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'This Is Not Going To Be Tolerated': South Burlington Teacher On BLM Banner Vandalization

A Black Lives Matter banner with the center ripped out
Gary Russell, Courtesy
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The Black Lives Matter banner outside of Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington was vandalized earlier this month. The school replaced it, and now holds a biweekly conversation on racism at the school.

On the evening of June 9, students and community members in South Burlington rallied to protest the death of George Floyd by putting up a Black Lives Matter banner at the Tuttle Middle School. The next morning, they found that the banner had been vandalized. VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke about the incident with Gary Russell, a language arts and social studies teacher at Tuttle Middle School and one of the leaders of the group Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR), which put up the Black Lives Matter banner.

Mitch Wertlieb's interview with Gary Russell is below, and has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Help us get a picture first of what happened that night of June 9th. What was the mood there that night?

Gary Russell: It was very peaceful. We had received several emails from some of our students. Due to the pandemic, you know, obviously, we were not in school, but they still felt compelled to do something. And the leaders of the SOAR program got together. We spoke with the administration at the school and they recommended that, you know, as long as we didn't have groups of 25 or larger, we could accommodate the kids' need to demonstrate.

So it was kind of done in shifts, 20 minute shifts. And at the beginning of each shift, we would sit them down and just kind of explain what type of things they're going to encounter as far as people that interact with you. And we did caution them that, you know, of the three different types of responses you'll get, you'll have people that are overwhelmingly supportive, you might get someone who's upset, but the ones to watch out for are the people that have no reaction at all.

Those are the people that later on, when they reflect back on the kids standing there, they'll either do one of two things. They'll either think about it and say, "Oh, you know, I support the message. Yeah, yeah, I support that." Or they'll come back in the dark at night, which is what happened. And they'll destroy your sign.

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So it sounds like you were not entirely surprised that the signs had been defaced.

We had a discussion at the end of the peaceful demonstration that there's the possibility this might happen. And I honestly was a little naive. I thought it would take about 48 hours. I don't think any of us expected it to happen within 12 hours.

Well, once the word got out that the banner had been vandalized, I imagine there must have been great disappointment, some sadness. But what was the reaction after that? Was there an immediate move to say, "Let's get this thing put back up?"

Tuesday was more like a class, it was planned. Wednesday was not planned at all. And it was really in direct response to the racist act. You know, when racists do things like that, they typically expect you to run and hide. We, however, decided that, you know, we need to do the exact opposite. Just show that this is not going to be tolerated.

The South Burlington community members, high school staff, middle school staff and elementary school staff, there were close to 300 people there. And, you know, we had no idea what the numbers would be. We just put the word out.

And the sign has gone back up to be clear. Right? I mean, it's back there at Tuttle Middle School now.

Correct. Carol McNair, who was instrumental in putting the design together with one of her students, she was instrumental in repairing that. And, you know, if you drive by school today, you probably still see it there with signatures from all the different students and families that had a chance to stand for what they believe in.

And as I understand it now, there is going to be meetings at that location. Is it every other week? I'm just wondering what the purpose of that of that next move is.

We felt that there was a lot of good momentum. I guess we didn't see it as a one-and-done kind of deal, because once you start this work, it's not over until you really achieve racial equity and equality.

And so to honor the students who are in the SOAR program, who have put in a lot of work throughout the school year, that's why we're giving people the opportunity to meet every other Wednesday, 4 to 6 p.m. along Dorset Street at the Tuttle Middle School parking lot.

How do you suggest parents, especially parents of white students who may be struggling with talking about things like white privilege with their kids, broach these issues?

That's a very good question. Racism is such a complex issue. And I wish there was an easy answer. You know, how do you fix racism? Well, you know, you teach people to not hate people of different ethnic backgrounds, and people of a different color. And what I'll say to you is, be willing to have a discussion about it, you know, be willing to open up the topic, as uncomfortable as it is.

Sometimes it's fascinating to see how children can guide the conversation. And one of the things that I've seen actually is when kids see that you're vulnerable and you're willing to make yourself vulnerable, they sometimes take the lead in the discussion and just tell you exactly what they think and what they've observed. And that can often help adults who struggle with this find a way to navigate the discussion.

Correction 1:30 p.m.: A previous version of this story included a caption that incorrectly stated there were meetings every week at the Tuttle Middle School parking lot. They are every other week. The photo is now updated with correct credit information, which goes to Gary Russell.

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