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Thousands Protest Police Violence, Racism At Rallies Across Vermont

Montpelier City officials estimate that 5,000 people turned out for a protest Sunday against police violence and racism.
Peter Hirschfeld
Montpelier City officials estimate that 5,000 people turned out for a protest Sunday against police violence and racism.

Protests against police violence and racism drew large crowds in cities and towns across Vermont over the weekend, but racial justice leaders are calling on white Vermonters to examine their own roles in the inequality they’re condemning.

The line of protestors marching the streets of downtown Montpelier on Sunday afternoon stretched for close to a mile. City officials estimate 5,000 people turned out for the event, making it the largest demonstration in Vermont since prosecutors in Minneapolis, Minn., charged a police officer with the murder of George Floyd.

Before the mostly white throng of protestors took to the streets to chant, however, organizer Noel Riby-Williams asked them to listen.

“At this time, I would like to invite any black person who wants to be heard. They can take the mic and express what they want to express,” Riby-Williams said.

Thousands of people at a protest in Montpelier Sunday assume prone positions on the Statehouse lawn, to honor the alleged murder of George Floyd.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Thousands of people at a protest in Montpelier Sunday assume prone positions on the Statehouse lawn, to honor the alleged murder of George Floyd.

Jessica Laporte, who grew up in Stowe, said she hadn’t planned to talk Sunday. But she decided to use the opportunity to ask the massive crowd on the Statehouse lawn to participate in an exercise.

“We all know that George Floyd died on his stomach,” Laporte said. “And for anyone in this crowd who is able bodied and white, I invite you to take that posture. Please lay down on your stomachs.”

Laporte said black people, and other people of color, could remain standing.

“Because we have all in this week, in this month, in our lives, imagined what it would be like to be killed by police, or by white supremacists when we’re trying to go for a jog,” she said.

Laporte said it’s time for white people to try to imagine that feeling, too.

“I bet it’s uncomfortable to be in these postures,” she said. “I kind of hope some of you are in a puddle, because police officers do not stop to make sure things are nice when they are kneeling on black men’s necks.”

Protestors hold signs at an event in Rutland Sunday.
Credit Chris Booth / VIBE Portrait Art
VIBE Portrait Art
Protestors hold signs at an event in Rutland Sunday.

Laporte asked white people, nearly all of whom were lying flat on the ground at that point, to accept the title of “allies.” She said earning that title, however, would require them to rectify the inequities and indignities that black people experience daily.

Travon Groves told the crowd that the sudden surge in activism among white Vermonters means little so far.

“I don’t want people who are here for the clout and because it’s the cool thing to do,” Groves said. “Because on May 24, before George Floyd was killed, were you guys ready to stand up and protest for us then?”

Groves said dismantling racism in Vermont will require white people to acknowledge all the ways they help perpetuate it.

“Because think about this: Every day, me and my brothers and sisters, we wake up and fight this battle every single day,” he said. “We deal with this every day.”

Katie Feeney, who grew up in Johnson and just graduated from Castleton University, arrived at a protest in Rutland Sunday morning wearing a black T- shirt with the words, ‘My Life Matters,’ across the front.

“I think people need to understand that there is racism in Vermont unfortunately,” Feeney said. “I had a woman tell me the other day that my life didn’t matter … It's still here, and we’ve got to join the fight to end racism all over the world.”

Feeney was among more than 500 people who gathered in Rutland’s Main Street Park on June 7.

Katie Feeney, who grew up in Johnson, center, said she's experienced racism in Vermont.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Katie Feeney, who grew up in Johnson, center, said she's experienced racism in Vermont.

Rutland resident Greg Zullo said he was impressed by the diversity in the crowd.

“It’s probably the most color this park has ever seen,” Zullo said. “I am really glad that we have people of all different walks of life coming together for such an awesome cause and we need allies - especially white people - to help us. Otherwise it’s going to be really tough, like fighting an uphill battle.”

Zullo said he knows something about uphill battles. In 2014, he was pulled over by a state trooper in Wallingford for allegedly having snow covering the registration sticker on his license plate. 

