Letter to the editor: Law enforcement failed Kiah Morris
We are dismayed with the way the Bennington Police Department and the Vermont Attorney General have handled the two-year campaign of racial intimidation waged against Kiah Morris, which resulted in Vermont’s only black female legislator resigning from her position out of concern for her family’s safety.
There’s a long and varied list of incidents, but let’s just take the most obviously unsettling:
• A few months after white nationalists began sending Ms. Morris virulently racist comments, some saying that she would never be safe outside of Africa, someone broke into her home and stole 100 of her husband’s neckties. Ms. Morris’s husband, James Lawton, later found several strewn across a nearby cemetery. Police did not come to the house, dust for fingerprints, or contact neighbors for eyewitness accounts.
• One of these white nationalists, Max Misch, attempted to intimidate Ms. Morris on election day at a public polling place. State police recently arrested Mr. Misch for illegally purchasing and possessing high-capacity gun magazines. Though his online “trolling” of Ms. Morris was threatening enough for a judge to issue a no-stalking order against him, it is not clear to what degree the Bennington Police Department investigated him, even after receiving information that he possessed the illegal weapons.
• Swastikas were painted on trees near Ms. Morris’s house. Again, local police did not attempt to take fingerprints, obtain eyewitness accounts, or investigate in any way.
• Over the course of multiple nights, juveniles repeatedly banged on the windows and doors of Ms. Morris’s home at night, then ran off. The Bennington Police identified the kids but dismissed the episodes as a prank. They did not report whether any other houses were targeted (other than Ms. Morris’s neighbor, on one occasion, when Ms. Morris’s family was not at home), or whether the police asked the perpetrators how they chose this house or whether anyone encouraged them to do it.
Mr. Donovan reported that there was nothing more to be done, because the threatening statements were protected free speech, and the criminal incidents were “not subject to prosecution at this time because there is no physical or eyewitness evidence that would provide a basis for identifying the suspect(s).”
Perhaps the reason there was insufficient evidence is because no one looked hard enough.
It’s perhaps tempting as a white person to read the list of incidents in the Morris case and dismiss them, individually, as coincidental, or minor vandalism. But they need to be seen in context. African Americans are too often targeted by police, not protected; and very often, racial violence begins with small acts of intimidation that escalate when unchecked.
In reflecting on the import of cross burning in the Supreme Court decision Virginia v. Black, Justice Thomas quoted “Justice Holmes’ familiar aphorism that ‘a page of history is worth a volume of logic.’” There are plenty of histories telling how Jim Crow-era police and prosecutors stood by while men and women were subjected to grotesque violence because they aimed to do work that whites wanted to keep for themselves. It’s brutal to read, but at least we can be reassured by its remove from us. It happened in the south, decades ago. Things are different now, right?
Not as much as you’d think. Here, in Vermont, a woman was pressured by threats and criminal actions into stepping away from a job she loved and was good at while the police and prosecutors stood by. Police and prosecutors do not stand by when African Americans are on the other side of the line. Blacks in Bennington are over five times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop, according to a University of Vermont study.
In general, African Americans in Vermont are more likely to be stopped, more likely to be ticketed, and more likely to be arrested than whites, even though they’re actually less likely to be found with contraband. Vermont has one of the highest incarceration rates per capita of people of color in the nation.
When Ms. Morris resigned from the Vermont Legislature, citing racial harassment, among other factors, as a reason, Mr. Misch told the Burlington Free Press, “I thought I won. I did it.”
As a community, we have betrayed Ms. Morris by creating an environment in which she felt she had to step down from the Legislature to preserve her safety. We have betrayed other people of color, to whom this message was also directed. And we have betrayed the rest of us, too. We shouldn’t stand for living in a community in which our Legislature is deprived of the voices and talent of qualified people, in which the laws are not often enough drafted by people with different experiences and backgrounds, in which the threat of violence is tolerated and intimidation is successful.
We must do better.
Fran and Spence Putnam
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