Recently, Vermont’s Department of Public Safety issued a response to the state’s Human Rights Commission report concerning a 2017 incident involving the Clemmons Family Farm, a 148-acre, Black-owned, educational and cultural arts landmark of Vermont’s African American Heritage Trail. The commission found the Vermont State Police and the Department of Public Safety illegally discriminated against its president, Dr. Lydia Clemmons, and her family, based on racial and gender bias.
Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling was quick to defend the actions of the officers and his department, denounce the HRC report while, at the same time, assert that his disagreement with the report “should not diminish the public’s willingness to engage the (Human Rights Commission) when there is a perceived or real grievance.”
By refuting the findings of the state commission most qualified in determining such bias, Schirling fails to grasp the damage his statement has inflicted on the level of trust among those who are neither male nor white in this state. In short, he props himself up as the white male potentate who knows better than those most victimized and marginalized by such discrimination.
To be fair, VSP is to be commended for being the first statewide law enforcement agency in the nation to establish an office and program of fair and impartial policing. However, despite the nearly 12 years of this program’s existence, racial and ethnic disparities in traffic stops have not diminished. Add to this the disturbing reluctance of local and regional police departments to embrace anti-bias training, and Vermont is faced with a reality where women and people of color live in daily fear of criminals and the police.
The Clemmons family, no longer able to trust the Williston Barracks, has hired a private security firm — a disturbing anomaly in the small rural town of Charlotte.
Now, I don’t believe in the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” especially when the old dog is the culture of bias and bigotry upon which this nation was established. But I do believe the teaching must assume the likeness of a 12-step program in which a nation, so conditioned and addicted to bias divisions and behavior, must accept the long and arduous process of detoxification and healing.
The healing process begins with an admission of guilt and a need for forgiveness. No single white American is to blame for a culture of bias and bigotry that has infected and deluded an entire race. And no single VSP officer is to blame for an environment of prejudice so ingrained within one’s behavior that the officer fails to notice it when it occurs. The problem is systemic and infectious.
Vermont, therefore, needs the HRC and similar social equity programs to enlighten us when we’re unable to do so on our own.
Commissioner Schirling and the Department of Public Safety owe the HRC a debt of gratitude, and the Clemmons Family Farm, its president and the Clemmons elders, an apology.
We all need to do what we can to protect the farm from further discrimination but, more so, to protect the most marginalized communities of our state from further discrimination by law enforcement officials. When laws and policies are in place that assure the safety of the most vulnerable members of our state from prejudicial treatment, then the security of all our citizens is further enhanced.
Let the healing begin.
The Rev. Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, moderator of the Racism in America Forum, and lives in Jericho.