Politics

Moats: The governor’s decency again shines through

David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.

‘The reality is it’s everywhere, even here.”

These were the words of Gov. Phil Scott toward the end of a heartfelt and eloquent statement on racism and police brutality that he read at his press conference on Monday. He went on to say, “The good news is we can fix this without waiting for a vaccine or other solutions out of our control.”

In other words, racism is like the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 100,000 American lives, devastated the economy and touched off a turbulent storm of anger and fear. Like the virus, racism is pernicious and unpredictable, ruthlessly claiming untold numbers of innocent lives. But we can do something about it.

The confluence of events occurring in the past week — the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the widespread protests occurring in response, combined with the losses and fear caused by the coronavirus — has unsettled the nation so thoroughly it’s impossible to grasp the full dimensions of the historical moment. The moment is still unfolding, day by day.

That’s why Scott’s words were so welcome. They exhibited a foundational sense of decency that will have to be an essential ingredient of what comes next for our state and nation. My own recent travels have underscored for me how important those words were.

I had just begun a long-planned vacation in March just as the pandemic took hold but chose to cut the vacation short, sheltering in Florida for two months before returning to Vermont. I followed the news in Vermont, reading of the preparations and special measures state and local governments, health care providers and community organizations were taking to respond to the pandemic.

The public response in Florida was a stark contrast. The attitude of shoppers in supermarkets was often belligerent and confrontational toward those wearing masks. People were partying out on their patios late at night. The beaches were crowded. The governor set the tone, letting it be known that allowing the hotel and travel industry to thrive was more important than keeping Floridians alive. Longtime residents spoke of how the attitude of drivers on the roads had become aggressive and hostile. A sickness was abroad in the land, and it wasn’t just the virus. That the nation’s president had chosen to fan the flames of hostility, spewing lies and misinformation, only worsened the sense of dread caused by the invisible virus.

When it came time to leave, we headed north in a rented car, and gradually, the presence of masks covering the faces of people at highway rest stops became more evident. Reaching New York state was like arriving at a place where reason, respect and common sense had taken hold. Highway signs advised travelers to wear masks in public and to wash their hands. Rest stop businesses were mostly closed, and travelers who stopped wore masks and showed consideration of others.

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People don’t like to be seen as outliers or weirdoes. If the prevailing attitude is that wearing masks in public is for sissies, then a lot of people will adopt that attitude. Reason doesn’t enter into it. It’s easy to dismiss the threat of an invisible bug in order to avoid people’s disdainful looks.

It takes leadership and a sense of civic commonality for the prevailing attitude to change. They have been present in New York and Vermont. And as Scott implied, battling the pandemic caused by the coronavirus is not dissimilar to battling the disease of racism.

Scott was unsparing in his language about the murder of George Floyd. “As you know, last week I joined the Vermont State Police to condemn the actions of the officers involved,” he said. “Mr Floyd’s death under their watch and under an officer’s knee is barbaric and totally inexcusable. It’s my belief they should all be charged and tried for murder and held fully accountable, both the three officers who used force and the officer who stood by and allowed it to occur. In the greatest country in the world, no one should stand for this. No one should make excuses for this, and no one should ignore this. We must all make clear, enough is enough.”

He called the demonstrations occurring in recent days expressions of “justifiable outrage.”

“For those who see the national protests and feel disdain instead of sympathy, just know: The reactions we’re seeing in cities across the country are the results of decades, actually centuries, of calls for help that went unheard. For many people today every time something like this happens, it’s another reminder of how long communities of color have been waiting for equity and of how little things have changed. It’s clear the fear, sadness, helplessness and frustration have reached a boiling point, as the African American community has seen far too much of this, and many Americans are standing with them, as we should, because, again, enough is enough.”

He brought in the parallel he saw with the virus. “The fact is, hate, ignorance and the inequality we’ve seen is a far greater risk to the long-term health of our nation than even Covid-19. That’s why we cannot continue to treat racism and examples like the one in Minneapolis like an uncomfortable and rare event. Because it’s not an isolated incident. And we need to acknowledge it’s systemic and it’s built onto and into our social systems our economic systems and everything in between.”

This is striking language from a Republican governor. Unlike the president, he is not calling the protesters thugs and urging violence against them. He identifies with them and sees the pandemic of racism as more insidious than any virus. One hundred thousand people may have died from Covid-19, but untold millions have suffered from the slavery, murder and oppression that are the toll of racism. It is still going on. As Scott said, it’s systemic.

On Monday Scott announced the formation of a racial equity task force, but even he acknowledged more was needed. “A task force is not the cure-all for what ails us,” he said. It’s going to take some soul-searching and real change individually to make a difference. We should take this time to reflect on what role each of us can play to end hate, racism and bigotry. And for those of us who are white, who aren’t typically the victim of it, we need to take a very close look, because the reality is it’s everywhere, even here.”

Scott has become that rare sort of politician who is able to transcend politics. In announcing that he would seek re-election this fall, he said he would not campaign or raise money until the state of emergency is over. It may be a shrewd political move, but it also signals that duty is more important than his own self-interest. 

That is the sort of leadership the nation needs — to combat the pandemic and to combat racism, as well as to take on the manifold challenges caused by the current economic collapse. That leadership at the national level is absent — or counterproductive — underscores the importance of clear-eyed, courageous leadership at the state and local levels. 

It’s good to be back in Vermont where civic commonality and conscientious leadership are helping to hold our community together.

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David Moats

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