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Translating outrage to action: Upper Valley organizers say change way past due

  • Finn Abdessalam, 15, of Brooklyn, N.Y., wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt, stands with her mother Elizabeth Freund, in red at left, and her grandmother Laura Finn, in black at right, to listen to a speaker during a vigil in Bethel, Vt., Tuesday, June 2, 2020, to remember black people killed by police and other violence since March. The names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, all black people killed by police officers, and Nina Pop, a black trans woman stabbed to death in May, were read before attendees placed candles and flowers at a memorial. Over 250 people attended the event. Finn said said she rarely sees people who look like her in the Upper Valley, and often gets stares. At the vigil, she said she finally felt welcome when she saw other people of color, calling the experience "beautiful to see." The experience has made her excited to go to more protests and vigils in honor of Black Lives Matter throughout the region. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • David Phair, of Bethel, speaks to a crowd gathered at Babes Bar in Bethel, Vt., during a vigil Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in remembrance of George Floyd and other black people killed in recent months by police and other violence. “You can change one person even if the next four people don’t want to hear what you have to say,” Phair said, while encouraging people in the majority white crowd speak out against the violence. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cybele Merrick, of Lyme, joined over 300 people who gathered on the Dartmouth Green in Hanover, N.H., Saturday, May 30, 2020, and heard the names read in remembrance of people of color killed in acts of white supremacy over a period of about five years in the United States. The event was planned in the wake of the killing George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officers on Monday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A dropped flower lies in the street in Bethel, Vt., near a memorial for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, black people killed since March, on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/4/2020 9:59:51 PM
Modified: 6/5/2020 7:53:33 PM

HANOVER — Shirley Jefferson remembers joining the massive crowd marching out of Selma, Ala., 55 years ago — and the wall of state troopers just across the bridge waiting for her and other Civil Rights protestors.

“I remember Bloody Sunday. I remember the dogs, the billy clubs, the tear gas,” 67-year-old Jefferson, associate dean for student affairs and diversity at Vermont Law School, said through tears Wednesday.

Jefferson, who is black, was describing the first of three historic marches in that city in 1965; she participated as an adolescent.

“They treated animals better than they treated us,” Jefferson said. “And it’s still going on today.”

Last week, as images began to circulate of 46-year-old George Floyd dying in police custody while white Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chauvinknelt on his neck, that pain rose up again, sharp and swift.

“This one got into my soul. I can’t live like this,” Jefferson said.

A civil rights attorney who came of age during segregation, Jefferson said Floyd’s death — and the subsequent nationwide protests — resurrected familiar feelings.

“I felt like I was back in Selma, Alabama,” Jefferson said. “The fight got inside of me, and the fire.”

That’s the reason, Jefferson said, that she decided to help organize a rally in South Royalton planned for Saturday. Residents will gather to remember Floyd, hear speakers share their stories of racism and discrimination, and advocate for systemic change.

It’s one of numerous demonstrations that have been held or are planned around the Upper Valley, including additional events Saturday in Canaan and Randolph.

They mirror protests that have proliferated nationwide following Floyd’s death. Chauvin now faces a charge of second-degree murder, and the three other officers involved face lesser charges.

Many black residents in the Upper Valley say they’re exhausted by the trauma of repeatedly hearing about African Americans killed at the hands of authorities, and by the burden of explaining racism to their white friends and neighbors, who too often don’t want to engage.

“I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m sad. I’m exhausted,” said Vince Wilson, a Hanover resident who helped organize a gathering that drew 300 people to the Hanover Green on Saturday.

Though Wilson said he was heartened by the turnout, the pain and the reality set in when another organizer read out loud a list of nearly 200 names of black people who have been killed by police.

“You realize it’s not just one person. Just to hear how many names were read, it’s saddening,” Wilson said.

Amid the frustration and calls for change, many organizers said the vigils and rallies serve another purpose as well.

They have been a connecting place for African Americans and other people of color to feel less isolated in a predominantly white region, where many whites believe racism is a faraway problem, if they acknowledge it’s an issue at all.

“I’m seeing other black people who are also grieving,” Wilson said. “There are other people who can understand what I’m going through.”

Bringing about change

Many black organizers in the Upper Valley say the change must come first from white people acknowledging the problem of racism in the region — and the country as a whole.

That includes doing research, discussing the issue with their white colleagues and friends, and calling out racism and discrimination when and where they see it.

