One year ago, Vermonters joined a national wave of rallies for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
Since then, change has been slow, if it’s been visible at all, according to those who brought the movement to the nation’s second-whitest state.
“The only thing that has changed is, I see cops speaking out against other cops a little bit more,” said David Phair, who gathered hundreds of people to march through Bethel last June.
Phair said the guilty verdict last month for Floyd’s killer, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, brought some accountability. But until Chauvin is sentenced fairly, Phair is unconvinced that justice has been served.
Noel Riby-Williams, who organized a march of more than 5,000 people in Montpelier last year, said Vermont’s low proportion of people of color has made reforming local police departments more difficult.
“I definitely think we should ask ourselves why people of color don’t live here, and why they come and might not stay,” Riby-Williams said. “Because if Vermont is as welcoming and friendly as most people say, you should be able to foster more communities of color and make them feel welcomed.”
Still, some progress has been visible since last summer, said Maroni Minter. A rally Minter organized in Waterbury last summer led directly to the formation of the Waterbury Area Anti-Racism Coalition, he said. Minter now chairs the group.
“Vermonters are so proud of their state. And sometimes, they act as if Vermont is immune to racism. … And I can tell you, Vermont is not immune,” Minter said.
But Minter, who also serves on the governor’s racial equity task force and the state’s ethnic studies coalition, said there’s been a shift in tone among some policymakers who were once skeptical of reforms.
“Whether George Floyd got killed here or not, it doesn’t mean we don’t have to pass policies that will prevent those kinds of things from happening,” Minter said. “We can do that and be a model to the rest of the nation.”
On this week’s podcast, Phair, Riby-Williams and Minter reflect on the impact of last year’s protests. Below is a partial transcript, edited for length and clarity.
If you could just kind of take me back to that day: You’ve organized this event on the steps of the Statehouse, there’s 5,000 or more people there, and you step up to the mic. What’s going through your head? What are you feeling?
Noel Riby-Williams: Yeah, well, I’ve kind of always said that I’m not the biggest public speaker. I’m a little bit more timid, shy. So that day, I just felt some confidence come over. I don’t know if it was just the moment, or the importance of what was happening, or even the people who showed up. And I just took the mic and really was able to say my speech and say it well. I’ve had a recording of that day. And I was just really shocked that it was me, literally articulating my thoughts and my feelings so clearly for everybody.
It was like a four-day notice before. It was a very spur of the moment protest. But it was also a spur of the moment moment, like everyone around the country was coming together for George Floyd and rallying, so I thought Montpelier had to do that as well.
One of the things that was really unique about your event was it kind of broadened things beyond George Floyd. You talked about this vast number of people who have been the victims of police brutality. And I wonder, with that in mind, what was it about George Floyd, and that video, and that event, that you think really set it apart, and that really galvanized this broader push?
Noel Riby-Williams: I really don’t know exactly what it was. I think being filmed on camera and having the whole world see his murder was eye-opening. For a lot of people, I think people of color have seen that done over and over again. And I also just think his last words of, like, screaming for his mom had a huge connection to moms everywhere. White, Black, Hispanic, whatever you identify with. And so I just think that people watching that video really woke up. It was so clear to see the murder in that event, in that video. So I just had to do something.
Maroni Minter: What the death of George Floyd has revealed to this country — it’s basically the type of treatment Black people have long experienced with law enforcement.
That was an amazing rally. I think it was reported by VTDigger that we had over 500 people who showed up. My understanding is it was the biggest rally that we’ve ever had here in Waterbury.
What I was hoping to accomplish is to get as many people — definitely, definitely was not expecting over 500 people to come — to just really come together and hear about the pain that so many of us Black folks were in, are still going through, after witnessing the murder of George Floyd.
You know, Waterbury is a very white town. There’s only a few of us BIPOC folks here. This was also a call to rally our white folks to get behind the call, the Black Lives Matter movement.
David Phair: I mean, the lack of Black people in the area to speak up, I kind of felt obligated.
When you organized these events last year, did you have specific goals in mind?
