The Black Lives Matter flag will fly at Rutland High School for 400 days beginning in April to mark 400 years since the start of the British slave trade in the Americas, as decided almost unanimously by the Rutland City Board of School Commissioners on Tuesday evening, with no votes opposing.
New Neighbors Club member Greta Solsaa, on behalf of the student club, asked that anyone who wished to attend the raising of the Black Lives Matter flag be so allowed.
Thunderous applause and joyous shouts erupted in the room after the vote. The motion was proposed by Alison Notte in front of a crowd of more than 200 audience members, who sat in chairs, on the floor and stood in clusters that forced the doors to the conference room open, hugged, laughed and shed tears of happiness.
“This is how changes are done from the ground up,” said School Board member Hurley Cavacas Jr. to club members Solsaa, Jamison Evans and siblings Alex and Noah White as they celebrated. “We need to hear from you guys, to know what’s going on. You did an awesome job, and we hope that you would talk about things at school to be able to help us, so we see more of this in action.”
The evening began more cramped than a typical School Board meeting: cars filled the parking lot of the Longfellow Building and lined the right-side of Church Street. Many people hiked from elsewhere across the busy roadway and up from Center Street in groups.
Audience members donned “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts and held posters of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and students wearing Rutland lacrosse, soccer and basketball jerseys showed up in force.
Tabitha Pohl-Moore, president of the Rutland area NAACP, spoke first to address the School Board’s previous meeting, at which no action was taken on the students’ request to raise the flag.
“I’m supposed to somehow get you to understand that centuries of pain inherent ... that is carried through our ancestors, that has been used to destroy us and render us immobile by the weight of the hatred it embodies,” Pohl-Moore began. “They (the students) came to you with hope, and you returned it with skeptical ambivalence at best, and willful hatred and ignorance at worst. ... These kids asked you to simply say, ‘We see you.’”
Pohl-Moore charged the board with taking responsibility for not doing its own research, and condemned specific remarks from the previous board meeting relating being Irish to being a person of color, a comparison that was used to express an understanding of the racism that people of color experience. She noted that a racial slur was used in the last public session by board member Michael Blow.
“If this is what folks are willing to say on camera, in front of people, what happens when we’re not around?” said Pohl-Moore. “That word is so vile ... I won’t even say it. ... You know what that word means to us. But it was said anyway.”
Pohl-Moore said many called for Superintendent Adam Taylor’s resignation after he made inappropriate references during an event at Castleton University, but when Blow used a racial slur at a public meeting, the public was silent.
“That’s why black lives matter,” Pohl-Moore said. “If we don’t make them matter, no one else will.”
Notte made a motion that the Black Lives Matter flag be flown for 400 days in accordance with the students’ request.
Teacher Susan Ponto spoke in support of the flag, and urged the board to consider the meaning behind the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and give people of color the seat at the table they have not had previously in the Rutland community.
Recent retiree Norman Cohen and resident Alis Headlam urged the community to support the free speech of the Black Lives Matter flag. Kate Getts and Maria French, of the Peace and Justice Center of Burlington, applauded the district for embracing their workshops to encourage cultural learning.
Bus driver Lisa Brown questioned the credentials of the Peace and Justice Center, and accused the district of hiring an activist group.
“Racism is a serious issue everywhere,” she said.
“My problem is when you hire an activist group, which used media as technology tools of liberation, they devise creative hacks to defy state censorship, they connect with like-minded people, they mobilize the masses, they influence public opinion, they push for social change, and they ignite a revolution,” Brown said. “I’m not so sure (racism) needs to be addressed by a group of activists, who are also currently in the news ... for disorderly conduct.”
Brown expressed there were many who attended the Peace and Justice Center workshops because they were afraid of losing their jobs.
But the students persisted and presented the logistics that the board requested at the previous meeting: that the BLM flag be flown on the main flag pole below the American and Vermont Flag from April 12, the anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, and for 400 days thereafter.
“I commend the bravery and the honesty, and I appreciate the fact that you have come forward this evening to help us do a better job to make Rutand City schools the best it can possibly be,” said chairman Richard Courcelle.