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Upper Valley grapples with racist incidents

  • Montana Hood, 15, left, Audrey Kroes, 17, and Alyssa Bessette, 17, create a Black Lives Matter banner at a Hazen Street neighborhood gathering in White River Junction, Vt., on July 7, 2020. After a nearby resident hung a Nazi flag in his apartment window, the group got together to write anti-bigotry and anti-racism messages on banners to display through the neighborhood. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

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    The flag of Nazi Germany, described by the Anti-Defamation League as "one of the most potent hate symbols worldwide," is seen displayed in an apartment window on Hazen Street in White River Junction on Sunday, July 5, 2020. A man who answered the door at the home on Tuesday, July 7, declined to answer a reporter's questions and slammed the door. The display prompted neighbors on Hazen Street to paint anti-hate messages on large canvasses and display them on their property. (Photo courtesy Airelynn Owens)

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    Becca White, of White River Junction, Vt., decorates a banner that says "Love Comes in All Colors" during a gathering in her yard on Hazen Street on July 7, 2020. After a nearby resident hung a Nazi flag in his apartment window, neighbors got together to write anti-bigotry and anti-racism messages on banners to display on the block. White, who is a state representative, has Vermont's official motto "Freedom and Unity" tattooed on her shoulder. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

  • Chuck Therriault, of White River Junction, Vt., applies paint to his hand while decorating a banner at a neighborhood gathering on July 7, 2020. After a nearby resident hung a Nazi flag in his apartment window on Hazen Street, the group got together to write anti-bigotry and anti-racism messages on banners to display through the neighborhood. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

  • Claude Sharpe stands next to his vehicle parked at the Hanover Co-op in Centerra Marketplace in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, July 2, 2020. Sharpe and his girlfriend, Natalie Jones, say a cross was keyed into their car, next to the passenger door handle, while they were inside shopping. They took this picture to provide to police for a police report. The interracial couple — Sharpe is Black and Jones is white — believe the vandalism was racially motivated. (Photo courtesy Natalie Jones)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/9/2020 2:03:02 PM
Modified: 7/9/2020 3:31:16 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — A racial slur written on the bottom of a country club pool. Black Lives Matter signs torn from private lawns in Lebanon and Norwich and dumped in the trash. A Nazi flag openly displayed in the window of a White River Junction apartment.

As national discussions over racial inequity continue in the wake of George Floyd’s death, some Upper Valley residents say they’re seeing a spike in examples of bigotry in their own backyards. Authorities and observers point to a tense political climate marked by more frequent racist remarks from political figures, including President Donald Trump, and external stressors like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re in this kettle right now and we don’t know when the top is going to blow off, but we know it’s going to blow off,” said Hartford resident Allene Swienckowski, chairwoman of the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion, or HCOREI.

It’s unclear whether more overt acts of prejudice are taking place or the public is reporting them more often. Julio Thompson, director of the Vermont Attorney General’s Civil Rights Unit, said he has seen an increase in reports of biased incidents recently, though he could not provide statistics.

“It’s our impression that we’re hearing more from the community and from law enforcement recently,” Thompson said in an interview Thursday, adding that’s likely partly related to national conversations surrounding race, as well as increased awareness. “I think Vermonters are being a lot more vocal in telling us what’s going on in the community.”

And while police in Lebanon — who this month responded to the report of a cross gouged into an interracial couple’s car — said they have not seen a noticeable uptick in reports of hate-related incidents, Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten said his department has “definitely received more reports” of such behavior in recent weeks.

Among them are complaints about signs posted around the town promoting the group Patriot Front, which is designated as a white nationalist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“I believe that, along with current events, has people paying closer attention, asking questions and speaking out when they’re uncomfortable,” Kasten said in an email.

White River Junction neighborhood responds to Nazi flag

Among the reported incidents in the Upper Valley over the past couple weeks was a brazen display of bigoted imagery on Hazen Street in White River Junction, where a tenant in a multi-unit apartment building hung the flag of Nazi Germany in his second-story window, readily visible from a public street on Sunday, according to a picture and statements from neighbors.

The red flag, with a black swastika inside a white circle, is described by the Anti-Defamation League as “one of the most potent hate symbols worldwide.”

A man who answered the door at the home on Tuesday afternoon did not answer a reporter’s questions and slammed the door. The flag appeared to have been taken down on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; a German flag that appeared to have an eagle in the center hung in a different window on those days.

In response to the display of the flag, state Rep. Becca White, D-Hartford, and neighbor Airelynn Owens — who both live a few doors down from the apartment building — organized a yard party outside White’s home Tuesday evening, inviting neighbors to paint canvases with messages supporting Black Lives Matter and opposing anti-Semitism.

“Only fragile egos fear equality,” White wrote on one side of a sandwich board, advertising the painting event. On the other side she wrote, “All welcome ... except the Nazi flag owner.”

