Through the winding hallways of Rutland High School, one could see throngs of people struggling to peer into a packed room where members of the NAACP, Vermont legislators, attorney generals, social justice center leaders and law enforcement met with residents and local officials to talk about “Hate-Free Vermont,” the third forum of its kind hosted by Attorney General T.J. Donovan.
Representatives Thomas Burditt and Cheryl Mazzarello-Hooker joined Donovan, State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy, members of the Rutland City Public School Commission, members of the Board of Aldermen and Mayor David Allaire, who sat in a massive circle, which had to be expanded as more than 70 people filled the small room. People shared stories of experiences with prejudice, bias and violence they were subjected to and heard information about how police were consistently working to stop it.
Twenty minutes after the meeting began, residents continued to flow in and fill the room.
Residents in turn told their stories of discrimination while in the local hospital as a transgender patient, as a person with mental illness in an ordinary situation, as someone from another culture who spoke and acted a different way, each story told of hardships caused by people in Vermont against people in some way who are different than them.
And for every voice that cracked with nerves, there suddenly appeared at their side a woman ready to place a hand on shoulders and backs as a show of solidarity and comfort to summon the courage needed to speak: Beatrice Parwatikar, one of NAACP’s advocates, held her head high from her seat until she knew someone needed her.
“The concept of standing with someone is something we have established in the communities of women of color,” Parwatikar said. “It means that we stand together, and we stand with strength. … We are standing on the shoulders of the other people who came before us. … This is the reason I am standing.”
Isaura Izquierdo told of how she learned a local restaurant establishment was distributing white supremacist literature, and which continues to discriminate against people of color based on spiritual beliefs, and how her son had been eventually pressured out of high school because of racially discriminatory practices by the local students and faculty alike.
She and her family were subsequently moving back to Florida before the summer ended after four years in Vermont — where she had come to keep her family safe and bring them up — because of the racism she and her loved ones endured in the community.
President of the NAACP Tabitha Moore expressed how false narratives can be spread like waves.
“If we don’t speak, they don’t think it’s a problem,” Moore said.
Throughout the presentation, audience members applauded one another for standing and speaking their truths to their officials and lawmakers, who joined in applause and nodded in respect.
Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, spoke about the necessity for Rutland and communities like it to embrace the notion of diversity and change before it leaves them behind socially and economically as well.
“If you want to attract business here, you have to attract it from black and brown consumers,” Reed said. “If your town doesn’t want to (welcome) black and brown people, or if your reputation is one that is culturally intolerant, then you’re shooting yourself in the foot economically.”
Residents asked law enforcement whether they are pressured by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and Attorney General T.J. Donovan assured the audience that the rule in Vermont is: “Don’t Ask.”
“The policy for every department is ‘Don’t Ask,’” Donovan said. “Because (when) I get stopped, nobody is asking where I’m from.”
“We’re getting heat from border control because we’ve only called them twice in the last three years,” said Capt. Gary Scott, the Vermont State Police.
In a show of solidarity, State Police have recorded traffic stop data since the late 2000s, Scott said, and in 2015, the VSP intensified their efforts to reevaluate records and keep stricter accounts of their stops, Scott said, and publish all of their annual data to their website.
“Black operators in 2018, we stopped approximately 1,500,” Scott began. “They are ticketed at 40%. Whites are ticketed at 36%, Asians are ticketed at about 50%, Hispanics are ticketed at 42% and Native Americans at about 42%.”
Scott said the “find” rate, or rate at which police find something in the vehicle that the suspect is not supposed to have, remained approximately 81% across the board.
“But we’re still concerned about the search rates,” Scott said. “The search rates for white operators are about 0.6%, but the search rates for black operators are at about 1.6%, and then Hispanics are about 1.9%.”
Scott explained that the 20-30 new troopers every year are doing the majority of the traffic stop work, and the VSP is actively working to consistently train their troopers, but they could not precisely identify why the search rates were lower in the white demographic despite the consistent find rates with every race documented.
“Consumers, they’re not going to come here,” Reed said. “They’re not going to go to Killington. They’re going to go to Mount Snow because they know it’s a lot more of a welcoming community than Rutland is. … Entrepreneurs of color are going to look to places like Brattleboro or Burlington or Winooski because people there understand that ‘this is where the dollars are.’”