David Phair: My main goal was to basically shut down the town in a way that didn’t, like, shut it down, but they couldn’t ignore us. So like, we marched through the entire town to the state troopers’ barracks — on one side of the road. You know what I mean? So we’re not shutting down traffic, we’re just letting you know, like, “Hey, you’ve got to go around us. We’re here. We’re not going anywhere. This is what we’re doing.” And the fire department didn’t like it. They backed out supporting us for it, which is — whatever, everybody has their own things. But just because I don’t have your support doesn’t mean I’m not going to do what I think is right.
What do you think the result was?
David Phair: I think it was a mixed result. I think we pissed a lot of people off. I was astounded by how many people there were. I think by the time we were done, there were over a couple hundred people there. There’s a video of us just walking through town, and there’s — it just doesn’t stop. I remember being in the front of the line and turning around and looking back, and I couldn’t see the end of the people. I was just like, “Where did all these people come from?” So it was good to see the amount of support, even with all the negativity. It’s good to know some of the people around here do have your back.
When you gave this speech last summer, you ended it by saying, “We did not come this far only to come this far.” It really seemed like you ended on this forward-looking note of people needing to take action on what happened next. At the time, where did you think that we would be a year from then? What did you see coming out of this movement?
Noel Riby-Williams: I think the No. 1 thing is just police reform. More trainings for policemen and women. And I think there’s been some change in that in the Montpelier area. I think definitely in the Burlington area, they’re still fighting today to have some police reform done. And I think along with that is just education — educating and “awaring” each other and your communities and families and your workplaces.
5,000 people were there. If they all had gone back and talked to one person, that would have been 10,000 people who would have heard this message and really maybe thought about the impact of police brutality on people of color.
Maroni Minter said the protest in Waterbury led directly to the formation of a local antiracism coalition. That group has helped elect two new selectboard members, and they’ve been active in equity issues in the school system.
Maroni Minter: For example, we have advocated and got the town to actually adopt a statement of inclusion. It’s now on our town website, just like a lot of other towns across the state.
We have advocated for the town to change our elementary school name. Our elementary, Thatcher Brook, was named after — we have a brook that goes from Waterbury and Duxbury. Originally, the school was named after this brook. But folks didn’t know that the brook was named after Thatcher Partridge, who is a former slave owner. We advocated for the name change. The school has agreed, and is now moving forward with the process of selecting a new name for the school.
So you’ve seen a lot of really concrete steps that have taken place in the last year.
Maroni Minter: Yeah.
Are there things that, on the other hand, have not changed? Or the things that you feel like maybe you had hoped to see more immediate action on that haven’t gone as far as you would like?
Maroni Minter: Well, the one thing that hasn’t changed, to be blunt with you, Mike — police killing of Black and brown people has not stopped. In fact, we saw even more killing leading up to [Minneapolis police officer Derek] Chauvin’s trial, even during the trial, and right after the verdict was announced. So to answer your question, the killing has not stopped. But I’m hopeful that as more and more policy reforms, bills are passed and implemented across the country, we will begin to see a shift.
So I’m still — I remain optimistic. But the killing just needs to stop.
We’ll be right back.
I guess the big question we’re trying to get at here is, we’re marking this date that’s a year since George Floyd’s killing. And we’re just trying to get a sense of, big picture, what’s changed?
David Phair: Nothing.
David Phair: The only thing that has changed is I see cops speaking out against other cops a little bit more. As of right now, Derek Chauvin has not gotten away with it. But that’s not to say that for me personally, pertaining to George Floyd — nothing’s going to change until sentencing. Right now, it’s: “Here’s a cookie. Sit down and be quiet.”
I’ve been approached about doing the George Floyd tribute. I didn’t want to do it until after the trial, because I don’t know what kind of mood it’s going to be. I don’t know if the Black community is going to be pissed off because this man got away with it again. I don’t know if the Black community is going to be relieved because now there’s accountability. I haven’t heard a lot of sense of relief at all. It’s more like, “Oh, he’s only going to get 10 to 12 years because he’s a cop and he doesn’t have any priors.” But if I go out and I kill somebody, whether it’s an accident or not, I’m getting 15, 25 years.