More than a half-dozen large colorful flags and banners were hung up on fences on Hazen Street as of Wednesday, with phrases including “Reject Fascist Trash,” “No Hate on Hazen” and “Black Lives Matter.”

Owens said she’s seen the owner of the flag before when he approached her as she was leaving a nearby protest on Route 14 in support of immigrant rights last summer. She said the man yelled a message in support of the Ku Klux Klan as she was walking home with her daughter.

The display of the flag, while scary, is not surprising to Owens.

“It just feels like a continuation. Ever since that time I’ve felt a menacing hum in the neighborhood,” Owens said, adding, “there’s a lot of denial that this isn’t happening here.”

Black Lives Matter signs stolen, dumped

Thefts of Black Lives Matter signs have been among the more talked-about examples of bigotry in the Upper Valley recently, as residents post on local Listservs and Facebook groups about their experiences.

“Our second #blacklivesmatter sign was stolen from our yard in downtown Lebanon overnight,” Julie Puttgen wrote on an Upper Valley Facebook group Sunday. “So now it’s a cottage industry: make/find/buy/put up the sign. Experience theft.”

The same is true in Norwich, where John Farrell wrote on a local Listserv about the thefts on Monday. The Rev. John Gregory-Davis of the Meriden Congregational Church previously reported signs stolen there, as well.

People are also reporting troubling incidents in more public places.

■ On July 1, two children swimming in the Quechee Club pool discovered three words written on the bottom of the pool in pencil: the N-word and two curse words (s--- and a------), according to club representative Erika Napsey. A family that included a Black person was present at the time the words were discovered, she said. The children told adults and the language was ultimately removed.

Napsey said the club believes the language was not targeted at anyone, in part because they haven’t determined who wrote the words or how long they were there. The club is investigating and issued an email to all members last week.

“No one should have to endure this attack, and certainly not from their own club,” Quechee Club President Brett Long said in the email.

■ On July 2, a Brooklyn couple, Natalie Jones, who is white, and her boyfriend Claude Sharpe, who is Black, parked their car in the lot outside the Co-op Food Store in Centerra Marketplace in Lebanon and went inside to shop. When they returned, they found a cross apparently keyed into their car next to the passenger door handle, according to a police report of the incident.

The couple has said they believe the vandalism was racially motivated.

Seeing the cross was “really heartbreaking,” said Jones, a 2003 Hanover High School graduate who was visiting the area with Sharpe. “I’m proud of where I grew up. I know racism exists everywhere. You just don’t see it out in the open in Hanover and Lebanon like this.”

Cause and response

Dartmouth College professor of Jewish Studies Susannah Heschel, who has researched anti-Semitism, said history has shown that a “change in the social balance” has often been met with a rise in hateful incidents. For example, she said, outbreaks in anti-Semitism in the late 19th century followed a period of “Jews moving up socially,” Heschel said.

“That’s what provoked riots and protests,” she said.

Jeff Sharlet, a journalist and associate professor of English at Dartmouth College who has frequently reported on President Trump and his supporters, said the president’s rhetoric has played a part in the surge of racist and anti-Semitic language. He pointed to the language Trump used at his June 20 rally in Tulsa, Okla.

“What Trump did is what he’s long done, which is frame things in terms of total war ... ‘Which side are you on?’ ” Sharlet said.

He said that kind of framing, as well as racist language Trump uses at rallies and on Twitter, has become more extreme throughout his presidency, and has emboldened Trump’s supporters to take action against movements the president openly opposes.

“If you think about taking down confederate statues and Black Lives Matter, (Trump) says that’s an attempt to literally destroy America,” Sharlet said. “Now (a Trump supporter) can go around in the middle of the night and take down Black Lives Matter signs and feel like a freedom fighter, an activist.”

Heschel agreed that it’s “very clear that (Trump) has fomented and enjoyed those kinds of outbreaks of racist violence and anti-Semitism.”

Swienckowski, who chairs the Hartford racial equity group, pointed to the outbreak and recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases, adding that stay-at-home measures have many people feeling like their lives are out of their control.

“When people are put in extremely stressful situations ... people get afraid, and when they get afraid, they don’t think, they react,” she said.

Swienckowski said the response to the recent spate of bigoted incidents must come first from individuals taking care of themselves, which can include reaching out to her committee, and then from compassion for others. But she and Sharlet also argued for speaking out against racism and taking action.

“If you see someone who’s being harassed, go to the person who’s being attacked and draw them away from the assault,” Swienckowski said. “That’s the first thing to do, and then try to comfort them.”

Heschel said the debates and incidents taking place in the Upper Valley represent a “small reflection of an international phenomenon.”

But, she cautioned, “there are dozens of explanations that have been offered for things like this by people in every discipline, and no explanation has ever really been entirely satisfying.”

Anna Merriman can be reached at or 603-727-3216.

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