By Guy Page
A frustrated advocate for illegal immigrants July 30 hurled racial epithets at an African-American member of the Hartford Selectboard during a public hearing.
The hearing concerned a proposed town ordinance forbidding local police to help federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE agents). Hartford selectmen have been under pressure for several months to pass a non-cooperation ordinance. While the board seems supportive in concept, issues of federal funding and employee procedure have slowed the process. True to form, the hearing that began at 6 pm was still going strong with no resolution in sight at 11 pm. The racial epithet incident occurred shortly after 11 pm. The entire meeting was videotaped by CATV public access station. All of the comments mentioned below occurred shortly after the five-hour mark and were captured on videotape.
The “Welcoming Hartford Ordinance” would put local police at odds with the federal government and might result in the departure of Police Chief Phil Kasten, who said at the hearing, “We’ve been in a hurry to create a policy when our state has one of the strictest policies in the country.” The plan needs more work, he said – “don’t rush the failure.”
Five hours after the meeting began, even previously supportive selectboard members like Alan Johnson wavered. He withdrew his second to the motion to adopt the ordinance. This discouraged and angered ordinance supporters, who had cheered him earlier when he spoke out against unthinking ‘systemic’ racism: “The greatest problem that this town has with racism is that most white people don’t know they have a problem with racism. People of color and whites grew up in a system where racism is what’s in your heart and your intent. But I’ve learned about another kind of racism that is more prevalent than intentional racism. This is something every white person needs to hear. Our ignorance of racism is racism.”
The literally 11th-hour stall of the ordinance was not good news to the ordinance supporters, who were virtually the only audience members remaining. “Just pass the frickin policy already, I’m tired,” one supporter yelled.
After a few more minutes of raised voices and back-and-forth between audience and board, Chair Simon Dennis asked selectboard member Jameson Davis, a Vermont Law School student and sustainability advocate who was wearing a T-shirt bearing the names of prominent civil rights leaders such as Thurgood Marshall, if he wished to speak. Davis declined. This drew hoots and taunts. Then one unidentified woman who had previously been speaking in support of the ordinance can be heard to yell: “Jameson, every person on your shirt would be ashamed of you. Every single [f—–g] person on your shirt. You re a race traitor. You’re a coon. You’re spineless.” Davis remained silent during the tirade, merely nodding with pursed lips after each allegation.
Chair Dennis was not silent. “Here’s where I want to jump in. Those are painful words … that anybody who doesn’t say that this is the path forward is a racist.”
No further explicit epithets were hurled at Davis. Also not heard were any apologies or admonishments by other audience members. After more shouting and accusations from ordinance supporters, with attempts by Dennis to respond, Davis leaned over to his microphone and spoke: “motion to adjourn.” The motion was accepted. The CATV video ends with the selectboard leaving the platform while ordinance supporters stand on the stage, hold hands and sing.
Aftermath: No agenda for the next selectboard meeting has been posted yet on the Town website. As for media coverage: the local daily newspaper The Valley News reported the next morning on the racist name-calling of an elected official during a public hearing. VT Digger reprinted the Valley News story, with the headline “After heated debate, Hartford still fails to change undocumented immigrant policy.” Vermont Water Cooler included the story in its news wrap-up Friday, August 2. A Vermont Public Radio reporter attended the meeting. The station reportedly plans to air a story this week. A news crew sent by WPTZ left several hours after the meeting began.
State House Headliners is unaware if any Vermont group supporting racial diversity and inclusion has publicly protested or mentioned the incident.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.