Vermont’s governor and attorney general have called on residents to commit themselves to treating others better and more respectfully, and to do more to support people of color.
Their plea comes after an ugly chapter they say revealed more work is needed on race, in a state where roughly 95 percent of residents are white, according to Census Bureau data.
"I would offer that as an inspiration to do better," Gov. Phil Scott (R-Vt.), said Tuesday, referring to a presentation on race Monday that turned fiery.
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Attorney General T.J. Donovan was in Bennington, announcing the results of an investigation into harassment against Kiah Morris, a former state representative who ended her 2018 re-election campaign, citing two years of racist threats she called unbearable.
Donovan found Morris was the subject of racist, insulting and degrading language about her skin color and gender, but the attorney general determined the nastiness was political speech protected by the First Amendment.
As a result of the legal decision, Donovan said he could not prosecute the racially-charged language. Both Donovan and Morris are Democrats.
Monday, Morris urged Vermonters to do what they can to stamp out bigotry and to strive for more inclusive communities where everyone feels valued.
"The soul of our state is in your hands," Morris said. "Please, take good care of it."
The session took an uncomfortable turn when Max Misch, a self-described "troll" who was investigated by the attorney general as part of the probe into the lawmaker’s experience with the targeted language, showed up to the announcement — apparently trying to provoke the crowd.
Bennington residents muted him with song and held up coats to block his shirt’s cartoon logo, which is often used as a symbol of the alt right.
Also at that presentation, another man, who said he was politically opposed to Morris’s stance on issues during her terms in the Vermont legislature, used an expletive to question the extent of racism in Vermont, and said his past criticism of Morris left him falsely accused of being a "Nazi."
He was booed by others in attendance at the Bennington event.
In response to the emotional tone that emerged from the community discussion and press conference, Donovan called for calm and for respect.
"We have a challenge to keep our heads high — to not meet hate with hate, but with civility and decency," Donovan said Monday of how to best tackle issues of hate and intolerance in Vermont.
Gov. Scott said Tuesday the Morris case should remind all Vermonters to treat people with kindness and respect, saying the next generation is modelling its behavior on ours.
"We need to confront that and disavow it," Gov. Scott said of racist language or attitudes, in an interview with necn affiliate NBC 5 News. "We need to do better."
The attorney general also announced a new system for reporting bias incidents to law enforcement, and said his office is putting together a series of forums on identifying and preventing hate crimes.
Late Tuesday, Vermont’s Congressional delegation released a statement about Kiah Morris.
"Racism and white supremacy have no place in Vermont," read the joint statement from Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.), Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.), and Rep. Peter Welch, (D-Vt.).
"Kiah Morris was an excellent representative for the people of Bennington on so many issues, and our state is worse off without her in office. We must root out racism in Vermont and ensure that no elected official, candidate or person fears for their safety because of the color of their skin or their point of view."