Ways of Seeing: Theft of BLM signs raises concern
The recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade at the hands of police officers have prompted a summer of protests, vigils and demonstrations in cities and small towns across the country. Here in Addison County, many residents put together group orders of Black Lives Matter signs to express their support of this movement, which simply calls for Black Americans to be treated as full citizens, equally entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So why, every time I put up a Black Lives Matter sign in my front yard, does someone keep stealing it?
Black Vermonters, Indigenous Vermonters and Vermonters of color have been speaking out about racism in this state for a very long time. Slowly, slowly, it seems some white Vermonters are starting to listen. I have noticed a lot more articles about racism in this paper, an impressive fundraiser for the Rutland Area NAACP by the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, giant Black Lives Matter banners in the front of the Marquis Theater, the names of Black people killed by police over the past four years posted on the fence outside Middlebury Union High School by the graduating class of 2020, and more. As someone who has been involved in anti-racism work since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, I see more attention paid to race and inequality than I’ve ever seen before in the twenty years I have lived here.
But not everyone sees these Black Lives Matter signs and thinks, “Right on!” For some of our neighbors, calls for racial justice feel threatening. Although most of these folks will swear up and down that they are not racist, the simple statement “Black Lives Matter” is to them something to be disputed and disparaged. What’s a loving neighbor to do?
The Black anti-racism educators that I follow have an oft-repeated mantra: “White people, collect your cousins!” This means it is white people’s duty to speak up about the reality of racism in America. For me, this means I will have a conversation about race, no matter how lengthy or uncomfortable, with pretty much any person who is open to speaking with me. I will speak from my heart, with compassion and friendliness, but I will not let racism slide. “Collect your cousins” means it is up to white people to push back when we hear a racist joke or when someone shares a racist meme on Facebook. It is up to white people to vote in the best interests of the most marginalized in our society. It is up to white people to share our resources with Black and Indigenous people. It is up to white people to look around at our own spheres of influence and ask ourselves, “How can I create more equity in my church, my school, my workplace?”
Because putting up a sign is a symbol of support, but it is not actual support. Actual support looks like taking racial equity into account when creating school curriculums. Actual support looks like keeping racial equity front and center when making hiring decisions. And actual support means making a financial commitment to racial justice by paying Black educators for their time and labor in helping us build a world where everyone can thrive.
To white Vermonters who feel threatened by seeing Black Lives Matter signs in your neighborhood: Please know that American history has been an unbroken strand of violence against our Black neighbors. These signs are a way to say, “We see you, Black Vermonters, and you deserve to be safe.” These signs don’t mean that you do not ALSO deserve to be safe. These signs are in no way threatening your health, your religion (unless your religion is white supremacy), or your family.
So instead of clenching your jaw when you see these signs, ask yourself how you would feel if your nephew got killed walking home from the store with candy like Trayvon Martin, or your niece was killed by a hailstorm of bullets in her own bed like Breonna Taylor. These victims of racism and white supremacy are someone’s family members. You deserve to be safe and so do they.
Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury, although in the time of COVID-19, you can find her teaching yoga via Zoom from the comfort of her own dining room. She lives with her husband and daughter in East Middlebury, and was one of the founders of the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice.
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