— by Kina Thorpe, PJC Program Coordinator
There are a lot of things that we agree with Bernie Sanders on. While he leans left on many things, there are positions that are abhorrent to our organization and who we are as peace activists. We can appreciate what he does well while also holding him accountable for the things that we disagree with.
From from November 29 to December 1, The Sanders Institute brought together progressive leaders from around the country for a three-day conference in Burlington. While we hear that it was a great three days, the Sanders Institute made a big misstep by failing to involve progressive leaders of color and other marginalized groups from Vermont. Social justice leaders in our state who are working hard on addressing the very issues discussed at the conference weren’t invited to share their insight or even learn from the great minds in attendance.
The Rutland Area and Windham County branches of the NAACP started an open letter, which was finalized and signed by dozens of activists of color around the state, and then sent to Senator Sanders to voice their frustration. The letter reads, in part (read the full letter here or below):
… I took to social media and posted the article, tagging various justice leaders that I knew. No one knew about it. I asked groups like Rights and Democracy, who posted an article to advertise the event if they would be speaking. I heard nothing. Even Kiah Morris, who was Vermont’s lone black woman in the legislature—that is, until the racist threats and harassment became so intolerable and intimidating that she not only had to withdraw from an uncontested race, but she stepped down from office just three months ago—was not invited.
I write this not to complain about the fact that none of us were invited; I write this to point out the hypocrisy of the situation. How do you say that you are a person of the people, how can you be “awoken,” in the words of Victor Lee Lewis, when you come home to Vermont to talk about justice and institutional oppression and don’t invite the very people you represent.
This letter was signed by people from a range of social justice groups including Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools, Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington, Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, Migrant Justice, Justice for All, ACLU of Vermont, as well as Kiah Morris and many more. The absence of an invitation (and the $350 suggested donation) put this event out of reach for many local social justice activists — many of whom do this work for free.
Bernie has at times taken on racial justice issues, but that shouldn’t allow an easy out for his current actions that cause harm — whether on his own or through the institute that bears his name. Bernie recently came under fire for stating that white people who feel uncomfortable voting for African-American politicians are not necessarily racist. Statements like these highlight how a well-meaning white progressives, such as Bernie, can cause harm.
Likewise, activists across the country have penned a letter to Bernie urging him to take a strong stance and outline for foreign policy that rejects U.S. militarism, overseas misadventures, and the massive Pentagon budget. They reference Martin Luther King Jrs thoughts that “racism, extreme materialism, and militarism needed to be challenged together rather than separately, and that this remains true.” We’ve even seen this on a local level with his support of basing the F-35S in Vermont. You cannot talk about militarism without talking racism and economic inequity — issues discussed at his three-day event.
Militarism is the top source of the erosion of liberties, and top justification for government secrecy, top creator of refugees, top saboteur of the rule of law, top facilitator of xenophobia and bigotry, and top reason we are at risk of nuclear apocalypse. There is no area of our social life that is untouched by what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex.
We hope that Bernie will take this as a learning experience, and will use this as a stepping stone to reach out to local leaders and amplify their voices.
Read the full letter on the Rutland Area NAACP’s Facebook page or below.
12/9- updated to include additional signatures-
We wanted to share with you a letter written by Tabitha Pohl-Moore and Steffen Gillom that has been signed by many justice leaders across the state. These leaders-along with many others-work tirelessly to make Vermont what it is and we think it is important to raise as many voices as possible as we speak about this issue. While Tabitha and Steffen penned the letter, it is the thought and feeling of many. We encourage you to reach out to justice leaders in your area as well as Tabitha and Steffen if you wish to talk about it, as each leader adds their own unique wisdom and perspective. As folks learn of this letter, they may choose to sign on. We will do our best to keep current as the list grows quickly.
We hope this sparks dialogue about how, even well meaning progressive people sometimes get it wrong and what we can do to change that.