The trooper claimed that a faint odor of marijuana permitted him to impound Zullo’s car and the then 21-year-old was left on the side of the road.  Zullo was never charged with a crime but had to walk eight miles to retrieve his car and pay a $150 fine.

Zullo sued, and the Vermont Supreme Court later issued a landmark ruling that said police can be held liable for discriminatory searches and seizures.

Hassan Kay, who also lives in Rutland, said Zullo’s case isn’t an outlier.

“I’ve seen my fair share of injustice and racial profiling just because of being black,” Kay said. “You somehow to the police department … fit a certain description. And it sucks, because being white, you can grow your hair however you want.  But being black, if your hair’s not short and it’s not clean cut, you look either like a drug dealer or a gangster.”

Licenia Laaca of Ira quietly held a sign that read, “Why Does My Beautiful Skin Scare You?”   

The sign Christophre Woods held had a different message:

“Driving, walking, shopping, working while black should not be an activity punishable by death."

Woods, also of Rutland, said he’s grown tired of explaining to white people why racism is a problem.

More from VPR: Breakdown In Bennington

“It is exhausting. We’re having a conversation about diversity and all the non-white people in the room are expected to, once again, after living through whatever, explain it to people,” Wood said. “And then, once you seem to get it or maybe get it or don’t even get it, we’re supposed to congratulate you for feeling bad or for feeling guilty and then give you a hug and a sucker and then go home and deal with the fact that I’ve just had to relive how many traumas to explain to you what it feels like. It is exhausting.”

Jonah Wheeler was one of about 200 people who turned out for a Black Lives Matter protest outside the Newport City Police Department on Sunday.

Wyatt Peterson, center, marches for racial justice at an event in Newport City Sunday.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Wyatt Peterson, center, marches for racial justice at an event in Newport City Sunday.

Wheeler, like virtually everyone else in the crowd, is white. He said he’s not sure he’ll ever fully understand the consequences of racism, but he said he’s trying.

“Right now I’m still in the phase of this of trying to educate myself, because this is an issue that for a long time I was numb to and I didn’t pay attention to,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said he understands that holding a sign at a protest is not going to solve the problem.

More from VPR: Racism - And Anti-Racism - In Vermont

“As of yet, I don’t know all the ways that I can help. I haven’t figured that out,” Wheeler said. “But I’m trying my best to learn.”

In Montpelier, Ash Diggs had a message specifically for white people like Wheeler.

“I’m glad you’re here. But I will not thank you. Fighting this fight is a moral duty. If you consider yourself a moral person, then you are obliged to be here,” Diggs said. “But let me say, unequivocally, I’m so happy you’re here. I appreciate you and I love you and, as you’re so fond of saying, ‘I see you.’”

And Diggs said white people can play a critical role in that fight.

“We are all needed in this fight, because don’t get me wrong, as we’ve seen, this is life and death,” Diggs said. “This is not a passing moment. This is a call to continue protesting until we see real systemic change in this country.”

In the meantime, MaryAnn Songhurst, one of the organizers of Sunday’s protest in Montpelier, issued a list of demands, including “the end of police brutality now,” and the swift and permanent dismissal of officers found guilty of misconduct.

More from VPR: Crowd Confronts Burlington Police During Protest For George Floyd

Songhurst called for a civilian oversight board for the Montpelier Police Department to investigate every incident of police use of force over the last decade.

Songhurst also had demands for white “allies.” She said they should “fund movements and organizations led by black people and people of color who are doing the work in fighting racism and making local and statewide impact.”

She also asked white people to fund “healing spaces” for people of color, and to join local anti-racism groups.

Finally, Songhurst had a demand for the parents of white children.

“Talk to them about race now. They are not too young,” Songhurst said. “Our black parents have to worry about our safety … Work to change policies in your communities and your organizations, and give space and voice to those who have been marginalized for too long.”

More from VPR: Teenagers Of Color Lead The Way At Protest Rallies

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