'Breakdown In Bennington': Racial Justice Leaders Criticize State's Response
This week, we’ve been examining the racist speech that compelled Vermont’s only African American female lawmaker to resign from the Vermont House of Representatives. As we’ve reported, Attorney General TJ Donovan decided not to file charges against the white nationalist who targeted Kiah Morris with racist social media posts. But his decision drew criticism from racial justice leaders across the state.
We recommend listening to the audio story above, but we’ve also provided a transcript below.
Peter Hirschfeld: It’s a sparkling afternoon when I arrive at Curtiss Reed, Jr.’s apartment in downtown Brattleboro. He leads me up a long spiral staircase to a crow’s nest that looks down the city below.
Peter Hirschfeld: Wow. That’s spectacular.
Curtiss Reed, Jr.: Yeah, especially on a day like today.
Peter Hirschfeld: Reed’s step-grandkids like to sleep in this lookout when they’re visiting from Boston.
Curtiss Reed, Jr.: Rumor has it this is where Rudyard Kipling played cards.
Peter Hirschfeld: And have you been able to determine whether there’s any truth to that rumor?
Curtiss Reed, Jr.: No, but that’s what it is.
Peter Hirschfeld: I’m here because Reed is the executive director of an organization called Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. It’s a nonprofit that’s trained government agencies, police departments, and businesses on things like implicit bias and inclusiveness.
Reed says the kind of racial harassment directed at Kiah Morris wasn’t all that different from the kind of racial harassment that people of color deal with all the time in Vermont. But he says her case became a flashpoint for long-simmering issues of race and racism.
Curtiss Reed, Jr.: The only difference between that and what happened with Kiah, is that Kiah’s a public figure. She’s an elected official, and for that reason alone, it merits higher scrutiny on the part of the media.
Peter Hirschfeld: And Reed says it should have merited higher scrutiny from the criminal justice system as well, particularly from Attorney General TJ Donovan.
Curtiss Reed, Jr: It was a failure of leadership on his part, as far as my opinion is concerned. And I’ve expressed that to him.
Peter Hirschfeld: Reed says that failure of leadership occurred when Donovan decided not to file criminal charges against Max Misch, the white nationalist who targeted Morris. Even if Misch’s behavior didn’t meet existing evidentiary thresholds for stalking, criminal threatening or disturbing the peace, Reed says Donovan should have used the case to push for an expansion of those thresholds.
Curtiss Reed, Jr: The attorney general let us down by not challenging that, by saying, “What you’ve done is immoral, what you've done is out of character with the core values of the state of Vermont, and we’re going to bring charges against you, and then let it play out in the courts.”
Peter Hirschfeld: Frustration over the ways in which the criminal justice system has dealt with Max Misch boiled over in a Bennington County courtroom last year. Where Misch was in court for charges related to an alleged firearms violation.
A prosecutor asked a judge to impose $200 bail on Misch. That’s the maximum amount allowed for this misdemeanor allegation.
The judge denied this request, and said Misch doesn’t appear to be a risk of flight. That he’s shown up for all his required court appearances in the past.
And this release of Misch back into the Bennington community – it’s just too much for one observer to handle.
Shawn Pratt: Y’all keep letting him walk out of here. Conditions every time. My nephew didn’t get no conditions. My nephew didn’t no convictions, OK? My nephew didn’t get no conditions guys.
Peter Hirschfeld: That man you hear there, the one launching into this courtroom outburst, his name is Shawn Pratt. He’s an African American man who’s lived in Bennington for close to two decades. And the nephew he’s referring to spent 10 months behind bars, held on $500,000 bail, while he awaited trial for an alleged firearms offense.
According to Pratt, Bennington County prosecutors ended up dropping the charges against his nephew. And Pratt, he can’t square the way the system’s treating Misch with the way it treated his nephew. And the man you’re about to hear Pratt have a back and forth with – that’s Max Misch.
Shawn Pratt: This is unfair. He should be locked up.
Max Misch: You should be locked up.
Shawn Pratt: He’s violent. He should be locked up.
Max Misch: Shut the f--- up.
Shawn Pratt: He’s violent. And you keep letting him walk out of here, guys. My nephew, he was in jail for a whole year, Your Honor. A whole year. A whole year, for nothing. He’s black. Keep up with these racial disparities guys. We’re watching all of it. It’s ridiculous.
Peter Hirschfeld: Two courtroom security staffers eventually lead Pratt outside the building.
Shawn Pratt: You see what I’m talking about? Now you see what I’m talking about. Now you guys understand what I’m saying, right? And it keeps happening. He wants all this spotlight. What is he getting the spotlight for? There’s people that worry about their safety, okay? They’re worrying about their safety. This guy has got firearms. If I had a firearm, they’re coming to arrest me and throw me out. They’re coming to arrest me and throw me in jail. You know this.
Peter Hirschfeld: Pratt eventually leaves the court complex, and I follow him to his home in my car.
He tells me he attended the hearing today because he was hoping to see Misch sent to jail. Pratt says he was confused and upset when prosecutors didn’t arrest Misch for the racist social media posts he directed at Kiah Morris, who’s a friend of his. And he says he cannot for the life of him understand why Misch gets to walk free today, after everything he’s done up until this point.
Shawn Pratt: I like the judge, I’m not disrespectful of those people. They know that. But this is beyond ridiculous. This is beyond stupid.
Peter Hirschfeld: Pratt is not alone in his feelings. Tabitha Moore founded the first-ever local chapter of the NAACP in Vermont, in Rutland County. She says a lot of people of color were unnerved by the fact that neither Bennington police nor Attorney General TJ Donovan charged Misch for the racist posts he directed at Kiah Morris.
Peter Hirschfeld: What specifically is it that he did that you think would have warranted criminal charges?
Tabitha Moore: Criminal threats. Criminal threats. I mean this guy goes on TV and says, “Oh, I’m a troll.” Like, if you can’t see beyond that language to understand – I mean he’s a white supremacist, he’s a proud white surpremacist who’s levying threats against a legislator.
Peter Hirschfeld: Moore says Kiah Morris certainly felt threatened. That other people of color in Bennington felt threatened too.
The attorney general has never disputed that they did, but has said according to the letter of the law, Misch's racist social media posts didn't violate any laws.
Tabitha Moore: Well and this is, that’s when the definition of threat is, it becomes problematic, because it’s seen through white eyes in this case.
Peter Hirschfeld: Where you sit is where you stand, Moore says. And if TJ Donovan could sit where people of color do, then she says he’d be able to understand why the things Max Misch did should be charged as a criminal act.
And Moore says if Donovan isn’t willing to press charges for those things, then it’ll only embolden Misch, and others who share his worldview.
Tabitha Moore: And that’s the thing – he can mock them because he knows that they’re weak. He knows that they’re going to let him get away with it, because he knows that the system is designed to protect him. And that’s my question to TJ Donovan: Are you going to continue to protect that?
Peter Hirschfeld: Or, she asks, will the criminal justice system do more to protect the marginalized populations that people like Max Misch continue to target?
This is the fifth and final story 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.