Students at Tuesday’s School Board meeting proposed raising a Black Lives Matter flag at Rutland High School, but one of the comments made in response shocked some members of the public.
After a presentation by Rutland High School’s New Neighbors group that proposed raising the flag, Michael Blow, a member of the Rutland City Public Schools Board of Commissioners, inferred he could relate to racism that students of color faced because of comments he experienced while serving in Vietnam.
“I think all lives matter,” Blow began. “I think it’s become a group that’s become really political now. ... I am against racism.”
Tabitha Pohl-Moore, president of the Rutland area chapter of the NAACP, said Thursday that Blow’s comment is a frequent response to Black Lives Matter, and is indicative of a lack of understanding of the real problem.
“Nobody is saying nobody else matters,” Pohl-Moore said. “(People of color) in this country are discriminated against and killed just for existing. So many of us are just minding our own business. ... If you’re using the ‘all lives matter’ response, you’ve got to do some soul searching to find out why you’re so offended that someone is in pain.”
Blow said what mattered more than flying a flag at the school was how people treated one another.
“I do get your feeling,” Blow said to the students at Tuesday’s meeting. “My mother is from Ireland. My two brothers were born in New York City ... anybody knows any history about the Irish ... (they were) treated terrible. No Irish allowed, no nothing.”
Blow told students Alex White, Noah White, Greta Solsaa and Jamison Evans — three of whom are black — about how he was brought up in Burlington and regularly ate and slept over at the home of a family of color, and kept friendships with people of color as he grew up and eventually went into the military, where he was criticized for keeping those friendships.
“When I joined the service ... in Vietnam, that’s where I got the racism. I became a n*****-lover because I made friends with everyone,” Blow said.
In an interview on Thursday, Blow said he doesn’t condone the use of the slur.
“That’s what they called me,” Blow said. “I’m just speaking the truth. I was giving an example of what they used in war time. ... It’s not a word I use. It’s a word I was called.”
Upon hearing a recording of the meeting, Pohl-Moore said she questioned whether Blow understood what it truly meant to be an ally.
“That was totally inappropriate,” Pohl-Moore said. “If you did (understand), you would not use that word. For a board member to do that is appalling.”
In the students’ presentation, they said their first instinct is to laugh the racial slur off, as they said it was sometimes spoken in an attempt at uncouth comedy by their peers, but only served to further marginalize them.
“We are the minority, but that doesn’t mean we should be targets for easy jokes like that,” said Alex White at Tuesday’s meeting.
The students cited studies showing people of color are stopped by police four times more often than white people, despite black people being roughly 1 percent of the population in Vermont. The presentation included statistics and graphs showing other ways people of color are unfairly targeted and treated violently.
The presentation cited “13th” and “Divided by Diversity,” two movies aimed at exposing underlying racism in Vermont and nationally. The students retold the stories of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, two people of color who were killed after not committing any crime, before explaining “Say Her Name,” a movement that calls attention to police violence against women of color.
High schools in Montpelier, Burlington, South Burlington and Essex have already raised BLM flags, the students said at Tuesday’s meeting, and it was time Rutland did the same. U-32 Middle and High School has also raised the flag.
“To take a stand against racism in our community,” Noah White said. “By showing everyone in our community that black lives truly do matter.”
“It’s a lot more than just a flag,” Alex White said. “It’s an opportunity to express Rutland High School’s acceptance of all races.”
Board member Dena Goldberg praised the students for standing up and speaking out.
“This is a situation you cannot undo,” she said at the meeting. “You cannot undo your skin color.
“I think it would be of great value to our community to support those experiences that are not supported.”
Board member Hurley Cavacas proposed bringing the students back to another meeting once they could offer logistics, such as the flag’s size. Board member Kam Johnston said they should wait and bring the issue up at the next policy meeting.
“There is a flag code,” said Superintendent Adam Taylor. “(But) there really are no teeth in the law.”
“I am for it if, logistically, we can figure everything out,” Cavacas said.
The faculty sponsor, Jennie Gartner, said the students had done their research, and could provide the information to the board immediately.
“They have been working on this since last March,” Gartner said.
Janie Evans, risk management, payroll and human resources director at Green Mountain College, said the flag flies at the college without any issues from the state.
“All on one pole, all on one rope,” Evans said of the three flags that fly: the national flag, the state flag and one for BLM. “There is no expense for this.”
Johnston said allowing the flag to fly might label the district as having inconsistent behavior if the board didn’t first send the idea to the Building and Policy Committee. He asked how long the flag would be flown.
“My concern is if we send this to all of these committees, it’ll never happen for another five years,” Cavacas said. “It’s going to take three months to come out of policy.”
Johnston was opposed to bringing the issue back up at the following meeting on the grounds that there was a clerk’s race coming up and board reorganization scheduled.
In the end, commissioners voted 4-1 to invite the students back to the next meeting. Blow voted against, and Johnston and Charlene Steward abstained.
“What the kids were discussing after, was Mr. Blow’s comment, using the n-word,” Eric Solsaa, parent of student Greta Solsaa, said in a Thursday interview. “It was sort of negating what they were sharing with the board.”
Solsaa said Blow should make an attempt to learn some cultural sensitivity.
“This is not just a one-off incident,” Solsaa said. “It’s not just a few people who experienced their needs. It really seemed like the board was shirking their responsibility to make a decision. If they don’t make a decision, yea or nay, the kids can’t counter it.”
Solsaa said his daughter has been involved with trying to get the Black Lives Matter flag raised for almost two years.
“There’s this domino effect that is feared: If we were to recognize that we’re not supportive in one area, we would have to do this in other areas,” Solsaa said. “For some reason, that scares people. (It’s a) lack of education, lack of empathy. In an all-white state, we don’t spend a lot of time concerning ourselves with what non-white people are experiencing.”
Pohl-Moore said it’s crucial for white people to accept the experiences of people of color, even though they may not be able to relate.
“(Blow) has the opportunity to show other older white folks how to do it better,” Pohl-Moore said. “His mistake was completely avoidable. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know that it’s not OK to say it out loud.”
She said an apology on Blow’s part to the students and people of color in the community might be a good first step, but the School Board also had a responsibility to react to his actions.
Pohl-Moore said she also questioned why the School Board didn’t immediately vote to support the students and do research of their own regarding raising the BLM flag.
“This promotes First Amendment rights,” Pohl-Moore said. “I question the motives. It sounds like creating red tape for the purpose of creating red tape.”
Renee Beaupre-White, mother of Alex and Noah, said the two young men declined to comment, and faculty sponsor Jennie Gartner declined to comment as well Thursday.
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