After a year compiling presentations, building community support and submitting proposals to the School Board, the day had finally arrived: the Black Lives Matter flag flew Friday from the Rutland High School flag pole.
“We are here on April 12 marking the 158th anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, which was started when Southern soldiers fired on the U.S. garrison at Fort Sumter in South Carolina,” said student Alex White at the opening of the private ceremony for students and staff Friday. “We are here to raise the Black Lives Matter flag, which will fly for 400 days ... because this year marks the 400th anniversary of the start of the British slave trade in the Americas.”
Members of the New Neighbors Club at RHS, which requested the flag be raised, addressed the crowd, introducing the “peaceful, nonviolent” Black Lives Matter movement and the Black Lives Matter Vermont group. The School Board voted March 26 to raise the flag, reaffirming that decision Tuesday.
“Author James Baldwin said, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,’” Alex White read.
The group read statistics about the history of discrimination and violence against people of color that left an indelible mark on society through today.
“I want to recognize the significance of youth stepping up in order to provide support, voice their needs, represent their rights and stay true to their beliefs in the face of contentious and challenging times,” said Alderwoman Lisa Ryan. “You are all the pioneers and have created not only a foundation for those who come after you, but a message. A message that says empowerment, and leadership create opportunities.”
The group and their classmates led the audience of over 100, many of whom donned T-shirts with the words “Black Lives Matter” on them, outside to the parking lot of RHS, where they unfolded the newest addition to the school’s flagpole.
Rutland City Police Cmdr. Matt Prouty said police were informed that a protest planned to take place at the same time as the flag-raising will be held at different date.
“We’re going to take 10 seconds to reflect on the meaning of what we’re doing right now and what it means to people of color in this school, in this city, in this community,” said Jennie Gartner, history teacher and faculty adviser for New Neighbors. “And for the 400 years of exploitation and slavery that have been (experienced) by people of color.”
Many attendees bowed their heads in silence as the large black-and-white banner with the stark and unmistakable words “Black Lives Matter” printed in bold danced in the breeze.
“Black Lives Matter is such a simple phrase that embodies such a complex, painful and hopeful reality that resonates with black Americans everywhere,” said Rutland NAACP President Tabitha Pohl-Moore in an interview later Friday.
“The purpose of BLM is to call for visibility and accountability for government-sanctioned (and in some cases, encouraged) violence toward black people. People who are comfortable with the systems of white supremacy want to make it about anything other than the fight for black lives — from creating bizarre counter groups ... to flat-out pretending racism isn’t a thing,” she continued.
Alex White carefully drew down the line upon which the American flag and the Vermont state flag flew. White and Evans hooked the rings of the new banner onto the line just below the state flag, while Noah White held the line in place.
Flag secured, White hoisted the now three banners back up the flag pole amid cheering and applause from the students below.
“This means that people are having conversations, and our kids are leading the discourse,” Superintendent Adam Taylor said in an interview later Friday. “This says a lot for student voice.”
Taylor commended the small group of students who held a flag representing Blue Lives Matter, a group urging that the killing of police officers be processed as a hate-crime, who stood toward the back of the crowd.
“It’s just as important,” Taylor said. “We all need to get to know folks and respect people ... that will help make this a better place, (and) it’s already an excellent place.”
Gartner said when she heard about an online community calling for a counter-protest, she reached out to the organizers and invited them to speak about what that group is and what they stand for, but received no response.
“I think the community of Rutland believe that lives matter, and black lives are a part of that,” Taylor said, who is black. “I moved here because there’s something magical about Rutland. The student voice is an example of that.”
Gartner said watching her students find their voice and stand for what they believe in and fight for their cause was a remarkable journey to watch, but is only the beginning of changing the culture in Rutland.
“I hope as a community this starts a conversation, and we’re able to talk to each other,” Gartner said. “I think people think because we had a president of color, racism is over ... Every day my students walk out into the community as people of color, that’s so far beyond anything I could ever comprehend ... (This) took a lot of bravery, on their part.”
“That there are enough students and that white Vermonters are finally, collectively in the beginning stages of acknowledging the reality of the black experience through symbolic action is healing, and gives me hope,” Pohl-Moore said.