Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County branch of the NAACP, said if Black people had the proper channels to make their voices heard, the widespread, sometimes violent social unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis may have taken a different form.
"I just know we wouldn't have had protests that are as huge as they are, if the community could have responded in any other way," Gillom said. "They felt that they couldn't."
Allowing historically marginalized communities more ways to make direct recommendations to their governing bodies is one of Gillom's ideas for how Vermont should move forward after the killing of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, led to national protests against racial inequity. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was caught on video pressing his knee to Floyd's neck, and now faces a charge of second-degree murder, among other counts. The three other officers at the scene face charges of aiding and abetting Chauvin.
Since Floyd's killing, lawmakers, civil rights activists and police departments across the country have explored avenues for reform. In Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott established the Racial Equity Task Force, and State Senate President Pro Tempore Timothy Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, demanded the body pass legislation that criminalizes illegal police restraints such as chokeholds, mandates race reporting on traffic stops and use of force, and mandates the use of police body cameras. State Rep. Nader Hashim, D-Dummerston, a former Vermont State Police officer, warned his colleagues that laws guiding police behavior are only as good as the officers who are hired, and the cultures of their departments.
"A police department can have the most progressive rules, but if they hire a person whose priority is to commit violence, that person will find a way to commit violence," Hashim said while introducing police reform legislation to the state House of Representatives. "If a police department hires a person who genuinely wants to help their community and protect and preserve life, that is the product you will see."
State Police Capt. Garry Scott noted that many troopers are distressed by the brutality they see, but they hope people understand the Vermont State Police is focused on community policing and treating everyone with respect.
"Our members feel it too," said Scott, director of the Impartial Policing and Community Affairs office of the state police. "They are watching this media frenzy that is occurring nationally. It's hard not to self reflect, but what we are seeing is not what we do. Unfortunately, people are looking at us differently because of the actions of other departments."
Gillom points out that Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who is Black, acted quickly by firing all four of the officers, but unrest still followed.
"Minneapolis is a perfect example of the fact that it takes more than having a police chief who is supported by the activist community to make change," he said. "The police chief in that city was Black and supported by the community, but his officers still ran amok. We are talking about reforming legacies of racialized policing and that takes more than title, though it might be a start."
Gillom, of Brattleboro, suggested the addition of local equity committees as one structural change for Vermont. He noted that Putney already has such a board.
"The reason why that is so great is it allows the community to really have a say in how their community is being policed," Gillom said, noting that select boards decide whether to renew police chief contracts.
The Putney Select Board voted to form the Equity and Inclusion Committee in August 2019. The goal of the committee, according to its official description, is to ensure that all residents, town employees and visitors "receive equal treatment and opportunity regardless of but not limited to, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, income, wealth, veteran status, sexual orientation, age, marital status, familial status, disability, gender identity, and gender expression."
Civil rights activists say Vermont needs to make structural changes not only to the setup of local governments, but to the way wealth is distributed and to the demographics of state leadership.
"I think Vermont sees itself as very progressive, but is a state that is mostly white," Brattleboro activist Amber Arnold said. "Why do we have a mostly white House?" And why does it not feel safe most of the time for people of color to be in those positions?"
She recalled the resignation of Kiah Morris from her Bennington 2-2 House seat in September 2018, citing racial harassment and threats.
"If you just kind of throw people of color into this really racist structure, you create a really harmful environment that's not actually safe for those people to be, and to actually have the agency to speak what they truly believe and use their voice to speak up and make changes for their communities," Arnold said.
Arnold is a co-steward of The SUSU Healing Collective in Brattleboro, a Black, indigenous and people of color-centered organization that offers classes, workshops and other resources related to wellness. She said the state should work toward securing funding for organizations that are not under white leadership.
"What we need to be doing is funding Black, people of color and indigenous organizations that are run by us, where we have direct relationships and we are the communities that we're serving," she said.
Naomi Doe Moody, of Putney, also a co-steward of The SUSU Healing Collective, cautions people in Vermont against sliding into "white saviorism."
"There is this both conscious, as well as an unconscious belief that has been held since slavery times that Black people need to be cared for, or maybe we don't have the abilities to care for ourselves or to think for ourselves or to govern ourselves," Moody said. "Suddenly, you're quote-unquote on our side, you're working towards liberation with us, but instead of passing the mic and allowing us to speak for ourselves, you're speaking for us."