Did you watch the Chauvin verdict?
Maroni Minter: I did. I would try to tune in. And when the verdict was announced, I was driving from my grandmother’s to my apartment. It was on VPR, so I was listening. And when it was announced that he was guilty on all three counts, I mean, I just started screaming. I remember I was screaming in the car and saying, “Yes! Justice is served! Justice is served.” And then I got to my apartment.
But then just sitting down on the couch, something hit me. Just the fact that I was screaming, “Justice was served.” It felt wrong. It felt that true justice would have meant that George Floyd would still be alive. Something felt wrong to me, for me to scream like that, and just to feel that joy for a second. But at least it’s some accountability. And I think for us Black people, just that one minute of celebrating — it’s because for me, I was not expecting him to be charged, to be proven guilty. And that is due to the history of this country. So I think part of that just brief joy was because I wasn’t expecting that.
Noel Riby-Williams: I think a lot of people thought it was justice and/or accountability. And I don’t think it is. I think it’s a step in the right direction. But I think accountability and justice is something that happens over time. This is kind of the first, I feel like, big trial that has really held a cop accountable for their actions. And so I think as we see policemen be held more accountable over the years, that’s when we can maybe change the narrative to, “Justice is being served.”
Why do you think nothing’s changed?
David Phair: People aren’t ready. I’m on the equity and inclusion committee of Bethel, and our job is to try and teach people. We were asked by the town selectboard to give them things that we thought that they could do in order to learn some stuff. So we gave them some definitions to sit down and talk about in pairs. They didn’t want to do that. So you’re asking for all of this information, but then when we give you that information, you don’t want to use it. For me, that’s like, almost a smack in the face. Because it’s just resistance for no reason. We were doing exactly what you asked us to do. But you don’t want to do it.
That’s not to say all of the selectboard’s like that. We have members who sit on our equity and inclusion committee and are very vital to what we’re trying to do. But for everyone that’s willing to help, you’ve got two more that are just like, “I don’t want to do this. It’s too hard to sit here and look at myself and try to relate to what other people are going through.”
If this video that so many people saw last year of this killing on camera — if that doesn’t make people ready, what do you think it would take for people to be ready?
David Phair: It’s a really tough question, because I am personally torn. Because I don’t want to keep talking. We’ve been talking for hundreds of years. Peaceful, non-peaceful, we’ve tried it all. We’ve burned down cities. We’ve marched on the Capitol — peacefully, we marched on the Capitol. Meanwhile, you’ve got Trump supporters sitting there breaking in windows and kicking in the door.
That’s another thing that brings me to the fact that nothing’s changed. If that was a Black Lives Matter mob that had done what the Make America Great mob did, half of them would be dead. No questions asked. Just, “Oh, you’re trying to take over the country, you got to die.” I can’t.
So back to your question about what it’s going to take to make a serious change — I can’t answer that. Everybody is learning through trial and error. But I will say that if it doesn’t change, it doesn’t look good for us as a country. Because I know Black people are only going to take it for so much longer.
I wonder if you could help me connect the dots on how some of these actions you’ve talked about, in a small town in the middle of Vermont, like Waterbury, can go on to influence this broader conversation and this broader movement? Maybe something like the Thatcher Brook name, as an example. Getting that name change put through, what does that then mean to you? Or to some future BIPOC student who’s going to school in Waterbury?
Maroni Minter: First of all, I must say that, when this was first brought to our attention, the whole idea of the school being named after Thatcher Partridge, former slave owner — I remember saying to the group that this is not what we started the Waterbury Antiracism Coalition for. Because this is a historical school, and so many families, so many kids have gone through the school, and so this will be a big huge campaign that could take years. What I said to the group was that if we can get the students to lead this campaign, so that parents are listening or hearing directly from students — because if we come in as the Waterbury Antiracism Coalition wants to change Thatcher Brook’s name, it’s like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. What is this group? Who are they?”
So to answer your question, what does that mean? Well, that means my hope is that a small town like this — again, very white — making these changes, we can be as an example to other towns. What that says to me is that right now there is this movement being led by students, young folks. There’s a movement right now about removing police out of schools. In my work with the ACLU, I work with students across the state. They are leading that movement. And that says a lot.
