Upper Valley residents discuss discrimination, race relations

  • Hartford Selectman Jameson Davis, of Quechee, Vt., reviews his notes before he is introduced to speak at an annual Labor Day rally at Lyman Point Park in White River Junction, Vt., on Sept. 3, 2018. "Unity is needed in our society, now more than ever," he said in his speech. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 6/15/2019 6:39:20 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — About 50 people gathered at Hartford High School this week to hear and share stories about the bias and discrimination community members, especially people of color, continue to face within the Upper Valley.

Although attendees at Thursday evening’s Forum for a Hate-Free Vermont were predominantly white, stories pointed to a culture of constant unease for people of color in the Upper Valley.

Angela Christie, daughter of state Rep . Kevin “Coach” Christie, D-Hartford, recounted the story of when she picked up a hitchhiker who told her “blacks have gotten a lot better, they’re not all criminals and druggies like they used to be.”

Hartford Selectman Jameson Davis said, “we have to emphasize holding our citizens and our neighbors accountable.

“My interactions with community members have been worse than law enforcement,” Davis said.

He went on to say that diverse business ownership is important because he has been routinely asked to provide his identification at stores where his white friends don’t have to.

“At the end of the day, I’m still a black male and people will always remind me of that,” said Davis, who said he puts decals of Vermont Law School, where he is a student, and wears law school sweatshirts everywhere so people know “I’m not to be feared.”

Davis also faulted the Valley News, citing an article in February 2018 about the candidates running for Selectboard that noted he was African American.

(The story did not report the race of other candidates, one of whom was a white selectboard member who had forwarded an email that contained a cartoon with a racist depiction of President Barack Obama and had prompted calls for his resignation. He subsequently apologized, and Hartford also formed a committee to examine racial inequality in town).

Davis said the 2018 story described him in terms of his policies for African Americans, something that frustrates him because he felt he offered a more comprehensive plan.

“They called me everything but a Hartford citizen,” said Davis. “You would have thought I was the chairman of the Black Panthers.”

Ashley Andreas, a White River Junction resident, said she was concerned the forum on Thursday was asking people to relive their trauma in a way that “feels performative,” and also noted the unease some people continue to feel about the predominantly white area.

“A lot of marginalized people are afraid to live here,” she said.

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan, local lawmakers and State Police Capt. Roger Farmer, who commands troopers across southern Vermont, also attended the forum.

Those working in law enforcement cautioned against placing too much faith in legislation to combat discrimination.

Vermont Assistant Attorney General Julio Thompson said that hate speech is “not subject to court action of any sort” because of First Amendment protections. (Hate crimes are a different matter.)

Bor Yang, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, said that legislative progress is difficult when “we don’t have a Legislature that is representative of the people.”

Moderator Etan Nasreddin-Longo, the co-chairman of the Fair and Impartial Policing Committee, established by the Vermont State Police to address bias in its department, said he could not yet reveal the data that his committee has collected on racial and gendered policing in the state.

But, he said, “It’s better this year than it was last year. It’s not perfect.”

Although some attendees were reluctant to share their stories publicly with television cameras present, organizers afterward said they were pleased with the conversation.

“I’m definitely pleased with the turnout. A lot of folks came here and I think that speaks to the Hartford community and the Upper Valley in general and the energy — amazing energy — that’s here around this type of work across the board,” said Tabitha Moore, the director of the Rutland Area NAACP.

And Donovan, the attorney general who is considering a Democratic run for governor, said it’s important for Vermonters to hear stories about hate and bias that are occurring.

“I don’t think there are any easy answers coming out of tonight. It’s ‘keep moving forward, keep speaking out, and start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable’ because we have to solve this issue,” he said.

Rohan Chakravarty can be reached at Rohanchak@gmail.com.

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