property. Though they might be repulsive, they don't destroy or deface property and are considered protected by the First Amendment. However, the use of spraypaint on public or private property can be considered vandalism.

In May, social media lit up both in support of and in opposition to a student-led initiative to run "Black Lives Matter" flags up the flagpoles at Brattleboro Area Middle School and Brattleboro Union High School.

While most of the discussion was respectful and commended the students for getting involved and standing up for what they believed in, many posts were derogatory in nature, focusing on their youth and implying they were too young to make informed decisions.

"True Vermonter would put a flag that says ALL LIVES MATTER," wrote one commenter on the Brattleboro Reformer's Facebook page. "Who the hell is raising these kids and teaching them. Shameful. The America flag is for all," wrote another.

"The Black Lives Matter flag is for all as well," wrote a commenter in response. "It's for all who want to see an end to racism and see true equality in the country that the American flag represents. Otherwise, the American flag is not for all, it's for some. Which means that black lives don't matter as much as white."

"Black lives matter is a terrorist organization that promotes killing of police officers," chimed in another commenter. "BLM is nothing but a racist organization all lives matter not just black not just White all lives [sic]."

"It's not picking one race over another," wrote another person. "It is encouraging awareness of the massive inequality and oppression against people of color. Honestly, I don't understand why people feel threatened by this. If you don't agree, then move on. Our students stood up and spoke up about an issue that was important to them. The minority population in our schools asked for representation and acknowledgment of their daily struggle for equality, and our teachers, administrators, and school board listened. Kudos to them all for taking steps to help our black and minority students feel seen."

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


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