This week I am going to depart from my usual report on House Floor action and/or policy issues that I feel passionate about and add my thoughts regarding the tragic events of the past week.
Watching the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer hurt my heart. As the video ran over and over again, I ultimately had to look away because I could not stand the injustice and wrong it revealed. We have to be better than that.
It took me back to the events of 1967 in Newark, New Jersey. That July, a black cab driver passed a double-parked police car (after signaling), was pursued by them, arrested, and beaten. Rumors that he had been killed circulated amongst the local housing projects, causing people to come to the precinct. There are different stories as to how the violence started but it did. Fires were set, looting occurred, bullets were fired, twenty-six people died, and hundreds were injured over the course of six days.
I had just graduated from high school in a town approximately ten miles from Newark and was preparing to attend New York University in the Bronx. I can’t remember the exact date, but I do remember exactly where I was standing in downtown Westfield that early evening when I heard a low rumble in the distance. As I stood on the corner of Elm and Quimby Streets, I watched as tanks rolled up Broad Street on their way from the Westfield National Guard Armory to Newark. As an eighteen-year old, I was horrified and saddened, and as I stood there looking on in disbelief, I wept that these weapons of war would be used on our own people.
So too, I wept as I watched the horrifying video of the police officer snuffing out the life a man over an alleged counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. I asked myself what I would have done had I been standing there? I’d like to think I would have taken action but who could believe that an officer of the law would do something that would take a life so callously?
I have now been asked by constituents what I will do to protect black and brown lives and prevent further instances of police brutality in Vermont.
I am a white person who has received all of the benefits of white privilege. I was extremely fortunate to have parents who loved me and gave me a good, though not extravagant, childhood. Afterall, my parents were the product of the Great Depression and were excessively frugal.
I was, however, not immune to the reality of the world and unfortunate experiences. As most young women at the time, I was subject to sexual harassment and in my case, worse. One event as a young teen was particularly painful and had a deep effect on me and the way I viewed the world. In retrospect, it allowed me to better understand the hardships and challenges people face. I recently heard a woman who had been sexually abused say that she had been allowed to suffer so that she would better understand suffering. That struck a chord with me as I try to look for the bright side of difficult events.
At NYU, my major was oceanography with minors in math and biology. As part of a community service project, I was asked if I would tutor students in math at Taft High School in the Bronx. I remember being fingerprinted before starting there and the stairwells that were encased in chain link fencing so that students couldn’t be pushed over the railing. In a recent Google search I found the following description: “Long one of the most troubled schools in the city, Taft High School has been divided into six small, autonomous high schools in an effort to make the building safer and boost academic achievement.” My memory of the experience is a sense of sadness that the students I was tutoring would not have the same opportunities that I had because of the place they were born, the education they were receiving, and the color of their skin.
When I consider all of the hardships that African Americans have had to endure, it’s a wonder that they have. We brought black people to this country against their will to work as slaves under deplorable conditions to build our country and we mostly choose to ignore that fact. We callously fractured family units. After the Civil War some may have been given land but may have subsequently lost it because of made up laws or threats of retaliation. Jim Crow laws were put in place to constantly remind black people that they were less than whites. Lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, and the misuse of power by law enforcement. Constantly having to watch your back, knowing that if someone took a dislike to you or wanted something you had, your safety could be jeopardized. Corralling people into ghettoes through redlining and unspoken rules about real estate sales. Providing inferior education, health care, and access to healthy nutritious food. The creation of food deserts where convenience stores provide one’s food needs and the inherent health problems that result. This is not an exhaustive list but when I think about it, my conclusion is that black people are the strongest most resilient people in this country.
I sometimes wonder why it was necessary for white people to act so despicably. Was it their inherent insecurity or guilt that made them want to treat other people as less than equal? Was it fear of retaliation for the sin of keeping people in bondage? The answers to these questions are only valuable in trying to understand and turn things around.
Over the years in the Vermont Legislature, we have taken bold steps for civil rights that were not always easy. Civil Unions and marriage equality come to mind. One of the longer debates was over unisex bathrooms. More recently, we have taken on racial issues like implicit bias and we now go through trainings ourselves as well as requiring it of law enforcement.
As we move forward, I consider it my job to listen. In recent years, the Council of State Governments Eastern Regional Conference created a Council on Communities of Color of which I am a member. At the 2019 Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, former Vermont State Representative Kiah Morris was part of a panel entitled “Race in the State House: A Critical Examination of Culture and Policy.” As a colleague of Kiah’s, it was hard to hear what she had endured. I knew some of it, but not all. These are the experiences that will help inform what we do going forward.
When I think of Taft High School and all of the young people in the South Bronx who did not get a fair shake, I think of the missed opportunity and how we hurt ourselves by not giving them the tools they needed to succeed.
We have to put our fear aside. We need to look people in the eye, smile, and listen to their truth. Then we have to act to right the wrongs. But do not be deceived. Changing the law will begin to help, but more importantly people need to change what’s in their hearts and that is up to everyone in their own way.