Small Town Selectboards Grapple With Racism, Free Speech
America is struggling to come to terms with its long history of systemic racism. And in Vermont, conversations about racial inequity and free speech are taking place at selectboard meetings across the state.The topics are sometimes opened up when boards have to make decisions about painting murals or putting up signs in public spaces.
In Putney, a more than two-month long debate over systemic racism started with a request to paint a Black Lives Matter mural in town.
The proposal, put forth by the Windham County NAACP, led to emotional discussions about where the mural should be located, after it was suggested that it be painted in front of the town’s elementary school.
There was some opposition to the idea, and debate about whether town selectboard meetings should even be the place where issues about race are discussed.
"It is now time to say that these are the local governments that we have decided will represent us, and we have to figure out a way to hold them accountable and have these conversations." - Steffen Gillom, Windham County NAACP
It all came to a head after the town manager reposted a Facebook post that said "All Lives Matter" on her personal page, leading to a confrontation with the president of the Windham County NAACP at a selectboard meeting.
Putney Selectboard member Josh Laughlin said what transpired has been a learning experience for everyone.
"I’ve always considered [at the] selectboard ... [that] what we do is run the business of the town,” Loughlin said. “And so having these conversations at the selectboard level is a new arena. And it’s challenging because it’s so personal.”
Laughlin has been on the board for 14 years, and he’s sat through plenty of meetings where passions have run high.
But he said past debates about cell phone towers, or gravel pits or protecting wetlands are nothing compared to those that have taken place recently around racism.
“I do think it’s good for people to be exposed to what the discussions we’re having include,” he said. “And they’re controversial discussions for any number of different reasons. And it’s not easy, but a change like we’re looking at is not easy. So if we’re not participating, then we’re, I think, turning a blind eye to the changes that are absolutely happening, and should be happening.”
The Putney town manager eventually apologized for her Facebook post, and the mural was painted in front of the town’s elementary school this past weekend, on Sept. 27.
Steffen Gillom is the Windham County NAACP president who questioned the town manager at an open meeting earlier this month. He says selectboard meetings are important platforms, where citizens can challenge local government and support people in their communities who are trying to make change.
“These conversations usually start from one or two issues. For us, it was a mural,” Gillom said. “And it is now time to talk about those things. It is now time to say that these are the local governments that we have decided will represent us and we have to figure out a way to hold them accountable and have these conversations. And I would discourage anyone from thinking about issues of diversity and inclusion as disconnected, because they’re not.”
Cities and towns look to each other for guidance
The long and often emotional debate in Putney is just one indication of how conversations about racism and free speech are playing out at municipal meetings across Vermont.
In Monkton, the town had to pull down a Black Lives Matter sign by its town hall, after a request was made to put up an All Lives Matter one.
And in Montpelier, the city council rejected a request to paint “Liberty and justice for all,” alongside a BLM mural downtown.
“We are hearing from selectboards that they want to learn more about what is happening elsewhere, and how they go about having ... conversations [about racism and free speech] in their community,” said Maura Carroll, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
She said that while the league can help towns find diversity trainers, or suggest templates for public art guidelines, these local discussions are bringing up issues that can easily stray beyond municipal policies.
Carroll said towns should expect conversations about race and racism and expression in public spaces in Vermont to continue.
“This seems – even though it’s only been months – that people are talking about it. It seems as though people are much more engaged,” Carroll said. “And so, when there are things like these issues that have the potential to tear communities apart, it’s really important to be able to have conversations.”
MAGA graffiti in Dover
The Dover Selectboard this month heard from John Lyddey, who was representing the Green Mountain Conservative Group, which held a Republican meet and greet event in town this summer.
At that event someone painted MAGA on a public road.
MAGA is short for "Make America Great Again," and it’s a campaign slogan for President Donald Trump.
"I've never felt unsafe until [now]... I'm having a little concern, now that this thing is coming out about racism, graffiti. You know, those things are pretty frightening as a Black man who's been living here for over ten years." - Mamadou Cisse, Newfane resident
The MAGA slogan was painted at a time when other graffiti was appearing in the Deerfield Valley – including a swastika – and the Dover police were called about the Trump graffiti.
The Dover Selectboard later approved a statement condemning all hate speech.
Lyddey said he went to a board meeting recently to make sure his group wasn’t associated with the more hateful graffiti.
“We understand what hate speech is, and this isn’t it,” Lyddey said. “You know, ‘Make America Great Again,’ I understand some people interpret as white supremacist or racist, simply because of the person who is using the slogan. But so many other presidents have used that slogan.”
Lyddey says towns are adopting double standards, by allowing "Black Lives Matter" murals but denying groups like his the ability to publically display their messages.
And he says the Green Mountain Conservative Group will continue to attend local meetings to challenge selectboards over how they make decisions about what they allow in public spaces.
“If there is going to be one point of view, there needs to be another,” Lyddey said. “That’s free speech; that’s the First Amendment at its best. Now, there are a number of selectboards I think who don’t agree with that, that would rather not entertain a different point of view in their town.”
Anti-Black Lives Matter graffiti also showed up in a handful of towns this summer.
And selectboards in Dover, as well as in Londonderry and Jamaica addressed the incidents head-on, by issuing public statements of condemnation.
But in Newfane, the board did not issue a statement until a group of residents got a petition together.
Dozens of supporters of a statement condemning hate speech and prejudice attended two virtual meetings.
At the first meeting, the board appeared reluctant and failed to make a decision.
Newfane resident Sidney Johnson argued against the selectboard getting involved.
“I detest somebody putting any kind of a sign up that is hateful,” Johnson said at a virtual Newfane selectboard meeting. “But I don’t think that is the role of the Board of Selectmen. I think that it is the role of the community of Newfane to take on this.”
The conversation went on for more than an hour at each of the two meetings, with mostly supporters speaking up about the selectboard issuing a statement.
Mamadou Cisse lives in Newfane and said he’s felt safe here in Vermont for 13 years, as a Black man living in a mostly white state.
But he says when racist graffiti is painted on the streets of your town, it’s hard to ignore it.
“I’ve never felt unsafe until, maybe I’m having a little concern now that this thing is coming out about racism,” said Cisse. “Graffiti, you know. Those things are pretty frightening as a Black man who’s been living here for over ten years.”
After two meetings the Newfane selectboard unanimously approved a statement condemning hate speech in their town.
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