'Breakdown In Bennington': White Nationalist Takes Aim On Social Media
Note: Some of this reporting is disturbing. This story contains racist language.
The resignation of former state representative Kiah Morris sparked a conversation about race and racism in Vermont that continues today.
Vermont Public Radio and VTDigger have teamed up to report what led to Morris’ resignation. In part three of a five-story series called Breakdown In Bennington, we’re taking a deeper look at Max Misch.
As VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld reports, Misch said he uses racist speech on social media platforms to try to drive African American residents out of Vermont. We recommend listening to the audio story above, but we’ve also provided a transcript below.
Disclaimer: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Peter Hirschfeld: Max Misch’s first outward display of hostility toward former state representative Kiah Morris came in the summer of 2016. In a tweet that he tagged to Morris’ Twitter account. The post featured a caricature of a black man, with giant white teeth and a vulgar message about the fact that an African American woman represented a mostly white district in Bennington.
Kiah Morris: It was a wakeup call for sure. It was a pretty jarring moment of reality. And knowing that always existed on some level, this still was first time I would say I felt specifically targeted.
Peter Hirschfeld: Morris says that first tweet from Misch was the opening volley in a two-year campaign of racial harassment. One that Bennington police would look into first, and one the attorney general would then investigate, but ultimately decide against filing criminal charges.
Misch arrived in Bennington about a year before he began targeting Morris. He’s from New York City and moved to Vermont with his then-wife, Lisa Shapiro.
Misch says the fact that Bennington is a mostly white community was a big selling point for him.
Max Misch: Bennington has its problems. Drugs, as you guys know, is a big one. But me personally, I like it here. I like it better than where I’m from – New York City, Queens specifically – because of the lack of diversity, mainly.
Peter Hirschfeld: But soon after he moved here, Misch had a run in with the criminal justice system. After, Shapiro says, he assaulted her. Here she is describing the encounter.
Lisa Shapiro: There was a domestic case ... But he’s not violent, I know that sounds crazy.
Peter Hirschfeld: Misch would later be sentenced to probation by a Bennington County judge for charges related to the incident.
And last fall, he was in Vermont Superior Court in Bennington again, for an alleged firearms violation. That’s where I find him, and ask if we can talk about the racist social media posts he had directed at Morris. Misch is happy to oblige. And a quick warning, what he has to say may upset some listeners.
Peter Hirschfeld: Is it your hope that some of the online trolling that you were talking about earlier, will make people of color feel less welcome in Bennington, or feel like they don’t belong here, or feel like they can’t be happy if they live here?
Max Misch: Yes, ‘cause we have another big problem, and that’s called miscegenation. Do you know what that terms means? That means race mixing and the creation of mulatto children and other mixed race progeny, yes.
Peter Hirschfeld: We’ve had reservations about giving Misch’s views a platform here. But we decided his speech is too central to the story to leave out.
Because that language is at the heart of a continuing legal controversy over the bounds of free speech in Vermont. Dozens of officials, including many racial justice leaders, disagree with the attorney general, and say Misch should have been criminally charged for the speech he directed at Kiah Morris.
Here’s what we know about what Misch has said and done in regards to Morris.
Following that initial tweet with the caricature, Morris filed for an emergency order of protection against Misch, claiming he stood outside her polling place on Election Day 2016, when she was running for a second term in the Statehouse.
Morris later told a judge he was clearly intent on intimidating her.
Kiah Morris: The defendant began to stare at me and continued to hold stare at me for quite an extended period of time. I tried not to look at him as much as possible, because it was making me very distressed and upset and concerned.
Peter Hirschfeld: That’s a recording of Morris, speaking to Bennington County Judge William Cohen about the incident in late 2016.
Morris told Judge Cohen about the racist tweets from Misch. And she says that all these incidents with Misch, they’ve had a real impact on her everyday life.
Morris’ lawyer asks her how she feels about Misch, who is in the same courtroom as her for this hearing.
Kiah Morris: I’m – I can’t even look at him right now.
Morris’ lawyer: Can you tell us, are you afraid of the defendant?
Kiah Morris: Yes, I’m afraid of him, yes.
Peter Hirschfeld: And Judge William Cohen, he weighs the evidence, and he decides to issue an order of protection against Misch.
Remember that Attorney General TJ Donovan determined that Misch’s behavior was protected by the First Amendment. Cohen though, he says Misch’s social media posts crossed a line.
Judge William Cohen: Because of the nature of the words used, the tone of the words, the symbols that were utilized and the like, that this does cross the line on – from speech to something that would cause emotional distress to a person of color in the state of Vermont.
Peter Hirschfeld: Cohen, who was recently appointed to serve as a justice on the Vermont Supreme Court, ordered Misch not to contact Morris on social media. He also ordered him to stay 300 feet away from her and her family.
Misch abided by that order for the one year it was in effect. But two weeks after it expired, in early 2018, he was once again targeting Morris online.
It began when Morris posted a picture on Facebook, of a rally she attended in Bennington. The rally involved a few dozen residents who had turned out to protest the family separation policy on the U.S. border with Mexico.
Misch soon responded to Morris’ Facebook post. According to screenshots obtained by VPR and VTDigger, Misch wrote, “I just barely missed trolling you, our local VT ‘representative,’ and the other … people over there at the Four Corners … Oh well. Next time.”
Morris’ husband, James Lawton, says that to his reading, the message from Misch was clear:
James Lawton: I’m going to stalk the hell out of you at every public event that I know you’re going to attend. Which means I’m going to show up physically to make you feel uncomfortable whenever I know that you’re going to be at an event.
Peter Hirschfeld: There were other online incidents too.
Morris used an Instagram post to promote a talk she gave in Stowe, called, “On Being a Black Woman in One of the Whitest States.”
Misch tagged her in a response to that Instagram post. He said, “urging Kiah Morris to get the (expletive) out.”
In another Instagram post, Misch wrote, “We will continue to fight against your efforts to make our town and state look more like your ugly mongrel son.”
Morris has a young son with her husband, James Lawton, who is white.
For Morris, it was the totality of Misch’s behavior that constituted the threat.
Kiah Morris: This is not a game. These threats are not just bumper stickers thrown in somebody’s face. This is reality. These are calling cards.
Peter Hirschfeld: And Morris says those aren’t the only calling cards Misch left. Two weeks after the order of protection against Misch expired, he posted a picture on Instagram of the handgun he’d just acquired.
Prior to that, he’d posted a picture of an AR-15 he’d purchased. Misch said in the post that it wasn’t just any AR-15 though. This one was outfitted with a tactical red dot laser, and front and rear backup sights.
This is the third of five stories in VPR and VTDigger’s weeklong series looking back at Kiah Morris’ resignation from the Vermont House of Representatives. Find all the stories on our Breakdown In Bennington page.