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Steffen Gillom: 'I Think What We Are Watching ... Is The Fall Of White Supremacy'

A man in a suit jacket and white shirt
Steffen Gillom is president of the Windham County NAACP. He spoke to VPR about the Insurrection at the Capitol and how some Black Vermonters are viewing the events.

On Wednesday, pro-Trump extremists pushed through barricades, carried Confederate flags and broke through windows and doors to gain entry into the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

Steffen Gillom is president of the Windham County NAACP and he spoke with VPR about why our words matter when describing both the events and responses.

Mary Engisch: How are you doing today?

Steffen Gillom: I would say today I'm feeling pretty good. I was asked a question yesterday about my feelings about the insurrection that happened, and I chose the word “present.” I think the word present really hits on how I'm feeling right now, like a lot of Black and Brown Vermonters as well.

We knew and have been saying that this was a reality. But to see it in such a loud – and in color, no pun intended – but like such a loud and in color way on TV, it just makes you really present. You know, you're like, OK, this is actually happening. It's here. How are we going to respond and be, and process this moment?

More from VPR: What Did Vermonters Make Of The Insurrection At The Capitol? Here's What You Said.

I'm seeing a lot ofcomparison to protests from this summerwith Black Lives Matter, but I'm also starting to learn and understand that white Vermonters, white people should not be comparing Black Lives Matter protests to this insurrection at the Capitol, but rather compare acts of hate or rage with other acts of hate or rage on the part of mostly white angry crowds. Can you talk more about that and your stance on that?

If we look at a lot of the protests that have happened historically in this country, especially around folks of color, specifically Black people, because they have led a lot of our more recent and prominent protests, we can see that it was on the backs of serious a discrimination, and that is a structural discrimination and oppression. So discrimination and marginalization, and minimization, too, within the courts, within our education systems, within our health care systems. And when you bottleneck a community that way, and you take away their options, a lot of times, all they feel that they can do is to get out in the streets and make their voices known. And that is a good reason.

Comparing something like that with a legacy like that, to an insurrection, is false. I also think that we have to look at these Trump supporters, and that's what most of them were – if we look at them, there were just as many Trump flags as U.S. flags, right? And we have to realize that this was a coordinated call to action, and that this call to action was predicated on the loss of structural power – or the perceived loss, really – of structural power and or the benefits of white supremacy in the United States.

And so, on one hand, you have a group who is literally fighting to have representation within a system, to have more voice within a system, and to be able to move about the way that any law-abiding and taxpaying citizen in the U.S. should be able to move about a system. And on the other hand, you have people who are upset that they are no longer privileged in the system and acting out.

It's a very different framing.

More from Brave Little State: Why Do Some Vermonters Display The Confederate Flag?

In any way are we more prepared now to discuss racial inequalities in the country? Like was this it? Was this enough?

I think that's a hard question to answer, because I think that in the times of social media and the way things have been blown up, everything feels like an event that should have been the event. You know George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, all these people who we saw in real time, some of them, be murdered, or we heard in great detail, publicly, about their murder.

So with that being said, it's hard to answer that question in particular. But what I think is happening is that we have a lot of folks now who are of color and also white who are talking about it, who are trying to integrate these conversations into the systems that they can influence. And I think that that is bringing us closer to normalizing the conversation in a way that integrates it, like, truly integrates it into our dialogues.

I guess it's a partial yes. And that we are more ready. But also, our demographics are changing, so, you know, we have to stay ready, because it's here. It's now. We are changing.

And I think what we are really watching, in live time, is the fall of white supremacy. We are watching the gradual fall of white supremacy, little by little. And it's a beautiful thing, but it's also an ugly process.

"... I think what we are really watching, in live time, is the fall of white supremacy. We are watching the gradual fall of white supremacy, little by little. And it's a beautiful thing, but it's also an ugly process." — Steffen Gillom, Windham County NAACP

I invite folks, especially white people, to really sit down and take five minutes out of your day, reflect on the true difference that we witnessed in systemic response to this insurrection and to protest. Ask yourself about the language that was used out of the gate, right. Until people were, you know, breaking down literally the walls of our nation's capital, they weren't called terrorists. They weren't called insurrectionists. The threat was there. They were being made. That's not what they were being called.

Black folks, Brown folks who have protested for their own right to live, were called that for walking down anonymous streets peacefully. They were called rioters. So examine that language, examine how we talk about it, and then don't just leave it there. Once you examine that, reflect on it, and take it into your own lives and say, what other structures am I noticing, or what am I not noticing, and what should I be noticing?

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Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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