A white supremacist in Bennington is facing disorderly conduct and hate crime charges after using racist slurs during an altercation on a street with a Black man.
Max Misch, 37, pleaded not guilty Monday in Bennington County criminal court on the misdemeanor charge.
At the same time Monday, Misch was also arraigned on a separate disorderly conduct charge stemming from an incident in late August when he allegedly caused a public disruption while a Black Lives Matter mural was being painted in downtown Bennington.
He was released Monday on conditions in both matters.
The charge with the hate crime enhancement stems from an altercation on the afternoon of Sept. 14 between Misch, who describes himself as a white supremacist, and a biracial couple on Park Street in Bennington.
Dejioun Harden, 23, a Black man, and Erin Amidon, 22, Harden’s girlfriend, who is white, said Misch started the altercation while he was walking his dog and came across a vehicle with the couple in it, and started exchanging words. Misch contends the couple started it.
Soon, the verbal confrontation became physical between Harden and Misch, according to police records.
Misch told police that Harden got out of the vehicle and they were nose to nose, according to a court filing. Misch then said, according to the filing, he told the couple that Amidon would probably be "raped or killed by a black guy if you look at the stats online.”
That’s when Misch said Harden punched him in the face. The officer wrote in the report that he saw that Misch had an injury to his lip with dry blood.
As police were at the scene, trying to figure out what happened, Misch yelled a racial slur directed at Harden. The scene, according to police, became chaotic with Kevin Hoyt, a gun rights activist and independent candidate for governor, interfering with the investigation.
“It should be noted Hoyt was carrying a firearm,” a police officer wrote in the affidavit stated, adding, “Hoyt would not stop talking making it hard for me to concentrate on Misch and gather information.”
More officers responded to the scene and Hoyt moved to the sidewalk, according to the filing.
Hoyt, in a statement, wrote that he found it disturbing that Misch was placed in handcuffs at the scene while the couple were allowed to leave.
Harden and Amidon did not provide statements at the scene and the officer gave them business cards to reach out if they wanted to provide statements, the filing stated.
When the officer later called Amidon, she reported that she and Harden were driving by Misch and he shouted a racist slur, prompting them to stop.
Misch, in a statement, told police it was the couple who started the confrontation by yelling at him to get his attention and them saying to him, “You hate black people right?” Misch wrote he replied, “Not all black people,” and it escalated from there.
Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage said late Monday afternoon that her legal rationale for adding hate crime enhancement is that by shouting hateful and racist speech at a Black person, Misch incited the violence.
“That’s the basis of disorderly conduct -- violent, tumultuous behavior in public,” Marthage said.
“He has a pattern of this behavior,” she added of Misch. “This is not the kind of speech that should be protected, I don’t think it is protected.”
Misch was a central figure in the racial harassment that led Kiah Morris, a former House rep from Bennington, out of office. Morris, who had been the only Black woman lawmaker in the Legislature, announced in summer 2018 she would not be seeking reelection, citing, in part, the attacks online.
Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan investigated the Morris matter, but opted against filing criminal charges against Misch or anyone else, pointing to the broad protections of the First Amendment.
Asked why his behavior warranted a disorderly conduct with hate crime enhancement in the latest case, but not in the harassment regarding Morris, Marthage said the racial harassment regarding Morris took place on social media and not in the public.
“This was literally in downtown Bennington with other witnesses that see it and hear it,” Marthage said of the most recent incident. “This actually happened out in the open, in broad daylight, on the street.”
Marthage said she expected Misch’s attorney to challenge the hate crime enhancement charge as protected speech.
Kate Lamson, a public defender who represented Misch in court Monday, could not be reached later in the day for comment.
Marthage said she is still considering whether Harden would face a charge for allegedly hitting Misch.
She said while it’s never OK to take the law in your own hands, it’s a question of whether the racist comment prompted the response.
“You’re minding your own business in downtown Bennington and this person starts yelling at you so you stop to talk to him and he starts saying even worse things,” Marthage said, adding, “I’m not sure there a lot of people that would have responded differently.”
It’s the latest brush with the law for Misch.
He is facing two misdemeanor counts from last year charging him with illegally possessing high-capacity gun magazines.
That case is currently on appeal before the Vermont Supreme Court regarding the constitutionally on the law setting limits on the size of a magazine in the state. He faces several counts of violating the conditions of his release.
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