Others say change also has to come on a larger level; from policy changes in municipalities across the Twin States, and from reforms in police departments.

North Hartland resident Ed Taylor, who helped organize the Hanover vigil, remembers what his mother used to say: “We go to the streets demanding justice, but we see just us.”

He hopes that the scale of the protests in recent days will awaken white people outside of activist communities to the ills of racism, and push them to take action. It’s not enough, Taylor said, for white people to be “not racist.” They must be actively anti-racist, he said, an ongoing process that can start with attending demonstrations and listening to black people’s experiences.

David Phair, who organized a vigil in Bethel on Tuesday night that drew more than 250 people, echoed Taylor’s thoughts, saying he hopes the demonstrations will spread education and understanding among whites and non-black people of color.

“For white people, they need to listen to what their black neighbors are saying,” Phair said.

He added that’s made even more difficult in a state like Vermont, where the majority of the population is white.

“People are insistent that there’s no racism in Vermont,” Phair said. “The math screams that there’s racism.”

Jefferson said the burden also falls on white people to call out their family and friends — or even just neighbors they see in line at the grocery store — when they hear a racist comment.

“We have to start saying it’s wrong,” Jefferson said. “That’s what Vermonters can do. They see it every day,” she said.

Cybele Merrick, of Lyme, who attended the Hanover vigil Saturday, said change means not only white people educating themselves, but also recognizing and changing systems that oppress black people.

She pointed to the way cities have been redlined and “hollowed out” and the discrepancy in the way the country reacted to the crack epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s versus the opioid epidemic of today, as examples.

“All of those things have served to lessen black people, and they’re institutional,” she said.

When it comes to racism in institutions, Wilson said the police force specifically needs to change.

“It’s historically shown that black and brown people are disproportionately affected by the police,” Wilson said, adding that he and many other people of color have been taught since they were children to be respectful to the police for fear of retribution.

A report released in November showed that though black people make up only 6% of the population in Burlington, Vt., they were subjects over a fifth of cases where Burlington police used force in the last seven years, according to VtDigger.

In Hartford, a 2017 study by UVM economist Stephanie Seguino found that black drivers accounted for 3.3% of the traffic stops in a yearlong period ending in August 2016, despite black people making up only 0.9% of the population of drivers in the town.

“We’re constantly told how we’re supposed to act. It’s ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ ... You have to put your hands on the steering wheel,” Wilson said. And yet, he said, the risk of getting killed is still present. White men accused of violent crimes don’t face that same risk, he said.

“We’re just trying to survive. We’re just trying to get home,” he said. “Cops will find a way to justify killing us.”

For Phair, these protests and vigils are just the beginning.

Until there is real change, he said, he hopes protesters will keep speaking out.

“This is long overdue,” Phair said. “I don’t want this to stop because we get a small victory.”

Finding support

Hartford Selectboard member Alicia Barrow, who has lived and raised children for over a decade in the Upper Valley, knows the feeling that comes with frequently being one of the few people of color in a largely white community.

For her, the protests go beyond just increasing education and pushing back against racial injustice: They are a way to also show solidarity and support with other people of color living in the Twin States.

People in the Upper Valley’s BIPOC community — an acronym for black, indigenous and people of color — are isolated, she said.

“We feel alone. A lot of us are scared,” Barrow said. “We don’t know where we stand.”

After the Hanover vigil on Saturday, other people of color approached Barrow and thanked her, saying they felt like they weren’t alone.

That feeling was shared by 15-year-old Stockbridge, Vt., resident Finn Abdessalam, who went to the vigil in Bethel on Tuesday evening. It was the first time, she said, she had seen other black people and people of color in Bethel, calling the experience “beautiful.”

“It definitely made me feel more welcome,” Finn said in an interview on Wednesday. “I get a lot of stares here, but yesterday I got good stares.”

Lebanon resident Christopher Robarge said he knows black people have been in this situation many times before, and so he maintains some wariness about whether the country will move forward toward true racial equity. Still, he’s hopeful that this time is different: Protests have happened in every state since Floyd’s killing, he noted, as well as multiple countries abroad.

“People are saying, ‘This is it. This is the last time. This is the time people will stand up,’ ” Robarge said. “That solidarity is really astounding.”

Anna Merriman can be reached at 603-727-3216 or amerriman@vnews.com.

 

 

Update: A photo of David Phair and a state trooper elbow-bumping that appeared online with this story has been removed because it lacked context. Phair said he did not feel supported by the police at the event. 




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