Political leaders in Burlington are speaking out against the anti-Semitic rhetoric used in a flyer passed out at Monday evening's city council meeting.
Burlington Police have determined that distributing the flyer wasn't a crime. They announced Tuesday afternoon that they won’t pursue criminal action against a woman they suspect of distributing the flyers, adding that she is believed to have mental illness.
Police say they plan to work with HowardCenter staff to refer the woman to mental health services.
The flyer refers to Mayor Miro Weinberger's "Jewish demolition team" and warns of a "white Christian genocide."
It takes issue with Weinberger's plan to redevelop Burlington's downtown mall and allow new student housing for Champlain College near downtown.
If you're still wondering what this has to do with Jewish people, or a white genocide, you're not alone.
Kelly Devine, the executive director of the Burlington Business Association, said the flyer “just didn't seem to make perfect sense what was being said.”
Devine is the only person other than Weinberger who was named in the flyer.
Her name was at the top of a list of the components of Weinberger's so-called "Jewish demolition team," and it's no secret that she is a strong supporter of Weinberger's plans for Burlington's downtown.
The flyer called Devine a "Jewish princess with all the answers."
She said she hasn't received many messages attacking her personally, even from people who strongly disagree with her public positions, but she also said the discourse around the plan to redevelop Burlington's downtown mall has gotten pretty ugly.
In one case, someone Photoshopped the head of the mall's owner, Don Sinex, onto the body of President-elect Donald Trump.
“When I see the dialogue going in that direction, it really concerns me because what are we saying — what are we trying to say to the community about the people that are in it?” Devine said.
Devine said she did feel unsafe when she first heard about the flyer, but she wasn't worried after she spoke to Burlington Police and they told her she wasn’t in danger.
She noted that, for the most part, people who disagree with her have voiced their disagreement without resorting to personal attacks. She said there are plenty of examples of people in Burlington engaging with each other in a productive way, even when they disagree.
“A great example I can think of is: At one of the city council meetings around the Town Center [mall redevelopment], Councilor [Joan] Shannon had received a lot of negative commentary and some personal attacks on social media to talk about why she was supportive of the project,” Devine said. “And then she was ill, and the members of the opposition took the time to send her a card.”
City Council President Jane Knodell said the flyer was an attack on the American values of liberty and justice for all.
“This kind of hate speech undermines the feelings of liberty that the targeted population has, which in this case was Jewish members of our community,” she said.
Knodell said one of the most difficult parts about the flyer was the fact that it wasn’t signed or attributed to anyone.
“You can’t engage anybody in that way, so that’s kind of the frustrating side of it,” she said. “I’d like to sit down and talk to this person, you know? And really try to understand where they’re coming from, to the extent that would be possible – maybe it would not be possible. It’s the anonymity of it that’s frustrating.”
Much of the news coverage of the flyer emerged after Chief Brandon del Pozo issued a statement about it Tuesday morning saying police were investigating.
In the release, Del Pozo condemned the flyer as an "attempt to highjack our democratic process."
But even on Tuesday afternoon, after the police announced that there was nothing criminal happening, del Pozo made no apologies for making an issue of it.
He says that's because the police aren't just about enforcing laws and making arrests. They do other stuff too, like finding missing people and pets or helping people in mental health crises.
“And it's because there's a value in society towards solving certain problems,” he said. “And the issue of hate speech, hateful speech that comes right up to the level of legality but doesn't cross it, like, that's a problem in our society today.”
Del Pozo says it's important for people to talk about and report incidents of hate speech, because even if police don't make an arrest, it gives the community a chance to respond.