Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of our Vermont Voices Series.
In February, the South Burlington School Board retired their “Rebels” team name due to assertions by some that the name is racist and linked to the Confederacy.
Community and student outrage at the move spurred the creation of the 2,200 strong Rebel Alliance Facebook group, and members have gathered signatures and submitted petitions calling for the Rebel name debate to be put to a public vote. So far the school board has refused to even take up the petition.
Now the group’s co-founder and 1986 South Burlington alumnus Kiya Batmanglidj is speaking out. Batmanglidj spoke with True North to explain the group’s effort to fight race-baiting politics that use racist insinuations to smear whole communities.
True North: Can you explain how the Rebel name for South Burlington High School came to be associated with the Civil War?
Batmanglidj: Essentially, South Burlington basically broke away from the town school system, and they became the Rebels. From what I’ve read, the (Burlington Free Press) actually coined the term and then people liked it and it stuck.
Then what happened was some kids started using Confederate imagery with the name, but it was never officially sanctioned by the school. In the early ’60s there were some kids that ran around with Confederate flags or played Dixie at the football games, but it was never sanctioned by the school.
I think it was by the mid-’80s or early ’90s (that) the school had completely phased out any imagery that was in any way related to the Confederacy.
TN: Could banning the use of the Rebel name be precedent-setting for other restrictions on language?
Batmanglidj: Not just other words but other symbols. When they say that something makes some students feel uncomfortable or could be associated with something bad, so think about this: think about the American Flag, right?
The American flag flew over the massacres of many Native Americans. You can look up when the U.S. calvaries did these things, so a Native American student might think, “Well the American flag is offensive because it represents oppression and genocide.” Does that then mean because that small group of people feels offended that we should then not fly the American flag at the school?
TN: History has countless rebellions throughout. Is there a way to embrace the Rebel name without pinning it to the Confederacy?
Batmanglidj: They don’t care. The people who push this are obviously a very vocal, ideological minority that just simply didn’t want to hear anything else and just wanted to change the name. As soon as they saw something that they thought was a racial component, they stuck to it.
The same argument was made by many people on our side that the Revolutionary War was the result of a rebellion and rebel was not a racist term. And the other thing, too, is a lot of people were willing to say, “Hey look, rebrand the rebels. If you don’t like it, make it the Green Mountain Rebels or the Rebel Cats with a mascot — you can do that.”
TN: Four members of the Alliance are suing the school board. Can you update us on the latest?
Batmanglidj: What’s happened is they’ve filed suit — they’ve filed a motion to put a stay on any actions that the school board might take to change the name pending the outcome of the suit. And the school board has just recently issued a motion to have the case dismissed, and the lawyer for the Alliance members is going to submit a motion objecting to the motion to dismiss.
TN: What do the students think of all this?
Batmanglidj: The school administration did its own internal survey, which we got a copy of leaked to us. In that survey, 92 percent of the students either had no issue or supported the Rebel name. So, only 8 percent of the students felt uncomfortable with the Rebel name. And yet, the whole reasoning behind the name change was supposed to be that it’s divisive and the students are feeling uncomfortable.
Here’s the catch: they refused to release the survey to the public, and luckily we had somebody leak it to us. But these are the kinds of actions that reflect on how the board and administration approach it in a very underhanded manner.
TN: Since the board wouldn’t have to follow a non-binding vote, what would it accomplish?
Batmanglidj: You don’t want to follow my vote, you don’t want to take action based on how we voted? OK that’s fine. But at least we told you how we feel. But they refuse to do that — it’s so anti-democratic. And I think that’s going to be brought out if the lawsuit can proceed.