Voters in this very liberal, very white state made Kiah Morris a pioneer when in 2014 they elected her as its first black female legislator. Two years later, another Vermont surfaced: racist threats that eventually forced her to leave office in fear and frustration.
After she won the Democratic primary for re-election to the state legislature in 2016, someone tweeted a cartoon caricature of a black person at her, along with a vulgar phrase rendered in ebonics. The tweeter threatened to come to rallies and stalk her, Morris said. She won a protective order against him but once that expired, the harassment continued, she said.
The harassment escalated into a break-in while the family was home, vandalism and death threats seen by her young son. Even after she announced she wouldn’t seek re-election, despite running unopposed, a group of youths pounded on her windows and doors at night, forcing her and her husband, convalescing after heart surgery, to leave town.
Finally, in late September, she resigned.
“There’s obviously online harassment that can happen, and that’s a part of our social media world right now, but then when things started happening in everyday life, that’s when it becomes really worrisome and terrifying,” she said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Amid the racial and ideological polarization consuming the country, the Morris case highlights the dangers politicians of color face. And it reinforces that even liberal bubbles like Vermont shouldn’t get too confident or comfortable in their cloaks of inclusivity.
No one should have to endure what Morris did, said Vermont House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, a white Democrat.
“This is deep racism coming out, and there are Vermonters hunting down other Vermonters here. This is awful for our state,” she said. “Rather than shake our heads and say, ‘Oh, what a shame,’ we all need to buckle down and figure out what steps we can take, what steps each of us can take, however large or small, to erode some of the system that allow racism to continue.”
The sheriff of New Jersey’s most populous county resigned last month after a recording surfaced in which he made derogatory remarks about blacks and the state’s first Sikh attorney general. In August, a Georgia man was sentenced to prison for racist threats against two U.S. senators, including black South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott.
“Racism and racial animus is a chronic illness of this country. It’s not something that just comes in waves in certain places. It’s always there simmering,” said Gloria Browne-Marshall, a professor of constitutional law at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of the book “Race, Law and American Society: 1607 to Present.”
Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery and in 2000 became the first to legally recognize same-sex civil unions, a precursor to gay marriage. It has elected Green Party and Socialist candidates. Even its Republican governor would be considered left of center in a conservative state.
But Vermont is also 94.4 percent white, according to census statistics. The black population is just 1.4 percent, or about 8,700 people.
In recent years, like elsewhere in the country, racism has bubbled up, including white supremacist flyers posted this year on college campuses.
“In a state that wants to promote itself as this liberal bastion, the majority of people outraged should have been there protecting” Morris, Browne-Marshall said.
Morris said she was dissatisfied with the response by Bennington police when she reported the acts against her and her family; the police chief has defended his department’s handling of the complaints.
She’s grateful that the attorney general’s office and Vermont State Police are now investigating.
When independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who despite a liberal pedigree has struggled to connect with black voters, learned that Morris was not seeking re-election because of the threats, he called the situation outrageous and, in a statement to The Burlington Free Press, said it is “not what Vermont is about.”
“In the state of Vermont, no elected official, candidate or person should be fearful of their safety because of the color of their skin or their point of view,” he wrote. “This corrosion of political discourse is destructive to our democracy, and we cannot let it take hold.”
Morris said that she has received other support from Vermonters, but said the hard part is learning the system is not set up to protect her.
“I cannot be the legislator that I want to be. I cannot speak my truth in the way that needs to have been said,” she said. “I cannot do those things and be secure and be assured of the safety for myself and my family. And that is really unfortunate.”