Hey, remember when the good folks of Montpelier painted “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in front of the Statehouse, and they got really upset when a guy committed a minor (and easily expunged) act of vandalism on it?
Well, the state of Vermont effectively obliterated the entire thing — with the spilled blood of a Black man. And the promise that “BLACK LIVES MATTER” will remain a well-meaning myth as long as Kenneth Johnson’s life can end so cheaply. And as long as Shamel Alexander gets a measly $30,000 in recompense for his wrongful arrest, conviction and imprisonment by the justice system of our fair state.
Johnson died last December while in custody at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. According to a report from Vermont’s Defender General Matthew Valerio, Johnson’s death was the slow, painful result of negligence by medical and prison staff.
Valerio’s report, which you can find at the link to Seven Days’ website above, provides more than adequate grounds for termination and criminal prosecution of multiple unnamed staffers. Valerio outlines a case of homicide by professional negligence that’s appalling and inexcusable.
And an example of Your Tax Dollars At Work.
I don’t know what’s the worst part of this. To begin with, Johnson was in prison awaiting trial. He faced some truly heinous charges, but he hadn’t been convicted. He still wound up with a death sentence, thanks to your public servants and their designees. His medical care was botched from the get-go; he had a throat tumor obstructing his airway that could have been treated, but instead he was thought to have a cold or some other minor ailment. His pleadings for care fell on deaf ears.
From the report: “Security video showed Mr. Johnson in various stages of agony. He died after hours of struggling to breathe while nearby nurses did nothing to help… One [nurse] claimed she did not perform adequate checks [on Johnson] ‘because he was so fidgety.'”
Let’s hope this nurse quickly becomes an ex-nurse. She seems more constitutionally suited to a less vital profession, like maybe convenience store cashier or DMV clerk.
To his credit, Corrections Commissioner James Baker acknowledged his department’s responsibility for Johnson’s care, and added that racism may have played a role in Johnson’s death. But in a news conference earlier this week, seemingly timed to bigfoot Valerio’s report, Baker tried to shift the focus onto the DOC’s health care contractor, Centurion.
Problem is, according to Valerio, corrections officers were involved in the neglect as well. One of them told Johnson to “knock it off” or face solitary confinement. More broadly, officers must have been aware of what was going on with Johnson in the last several days of his life.
At his presser, Baker noted that the state had cut ties with Centurion. Well, actually, Centurion’s contract had run its course and been put out for bids. Centurion was one of three bidders, but it wasn’t the lowest. And the contract was awarded to the low bidder.
Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. I mean, we’re all hoping to decrease Vermont’s inmate population. But hopefully not by killing off a bunch of them.
Back to Shamel Alexander. Last month, the town of Bennington agreed to a $30,000 settlement with Alexander for his wrongful arrest. Methinks the town got a bargain.
Brief recap. In 2013, Alexander was pulled over in Bennington while riding in a New York taxicab. It was a case of mistaken identity, in which police were on the lookout for a vaguely-described Black suspect. But when an officer searched the cab, he found 11 grams of heroin and arrested Alexander. (That’s a little more than two teaspoons, for those just joining us.) He was convicted in a trial during which Judge Nancy Corsones warned the jury of the dangers of drug dealers “from Brooklyn and Bed-Stuy” invading their blameless community.
Nothing like putting your thumb on the scales of justice, eh, your honor? And I use the term loosely.
Alexander, who had no criminal record, was sentenced by Corsones to 10 years in the slammer. He was behind bars until the Vermont Supreme Court threw out his arrest and conviction in 2016.
Well, at least he gets a whole $30,000 for having his life wrecked by bad policing and an overzealous judge. That’s how much his Black life mattered.
After the Supreme Court tossed the case, town police chief Paul Doucette was unrepentant.
“I don’t see us making any changes here,” Doucette told WCAX. He also told the station that, “Racial profiling does not go on within this agency and I wouldn’t allow it. That did not happen here.”
This guy still heads up the Bennington PD, which has continued to rack up an iffy record on racial justice.
For his part, town manager Stuart Hurd noted that the town did not admit any wrongdoing in reaching the settlement. Must be hard to breathe, Mr. Hurd, when your head’s stuck in the sand.
We like to think of ourselves as the place that helped enslaved Blacks escape to Canada, and a state somehow immune to the scourge of racism. The truth is, Black motorists are more likely to be pulled over in Vermont — and much less likely than whites to be found in violation of the law. Blacks are also far more likely to be incarcerated in Vermont than whites.
And when they do go behind bars, sometimes they win their freedom back — and sometimes they die.
We’ve got a long ways to go before we earn that sense of pride so many felt when they painted “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in Montpelier and Burlington. We may say it, be we don’t do it. Not by a longshot.