BRATTLEBORO — Community members are focusing on healing and charting a better path forward.
Amber Arnold, co-steward of the SUSU Healing Collective, estimated about 40 to 50 people showed up to Friday's demonstration organized by the SUSU Collective and the Root Social Justice Center in which they marched from Pliny Park to the Common.
"While we marched we HUMMMed together," Arnold said in an email response to the Reformer. "This is the sound that our African Ancestors made when they were violently forced onto transatlantic slave ships to Turtle Island by the colonizers. This sound is what they used to protect and soothe their collective nervous systems in a violent situation where they didn't know what was happening, where they were seeing their people being harmed, and their voices were being silenced, kind of like what happens every day in our town."
As the group approached the Common, participants sang about their ancestors — those Arnold credited with leaving healing practices and wisdom for future generations.
"I know they're watching," participants sang, Arnold said. "I know, I know."
The group used singing to soothe trauma related to what Arnold called "white supremacy culture." She said participants marched from Pliny Park, where Solidarity Friday is held weekly and organized by the Root Social Justice Center, Brattleboro Solidarity, Lost River Racial Justice and Tenant Union of Brattleboro around the underlining principle that "all of our struggles are tied together." Different issues and injustices happening in the community and everywhere are highlighted.
Arnold said she felt the demonstration went well and aired voices of people not centered in media coverage or advertising campaigns. She recalled participants saying it felt accessible to them and describing it as "a nice change."
"It really highlighted the need for us to actually do the work of healing our community before pouring all this money, resources, and time into tourist campaigns, our police budgets, and the budgets decided by the resourced white voices in the town with power that don't actually deal with the problems we have here right now like silencing voices, white supremacy, oppression, homelessness, drug addiction, and our community not being reflected in town decision making processes as the spaces are not at all safe," she said.
Arnold said the demonstration was partly inspired by organizers not feeling discussions about reviewing the police department at the last Select Board meeting to be inclusive to those who Black, Indigenous and people of color.
"All of the decisions that are made for our town and town budget are made by white people and predominantly white men," she said. "This doesn't truly reflect the voices and experiences of the people in our community and the decisions being made by the town planners, Select Board, etc. impact the most marginalized people in our community the worst."
Tim Wessel told the Reformer as chairman of the Select Board, he took "great pains" at recent meetings to ensure everyone who wanted to speak had a chance to — even non-residents.
"I think anyone watching those meetings would agree that we had great patience for all speakers, even when the comments devolved into unfortunate personal insults," he said.
Demonstration organizers felt inspired to create an event to hear voices they feel have been silenced or ignored. Arnold said they wanted to show that "we are important and integral to this community, and we have visions, dreams, ideas, and the tools to actually create a Brattleboro that is safe, people's needs are met, and that all of us can thrive."
Another inspiration for the event has to do with the collective's mission, which is "to offer an affirming space for people to practice community reciprocity — the act of giving from a place of abundance and receiving from a place of deep love and reverence while learning how to engage in community practices that dismantle systems of oppression and build systems of health, healing, wellness, and magic."
The group highlights voices, healing and experiences of community members who are Black, Indigenous and people of color.
"We wanted the demonstration to be done in a way that centered the needs of the collective nervous system and that really embodied and represented what we are talking about when we say 'Defund the police," Arnold said. "We wanted to show what this actually looks like, how we care for and prioritize the actual safety of our community and what we believe we need to fund in order to invest resources into projects, people, and organizations that create real safety and opportunities for our community."
Organizers invited local herbalists and "herbal medics" to offer medicines such as tinctures, fresh plants, kale and teas to attendees. Healers also were asked to attend.
"We spent moments throughout the speakers grounding into the earth, checking in with our bodies, and bringing in some movement," Arnold said. "We wanted to be intentional about creating a space where we could really hear people's voices while also tending to the needs of our bodies. We wanted to demonstrate and embody an alternative process for talking about challenging issues — like the police and our proposal to address safety. We wanted to show that this is another way to organize that centers the needs of the collective, moves towards spaces of safety, and allows for sustainability as we move towards the change we want to see in Brattleboro."
One part of the demonstration included a community ritual where participants were asked questions including: What makes you feel safe here? What makes you feel unsafe here? What makes you feel you don't belong here? What makes you feel unheard here? If you had all your needs met, everything you needed to thrive, what would you do?
Using the responses, Jonas Fricke and Saturn Ladyheart Milner will be making a banner intended to hang downtown and be rotated through small businesses. Arnold said the project is meant to ensure that the voices of people experiencing oppression in the community are heard and to use that feedback to create a community that better reflects the people most harmed by current structures.
Her group is looking for the town to approve a proposal for a police review that includes the participation of local social justice groups, childcare offerings, opportunities to speak without police present, and stipends for facilitators and participants who can speak about the experience of marginalized groups.
The collective wants to find businesses downtown to host the banner. They also plan to keep working towards the goal of raising money to buy farmland for the benefit of those who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. The hope is to secure grant funding for projects.
Gena Mangiaratti contributed to this report.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org and @CMaysBR on Twitter.