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.
The various law enforcement agencies that did nothing to help the people of West Pawlet are probably breathing a sigh of relief, now that an Environmental Court judge has ordered the Slate Ridge school terrorist training ground to close permanently for operating without the proper permits. Slate Ridge proprietor Daniel Banyai is on the hook for more than $46,000 in fines, plus the costs of dismantling all nonconforming structures.
But that sigh won’t last long. What are the chances that Banyai will meekly comply? I’d say zero. You may recall the 2007 case of Ed and Elaine Brown, two racist, anti-Semitic tax resisters who believed the whole “sovereign citizen” nonsense. After being convicted for refusing to pay their taxes for a full decade, they holed up in their Plainfield, New Hampshire compound and basically dared the feds to come and git ’em. The resulting standoff lasted 10 months.
Resolving the Banyai matter may well be a lot more complicated than that. So the folks who did nothing (Gov. Phil Scott, Attorney General T.J. Donovan, the Vermont State Police et al.) will eventually be obliged to take action.
Or they’ll just let the ruling to unenforced. Which would be the height of official cowardice.
VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld and Nina Keck have produced a whopper of a story that, among other things, outlines the state’s complete abdication of responsibility for investigating the Slate Ridge tactical shooting range and militia training facility in West Pawlet.
VTDigger first broke the story in November, detailing how many residents live in fear of Slate Ridge and its owner, Daniel Banyai. Digger also reported that concerned residents have tried repeatedly and failed to get any kind of enforcement or investigation of Slate Ridge or Banyai, despite his threatening behavior and criminal record.
The VPR story exposes quite a bit of new ground. The most egregious revelation: State authorities have played an energetic game of pass-the-buck regarding Slate Ridge, with the result that there is no investigation at all currently in progress. This, despite the fact that Banyai is openly flouting Act 250 rules. That’s pretty cut-and-dried, right? It shouldn’t be hard to get him on that.
Well, never underestimate the creativity of bureaucrats in avoiding a difficult task.
The official response to the Slate Ridge “training facility” in West Pawlet has been… well, take your pick. Pitiful? Sure. Laughably inadequate? Yep. Chickenshit? Call it like you see it.
State officials have been “monitoring” the situation for over a year, but didn’t actually say anything in public until VTDigger published its report last week. And now they’re stumbling all over themselves, offering justifications for a year-plus of inaction.
Meanwhile, the people of West Pawlet live in fear. As I wrote on Twitter, now they know how Kiah Morris feels.
Here’s the gist of it, as far as I’m concerned. The system has failed the people of West Pawlet just as it failed Morris. In saying so, I’m assuming that the purpose of having laws and enforcement agencies is to keep people safe, allowing them to live their lives in peace and security.
On the other side of the coin, constitutional rights do not extend to instilling fear in your neighbors. A community is a collection of free individuals — but there must be a sense of polity, of common purpose, of some level of respect for the well-being of your neighbors as well as yourself. The denizens of Slate Ridge are violating the social contract that binds us all together.
And if there’s no law that can be applied to this case, then maybe we need some new laws.