Might be time for Vermont Tourism & Marketing to hire a crisis communications specialist. Because two times in recent days, stories have appeared in national media outlets putting Vermont in a very bad light. Both times, the subject was Vermont officialdom’s passive response to white extremism.
First, a pair of pieces on public radio’s “This American Life” about the Slate Ridge militia “training center” in West Pawlet; second, an essay in USA TODAY by Michael Shank of Brandon, who says he is moving out because of white supremacist activity near his home. (And let’s not forget that earlier this year, the New York Times ran a long piece about the residents of West Pawlet “living in fear” because of Slate Ridge.)
The Slate Ridge saga is familiar ground for those who follow the news. Various legal actions are wending their way through the court system, while Slate Ridge continues to be a disruptive presence. Its owner Daniel Banyai is defiant toward local and state officials, and their response seems oddly muted. Meanwhile, the people of West Pawlet are just trying to get by.
For me, Shank’s essay really hit home. For starters, I’d never heard that white extremists were a problem in Brandon. That made me wonder how many other pockets of extremism are present in Vermont, particularly in rural Vermont where local regulations are lax and local officials lack the heft and/or willingness to tackle these situations.
But the heart of Shank’s message is that white extremism is on the rise, and official Vermont has failed to respond. I think he’s dead on.
How many of these situations do we have to live through? How many Michael Shanks have to choose between living in fear and leaving? How many people of color have to be harassed out of their homes, or out of the state? How many give up careers in the public sphere because of harassment that goes unchallenged by relevant officials?
Lookin’ at you, Vermont State Police. Lookin’ at you, state’s attorneys. Lookin’ at you, TJ Donovan. If you want to do something that (a) fosters justice and (b) burnishes your political credentials, why not take on some high-profile prosecutions or mount a forceful public campaign against hate?
Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
Donovan has talked of the limits of the law where the First Amendment is concerned. He has a point, although I’d argue that in cases like Max Misch or Slate Ridge, he should be pushing the boundaries of the law. It’s not uncommon for elected prosecutors to pursue cases they’re likely to lose, for the sake of principle and as a public statement.
As long as we’re talking forceful public campaigns, how about it, Governor Scott? Make it clear, as often as you can, that hate is unacceptable here. Don’t be afraid to name names. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. If that’s not enough incentive, do it as an economic development measure. Let’s stop losing people because they can’t live here in peace. In the face of this unflattering (and accurate) national publicity, let’s make sure we don’t get a bad reputation.
And let’s not forget the Legislature. Are there any ways we could change the law, so that hate doesn’t get a free pass?
Vermonters are really good at ignoring a problem as long as they can. We’ve ignored white extremism, or chalked it up to a handful of malcontents. But it’s bigger than that. Besides, even a single incident shouldn’t be left to fester while we take false comfort in our self-image as an open, tolerant place.
It’s time for everyone in public office to stop with the Sincere Statements of Concern and make this a front-burner priority.