In the wake of two mass shootings in Ohio and Texas this weekend, both of which were allegedly fueled by racism, a string of Rutland residents Monday called for action on the part of city officials.
Several speakers “outside the rail” in the public comment portion of Monday’s aldermen meeting at Rutland City Hall cited a range of concerns related to recent national events. Their fear is racism could take root here.
Alis Headlam asked officials to acknowledge the localized threat of prejudice and bigotry, and cited the national crises in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, over the weekend as examples of racist ideologies that reveal themselves if unchecked.
“Don’t wait until something tragic happens here,” Headlam warned. “I urge you to take a protective stance … take this challenge on as our leaders. Speak up … consider how you might best educate yourselves in the fight for the future.”
She encouraged governing bodies to make public statements and identify how best to educate themselves on what biases they might themselves hold in an effort to reach across party lines and set policies and force conversations about race, prejudice and hate.
“Silence and inaction are not an option,” Headlam said.
Concerns were raised that the problem already exists at a local level.
Heather Juliussen-Stevenson recalled moving from a vibrant and multi-cultural community in Maryland, one she said she came to love for the stores, restaurants, and energy created by the diverse population.
Arriving in Vermont, she said, was a shock to her system.
“My soul was impoverished,” Juliussen-Stevenson said. “When we bring in diversity, we bring in new markets, we bring in new niches for goods and services. … You should care about preparing our young people for a diverse world.”
She cited Vermont’s rise in violent crime, and called for tolerance before urging members of the audience and the inner rail to read Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want To Talk About Race.” Juliussen-Stevenson’s then asked for bias training for local government officials, which was met with applause.
The aldermen voted to refer the issue of implicit bias training to the general committee.
David Searles quoted Alderman Paul Clifford’s recent Facebook posting of a meme mocking the concept of “white privilege” that went viral. Searles related it to how President Donald Trump incites hatred against immigrants from Mexico, and called attention to “educated” white people touching on subjects they didn’t understand, including white privilege.
“His post demonstrates that the sentiment is out there,” Searles said.
Searles explained that even with his long history of family and friendships with people of color, as a white man he would never come to fully understand discrimination against people of color. Seares is white. He said all citizens need to maintain an open mind and integrity.
Especially in a public office, as Clifford is, Searles said.
“This is a topic that you should never have attempted in public discourse,” Searles said. “No doubt, you already know that you were wrong. … You can never know how wrong you were.”
Alderman Clifford was not present for the meeting, and President Sharon Davis clarified that he was on vacation.
The citizens also raised concerns about recent race-related incidents in the Rutland school system, among other issues.