Vermont town grapples with pride flag burnings, thefts

  • Progress pride flags hung up on Mary Catherine Graziano's property in Isle La Motte on Monday, Aug. 1. Pride flags have been stolen from this spot, and other homes in town, in recent weeks. (VtDigger - Shaun Robinson) VtDigger — Shaun Robinson

Published: 8/5/2022 1:26:47 AM
Modified: 8/5/2022 1:26:43 AM

ISLE LA MOTTE, Vt. — “I’m scared.”

Sidney Martinez stood in front of his neighbors Monday evening and told them that, as a person who is half Latino and half Native American, he worries about his safety living in Isle La Motte. He’s been especially concerned, he said, after two flags representing marginalized groups were set ablaze at an island home in late July.

Martinez and about a dozen other Isle La Motte residents spoke at a town selectboard meeting Monday in response to the burning of two LGBTQ+ flags — a progress pride flag and a transgender pride flag — as well as a recent spate of vandalism including additional flags stolen, a mailbox destroyed and vehicles egged.

According to Vermont State Police, the LGBTQ+ flags were hanging from a tree when they were set on fire at an unnamed person’s house around 1 a.m. on July 23. Several other residents expressed apprehension at the meeting Monday and said the community needs to band together to prevent more anti-LGBTQ+ incidents.

“Residents should not have to live in fear of bullying and vandalism,” said Anthony Fowler, an island resident. “There must be no place for bigotry.”

State police trooper Jordan Peterson, who first responded to the July 23 burning, said at the meeting investigators have turned up “a few leads” in the case, but did not elaborate.

The person whose flags were burned told police they previously had pride flags that were stolen, Peterson has said. After their flags were stolen, friends and neighbors put up their own pride flags in solidarity, which were also stolen, Peterson added.

Following requests from meeting attendees, the town’s selectboard voted Monday to publish a statement and mail it to local residents condemning the recent incidents and stating how residents could get in touch with law enforcement to share tips.

Selectboard member Mary Catherine Graziano was tasked with drafting the board’s statement. Standing in her driveway on Main Street Monday evening, with the sun setting around her, she said three pride flags have been stolen from her property in recent weeks.

Graziano noted that an American flag hung up at her neighbor’s house “has never been touched.” She has multiple neighbors who are LGBTQ+, she said, and plans to continue displaying pride flags to show that they are welcome in Isle La Motte.

Graziano declined to share any additional information about the person whose flags were burned, citing a desire to protect them from vandalism or violence.

(At the meeting Monday — a public event — she also asked news reporters in attendance not to publish the names of residents who spoke, citing the same reason. Graziano’s comments prompted a complaint Wednesday from the New England First Amendment Coalition, whose executive director, Justin Silverman, called it “a type of prior restraint” in a letter addressed to the selectboard.)

Residents in attendance also discussed increasing the use of local Facebook pages to share information about potential crimes, though Grand Isle County Sheriff Ray Allen urged residents to contact his office, and the state police, directly as well.

“Sitting at our desks, monitoring five different Front (Porch) Forums, different towns’ web pages and stuff like that, is not a good use of time,” Allen said. “Being out there and being visible is what we focus on.”

None of the five Lake Champlain Islands towns have their own police departments, so law enforcement is provided by Allen’s office and Vermont State Police. Those two agencies also get regular assistance from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Allen said, especially in the northern part of the islands near the border with Canada.

Allen said after the meeting his department currently has three deputies on staff — two of whom are his sons — and contracts with Isle La Motte for 12 hours a week of police coverage, on any day except Sundays.

Allen said his department has two additional people slated to join its roster in the coming months, which should allow it to bolster its patrol capacity.

One resident who spoke at the meeting, Charles Andrews, said he believes the town needs a greater law enforcement presence, especially during the busy summer tourism season when the number of visitors swells.

Responding to residents’ concerns about safety in Isle La Motte, Allen said he doesn’t believe his department has the capacity to keep the town of about 500 as safe as it could be.

“I don’t think there’s any place that’s 100% safe,” the sheriff said. ”I wish we had an endless budget and endless staff. But it’s not there.”

Julio Thompson, director of the Civil Rights Unit in the state Attorney General’s office, said Wednesday his office was waiting for the results of the state police investigation into the flag burnings before determining whether to investigate them as a hate crime.

Thompson also noted that the U.S. Attorney for Vermont and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been notified about the Isle La Motte incidents, too.

Douglas DiSabito, the Grand Isle state’s attorney, said at the selectboard meeting Monday his office was committed to prosecuting anyone police allege is responsible for the flag burnings.

“I’m not going to put up with this crap,” the state’s attorney said.

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