MONTPELIER — Hundreds from across Vermont gathered Saturday at the steps of the Montpelier Statehouse for the “Womxn and Femme March,” a rally for racial and gender justice led intentionally by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.
Under bright fall sunlight, organizers and speakers stood at the Statehouse doors, and called for equity, revolutionary change, and a feminist movement inclusive of all voices.
“We are at a unique moment in our society,” said Ashley Laporte of Burlington, one of the event’s key organizers. “One in which convening crises have put a spotlight on historical and systemic oppression in our culture.”
The rally was in response to all of this, she said: The police violence that made the country rise up in protest this summer, the ongoing pandemic, and looming climate change.
Given this, said Steffen Gillom in his introductions to the event, activists must “start to reorganize how we look at marches.” For Gillom, president of the Windham County Chapter of the NAACP and one of the event’s leaders, that meant one that centered the voices of people of color, particularly women and femmes, which he defined as those who were, like himself, “connected to femininity.”
The event was also held as a “safe distance rally,” rather than a typical march: Crowds thronged throughout the afternoon on the Statehouse lawn, wearing masks, some seated on picnic blankets. Organizations like Food Not Bombs and People’s Kitchen set up stands and served hot meals. Volunteers flitted across the lawn, providing voting information or first aid.
In her opening speech, Laporte recalled the 2017 women’s march in Montpelier, which drew historic crowds. “I stood toward the back of the crowd that day,” she said. Now, as a “Haitian-Canadian-Vermonter,” she said, she’s moved to be at the front of the stage — even with a smaller turnout.
The event was held in intentional contrast to previous women’s marches, which leaders described as exclusive.
For Mia Schultz of Bennington, who was in attendance Saturday, that sentiment rang true. “As a person of color in Vermont, this was the most inclusionary setting and event that I’ve ever been to,” she told VTDigger. (Though Schultz was involved in some planning for the event, she emphasized that she spoke only in a personal capacity, as the core leadership team has declined to speak with the media.)
At the rally, Schultz said, she felt “free to say what we wanted and feel the way that we wanted to unapologetically.”
Nineteen different speakers and performers took the stage in turn. Zanevia Wilcox and Harmony Edosomwan, two activists and key leaders of Burlington’s Battery Park protests, both spoke, as well as Reese Eldert-Moore, a senior at Mill River Union High School in Clarendon, who has been leading the fight for her school to raise a Black Lives Matter flag.
After an initial green light in July, Eldert-Moore said that the school has now delayed raising the flag. The 17-year-old had faced harassment from adults in the school community opposed to her efforts. “I have so much anger,” she said. “It hurts.”
But, she told the crowd, the ordeal “prove[d] why these flags and symbols of love are so needed in our community.”
Burlington City Councilor Zoraya Hightower also took the stage.
In March, Hightower became the first woman of color and Black woman, to be elected to Burlington’s City Council. When campaigning, she said, “the issues I was focused on were race-adjacent — such as housing, transit, policing — but I was not a race-forward candidate. I didn’t think you could be, in Vermont.”
Hightower said the months following her election changed that, as a movement for racial equity took hold in Burlington. “I had no idea how much it would end up mattering that I was on the council for this moment in time,” she said. A Progressive, Hightower has pushed hard for police reform.
Hightower and others described Saturday’s rally as part of a movement — a continuation of the summer’s nationwide reckoning on racial justice.
“I wish that I could say I see brighter days ahead. But I honestly don’t see it,” Laporte said.
“What I do see,” she said, “is a path to fighting for our rights and for collective liberation.”