And I hope that other places, other towns, are watching. And I hope that small changes like this will manifest throughout the states. And we can be as an example to the rest of the country, whatever it can be, as an example to the rest of the states. And if all towns start thinking like we are, then the state as a whole will be a model for the rest of the country. So that’s my hope.
Noel Riby-Williams: I think Vermont is — it’s a very small place with not a lot of people of color. And so I don’t think Vermont has changed that much. I think looking at other communities and other states, maybe they have had a little bit more change, because they have more people of color to make that change. Vermont, I think, even though we have a small amount of people of color, we should still strive to do better every day. But I think since Vermont doesn’t really see — like, I honestly believe that people in Vermont could go their whole lives without interacting with a person of color if they wanted to. And that says a lot about where we live.
And I definitely think we should ask ourselves why people of color don’t live here and why they come and might not stay. Because if Vermont is as welcoming and friendly as most people say, you should be able to foster more communities of color and make them feel welcomed.
How do we do that?
Noel Riby-Williams: I think hiring teachers of color. Representation is huge. Growing up, I never really saw people like myself. I didn’t have a teacher of color until college at UVM. As a child, if you don’t see yourself represented in the community, you don’t really know what you can achieve and where you can go, and you don’t see yourself accomplishing what other people can accomplish. And even in the media, I think, just now there’s a lot more representation of people of color in a lot of positions, which is encouraging, but it definitely has to be within your own community as well.
David Phair: Education — for me, it’s not just education of white people. I know Black people that don’t know about Black Wall Street. I personally didn’t even know about Black Wall Street. I didn’t know about Juneteenth. I didn’t know about a lot of these things. I didn’t know who Emmett Till was until after I graduated high school. That doesn’t make any sense. But then we sit here and we believe everything that’s written in these history books in school. Well, where’s the rest of it?
I’m one of those guys, I don’t think that the Confederate statues should have been taken down. They should have been put in a museum. Because by just taking them down and getting rid of them now, people are just hiding the truth somewhat. So I feel like history books need to be ripped up. And they need to be rewritten with the truth.
Noel Riby-Williams: I think education is power. And it really does start in school. Even as a child, it’s not too young, ever, to talk about race to kids. I wish I had more education about myself, and Black people, and Black history in my years of middle school and high school. I’ve gotten a little bit of that in college, but for some people, college might be a little bit too late to kind of educate and change people’s minds about race or its history.
Maroni Minter: There has been, prior to George Floyd’s muder, in my work at the ACLU or my personal work that I’m doing in the community advocating for police reform, or law, or changes in the criminal justice legal system in general — there was a lot of push. And a lot of that push is, there’s this sense of denial, and even from policymakers. I heard this a lot: “We don’t need to do this.” For example, even when George Floyd’s murder happened, when we’re advocating for policy change, I heard that directly from policymakers: “What happened in Minneapolis does not happen here in Vermont.”
Vermonters are so proud of their state. And sometimes, they act as if Vermont is immune to racism and other things. And I can tell you, Vermont is not immune. And usually a lot of that pushback comes from white people who don’t experience what we experienced — what I experienced as a Black man. The fact that so many — not just BIPOC, but again, white people — have stepped in and said, “No, things need to change.” That has shifted. Even those policymakers that I heard directly, that, “Oh, we don’t need to do this because it doesn’t happen here,” have reached out to me directly and said, “You’re right, we have heard — loudly.” And understanding that it’s not whether it happens here or not.
I talked earlier about how we can be an example to the rest of the country. So whether George Floyd got killed here or not, it doesn’t mean we don’t have to pass policies that will prevent those kinds of things from happening. And again, we can do that and be a model to the rest of the nation. I have seen that shift.
Noel Riby-Williams: I think especially just feeling more welcomed — I think a lot of people have Black Lives Matter signs either on their cars, or their houses, or their businesses downtown. And so just even seeing that, those words, gives me a little bit more assurance that people are talking about this, and people are listening. And they care about Black lives.
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