Gillom's other recommendations for Vermont include reviewing and revising existing structures and policies, and, specifically for businesses and police, creating action items beyond training. Training, he said, should be the first step, not the last step toward cultural change.
"It's easy to jump on the bandwagon when everybody jumps up, but it's not so easy to stand up to a bully yourself. That's why we call them bullies," Gillom said. "I would hope that they don't think that's lost on Black and brown people, because that's not."
He suggests inviting the NAACP and other civil rights organizations onto local boards and committees and diversifying voices, including among those who are not part of the racial majority. He also recommends fostering political representation from historically marginalized communities.
"A lot of young Black and brown people came here for educational purposes, so a lot of people come here already ready to be groomed toward a professional career that gives them a voice," he said.
Gillom urges the creation and offering of jobs to people who are underrepresented, so the social momentum turns into economic growth, and making sure land ownership is accessible. He also said people in Vermont must acknowledge their own mistakes when it comes to racial equity. These mistakes include the harassment that led Morris to resign from the House, and the late founding of the state NAACP. The NAACP was established in 1909, and there were no chapters in Vermont until 2015.
"As a Black male myself, the recent events have been traumatic," Gillom said. "They've also been sobering in a way. They have been angering, but they've also motivated, I think, myself and many others to do more than we already were doing."
LEGISLATORS WEIGH IN
As committee chairs, state Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, and state Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham, played a significant role in recent efforts. Their committees took testimony from stakeholders, including Bor Yang, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, and Xusana Davis, the state's director of racial equality. They also heard from state and local law enforcement officials and civil rights activists.
"In a normal time we would have held public hearings and heard from the general public," Sears said of the process. "That was impossible with a Zoom-type situation, he said, referring to the online conferencing platform legislators used to meet. "Hopefully we can figure out some way to do that as we take up these issues."
In a few weeks, the Legislature passed S.219, a bill mandating race data collection as a condition for receiving state grants, making the use of body cameras mandatory for state police, and criminalizing the use of chokeholds and other prohibited restraints. The Senate also passed S. 119, which set a statewide use of force policy.
Sears said he is hopeful that when the Legislature returns in August, it will take up S.119, and that the Legislature will continue to discuss police training and "the importance of recognizing moving away from warrior mentality in our police departments."
"An important thing to remember is that the two key words are necessary and proportionality," Sears said. "By that I mean, is the use of deadly force necessary in a situation where someone could be a danger to others — and is it proportional?"
He pointed to the killings of Floyd, who was alleged to have passed a $20 counterfeit bill, and Rayshard Brooks of Atlanta, who was under suspicion of driving under the influence.
Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan said a friend of his who is Black puts on a tie and sportscoat whenever he travels, in case he is pulled over by police.
"I don't worry about that stuff. That is a privilege I have as a white guy. We have to be willing to listen to people and reflect," Donovan said. "Small changes haven't worked. We have to go big on this stuff and make sure our communities are safe for everybody."
He said while he believes Vermont has done a lot of work, there is still more to be done.
"We're at an inflection point in law enforcement and how we police," he said. "There is a serious lack of trust."
Rep. Kathleen James, D-Bennington-4, has been a member of the Legislature's Social Equity Caucus since it was founded in May 2019 by state Rep. Kevin "Coach" Christie and other members of the House and Senate.
"Through that and other work, I first had to learn how much I had to learn — and that learning starts with listening," she said. "At our caucus meetings and here at home, that's what I'm trying to do — actively listening to Vermont's Black community members, leaders, advocates and legislators."
She quoted a recent letter from her running mate Seth Bongartz to the Manchester Journal: "Today, white Americans must face our own unpleasant truth — we are responsible for dismantling racism."
Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Bennington-Rutland, said she has wondered about the adequacy of law enforcement training being given at police academies around use of force.
"With that, I wonder as well whether the unions that represent Vermont law enforcement officers give their own training and what that looks like," she said. "The same questions occur to me about implicit bias issues. I think it's worth taking a closer look at."
Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Bennington-4, and Arlington Select Board member, said Vermonters must support initiatives for social justice, and support reforms that will ensure police departments and the judicial system be held accountable.
"We must work to ensure that our own speech and behavior is consistent with principles of fairness and equity. We must speak up to oppose prejudice and discrimination by others," she said. "I am doing my best to live up to these proposals in both my public duties as a state legislator and a select board member and in my personal life."
Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington-1, said she thinks Vermonters recognize that there is systemic racism going on at the community, state and country levels.
"I think everyone has a little bit of a different definition of what racism is," depending on individual backgrounds, Morrissey said. "We all need to roll up our sleeves and come to the table and have the hard discussions, so there's not racism for anyone in our community, state or country. We need to look to find ways to work together."
Rep. David Durfee, D-Bennington-3, said a working group established last year to look at social equity standards in school curricula is due with recommendations he believes should be taken up quickly.
"We may not have monuments to topple or military bases to rename, but we can educate ourselves on implicit bias and systemic racism, and commit to gathering data and making structural reforms — not just in law enforcement and criminal justice, but in less obvious examples like health care access," he said.
Windham County Sheriff Mark Anderson said he and others in law enforcement have been distressed by how some officers escalate, rather than de-escalate a tense situation.
Anderson, who took over the Sheriff's Department a little less than one year ago, said he is continuing the compassionate policing policy developed by his predecessor, Keith Clark.
"The Windham County Sheriff's Office stands in solidarity with our community demanding justice for George Floyd, relying on the ethos of fair and impartial policing, service to the community, and decency towards others," Anderson wrote in a letter to the community.
Speaking to the Reformer, Anderson referred to 8cantwait.org, which outlines eight harm-reduction steps police departments can take. These include banning chokeholds and strangleholds, requiring de-escalation training and warning shots before shooting, the exhaustion of all alternatives before shooting, banning shooting at moving vehicles, requiring a use of force continuum and requiring comprehensive reporting.
Eight Can't Wait also calls for police officers to intervene when they see fellow officers exercising excessive force. Anderson said his deputies already have the duty to intervene. While this standard has not become an official state policy, many departments around the state are now adding it to their policies.
"In Vermont, seven of the eight can't waits have been in place for a long time," including a 1985 ban on chokeholds, Anderson said.
Anderson noted that all people, including police officers, have implicit biases they need to address.
"When you talk about systemic racism, it is hard for you or I to understand the perspective of a person of color and the life they have," Anderson said. "We can't walk a mile in their shoes."
Anderson said police have become "the catch-all entity," including responding to mental health emergencies. Anderson would like to see more social service response to such calls so police can focus on their "core competencies" of keeping people safe and deterring crime.
"We are trained to go into dangerous situations," said Anderson, who recently added a social worker, with the towns of Wilmington and Dover, to his roster.
The Vermont State Police's Fair and Impartial Policing Committee meets four times a year and serves as an advisory group to the state police. The purpose of the committee is to discuss critical issues such as: addressing bias in policing; addressing anti-Semitism, hate-motivated crime and incidents that affect LGBTQIA+ individuals and groups; building stronger relationships between law enforcement and the public; building trust within communities of color, marginalized communities and any group that has concerns about access to safety services; examination of state police policies and procedures; training; recruitment and retention of diverse membership within state police; collection and analysis of traffic stop and other data and any other related topics that members wish to discuss.
"The Vermont State Police is committed to fair and impartial policing and has developed and implemented a comprehensive program to ensure fair and impartial policing practices at all levels of the state police," the office's website reads. "These efforts include building relationships of trust with communities of color and other minority communities, diversifying our workforce, and improving our cultural awareness as the state of Vermont becomes more diverse. This office reflects the Vermont State Police's continuing commitment to the importance of fair and impartial policing."
"Deep, embedded systemic racism is woven through many fabrics of our society," Capt. Garry Scott said.
But it's not enough for the white majority to be making decisions on its own, he said.
"If we are not including the people affected the most, we are just going to get the same outcomes over and over again," he said. "Community members have a seat at the table so we can hear about their lived experiences."
Scott has been in law enforcement for 20 years. He hails from the Boston metro area and over the years he has also had to adjust the way he thinks about policing.
"When I joined, I wanted to help the community," he said. "Racial equity, justice and how the policies and procedures of law enforcement have been used as tools of oppression wasn't in my head."
Over the years, he has seen resistance to understanding and acknowledging white privilege and how it affects policing. But Scott said he has seen the new recruits embrace cultural awareness and how it can make them better troopers.
Nonetheless, Scott said the state police are actively recruiting people of color, women and those with different backgrounds.
"It's a huge challenge," he admitted. "We are not anywhere near where we would like to be when it comes to diversity."