Vermont is known as a progressive safe haven. However, some of our citizens struggle to connect personal experience to this sentiment. The purpose of publicizing these feelings is not to throw shade at the national progressive movement that Senator Bernie Sanders is trying to foster, but to point out that Vermonters in marginalized positions- be they poor, disabled, LGBTQ, people of color, indigenous, immigrant or non-mainstream in other facets of identity, help to create this state and make it what it is, yet still, we find ourselves excluded from the movement. This is an awkward juxtaposition. To call out when we have been excluded invariably elicits an accusation of sabotage, selfishness, or saltiness. To ignore it is to relegate ourselves to invisibility, thus fortifying the very systemic inequity the progressive movement works to deconstruct. It is with this in mind that I write the following:
At 9:15 PM on November 19th , Windham Area NAACP President Steffen Gillom sent me a text with a link to the VT Digger article announcing Senator Sanders’ 3-day progressive event in Burlington that was planned for this past week, it was followed by the question, “Did you know about this?” My first response was excitement. A progressive agenda that promised to raise an intersectional approach to ending injustice and oppression? In our backyard? As I read the roster and saw the names of my own idols like Cornel West, my initial response grew into hope. We would finally be heard and seen here in Vermont! But, as I neared the end of the star-laden roster, I began to wonder. How many leaders from Vermont were invited to speak? I reviewed the list again and saw only the name of Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman. Okay. One. Then I wondered how many justice leaders from Vermont had been invited. Racial? None. Economic? None. LGBTQ? None. Immigrant rights? None. I read the article several times. Maybe I missed something? I thought progressive politics was about lifting the voices of common people. For a group that prides itself on grassroots organization, it seemed that this progressive event had forgotten its roots; the people of Vermont.
My heart began to sink as my curiosity grew. In his remarks, Senator Sanders said that this event was “not just to talk about economic issues, we’re here this weekend to be talking about racial and social justice. We’re here to be talking about ending, in all of its many and varied forms, institutional racism.”
How could Senator Sanders host what is supposed to be an intersectional, progressive event without inviting the very people whom he serves? If this is really about economic justice, where are the poor folks? If it is really about racial justice, why are there no local racial justice leaders? Chief Don Stevens of the Abenaki? Disability rights? Where is Justicia Migrante? I don’t see them on the list.
I had a hard time believing that Senator Sanders would overlook the very people he serves as people who could speak to the issues. I also know that the Senator’s people had no problem finding me to talk about race in Vermont the day before he met with NAACP President Derrick Johnson last May. But really, there are plenty of other leaders who could speak. Surely someone in Vermont had to have been invited and they just weren’t included in the article because, really. Who here compares to Danny Glover? So I took to social media and posted the article, tagging various justice leaders that I knew. No one knew about it. I asked groups like Rights and Democracy, who posted an article to advertise the event, if they would be speaking. I heard nothing. Even Kiah Morris, who was Vermont’s lone black woman in the legislature—that is, until the racist threats and harassment became so intolerable and intimidating that she not only had to withdraw from an uncontested race, but she stepped down from office just three months ago—was not invited.
I write this not to complain about the fact that none of us were invited; I write this to point out the hypocrisy of the situation. How do you say that you are a person of the people, how can you be “awoken”, in the words of Victor Lee Lewis, when you come home to Vermont to talk about justice and institutional oppression and don’t invite the very people your represent? In speaking with other folks, I learned that I am not the only one who has noticed this omission. We hope that we are missing something, but if we are not, this is a either a major oversight or just one more example of how institutional oppression looks, even among those who are progressive.
President, Rutland Area Branch of the NAACP
Steffen Glenn Gillom
President, Windham County Branch of the NAACP
Founder, Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools
Curtiss Reed, Jr.
Executive Director, Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity
Former State Representative
POC Caucus Coordinator, Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington
Organizer, Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington
Vermonters for Justice in Palestine
Member, BLM of Greater Burlington
Co-Coordinator BIPOC Caucus, Root Social Justice Center
Co-Coordinator, I am Vermont Too
Exectutive Director, Justice for All
Beverly Little Thunder
Activist, founder of Kunsi Keya Tamakoce, Peace and Justice Board Member
Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future
Community Organizer, ACLU of Vermont
Co-chair, Fair and Impartial policing committee of the Vermont State Police
Chair, Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel
Olivia Lapierre she/her
Environmental Justice Community Organizer
Chief of the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe
Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity