This commentary is by Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area Branch of the NAACP.
Three hundred: the number of new members the Rutland Area NAACP received this time last year. Three hundred allies. Three hundred folks committed to equity, equality and change. This was significant; it put us over the top as far as NAACP branch membership in the Northeast.
It meant three hundred promises of solidarity for the long term.
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It meant three hundred shared agreements.
It was a response to the televised murder of George Floyd. Many felt bad; they wanted to see change, to feel like they were contributing to change. Folks protested; some did personal work to learn about their contribution/relationship to racism.
More than a year past that surge of desire for solidarity, we must reflect on where we are.
We have seen some progress in our state and our nation: Rep. Peter Welch voted yes to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and it passed the House of Representatives, 220-212. Juneteenth became a national holiday. Vermont declared racism a public health emergency. Al Wakefield and Bob Harnish successfully assisted in the implementation of declarations of inclusion in our municipalities.
But we have not moved forward in many respects. The George Floyd Act is not law. While Derek Chauvin was convicted as he should have been, one year later Black people are still being killed by police as per our video.
Vermont shows major setbacks based in deeply rooted white supremacist culture. Members of Rutland’s school board are working to revert to the racist Rutland High School mascot, which also came under discussion within the Board of Aldermen. Rutland Town Selectboard members decided that they “did not need” an inclusion statement. Recently a well organized group of people met at the Rutland State Fairgrounds in order to spread misinformation regarding Critical Race Theory, which delineates the historical reality of how racism is embedded in our systems and institutions.
Bennington’s select board hasn’t created citizens’ oversight for police department complaints. While the current lawsuit regarding Kiah Morris’ claim against the town of Bennington and the Police Department has come to a close, and the Human Rights Commission investigation has determined that there was discrimination involved, the town of Bennington has yet to hold the police department accountable. A teacher in Bennington has filed suit against the district due to wrongful discrimination and discharge.
It’s clear that now is the time for us to ask our Vermont citizens of conscience — the three hundred that joined us in the NAACP in the late spring and early summer of 2020; the many others who put BLM signs on their lawns, marched in demonstrations carrying those same signs, posted BLM frames around their Facebook profiles — we ask you to honor those gestures that were powered by a moment where you came to understand that you could no longer sit in silence, that you must do something about racism, injustice and a horrendously inequitable society.
We are witnessing a pernicious backlash. It’s time for us to fight back — because we won’t go back.
We must continue the fight against contempt for equity and inclusion. And we cannot put the onus to fight this only on people of color. We strive to share the voices of BIPOC in our communities, as they tell their experience of daily life in Vermont. We must continue to center these narratives.
As we center these voices, our members and indeed every single Vermonter of conscience must work against the threats that are facing our communities daily. Please — encourage folks to join the NAACP and the fight against racism and marginalization. This will take an army, surely. But an army of lovers cannot lose. And this work is carried forth in love: love of humanity, love of justice, and love for our shared dream of an equitable society.
At times we may think the dissenting voices are few; and wonder if we need worry. But those voices are loud, and they are winning elections. We must honor the promises we made to ourselves, to Black and brown people and organizations a year ago. We must show up to every select board, board of aldermen, and school board meeting regardless of what is on the agenda. We must say “We don’t want the harmful racist mascot back!” “We want inclusion statements!” “We want authentic history taught to our kids to face the past and move forward!” “We want citizens’ oversight and police accountability!”
We are here to provide education materials, help you find your voices and renew your commitment to show up for our shared humanity. We’re here for you; now you must be here with and for us. Black, brown, or white, this affects you, and our shared future. We cannot let the life-force that powered us last year dissipate.
Remember the fire that galvanized your commitment to show up for justice last year. Think about the murders of Black citizens we have seen since then. The forces we see around us both locally and nationally refuse to bring racism to justice. Be with us now; be the force that bends the arc of the universe to justice.