Vermont House Members Challenged Over Comments Made During Black Lives Matter Discussion

Feb 14, 2018

Last week the Vermont House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing “the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. and Vermont Black communities.”

But Rep. Kiah Morris, a Democratic lawmaker from Bennington, told Vermont Edition she was stunned by some of her colleagues’ comments made before and after the resolution was passed.

Morris says there were those who criticized the resolution and the Black Lives Matter movement as divisive, “instead of the actual oppression and systemic racism itself as being the deciding factor for what’s creating this chasm.”

She says some people who came to witness the vote left in tears after hearing some lawmakers’ comments, because they felt they were an attempt to invalidate their own experiences as people of color living in Vermont.

“One of the things that’s easy for us to do, when we want to cling to a notion of color blindness, is an inability to see that a person’s experience can be vastly different from another,” says Morris.

“And an unwillingness to see me, as a black woman, and understanding that my experiences as a black woman, as a peer, that you work with every day in this building … that there are very real pains and struggles that I know, that I have experienced, that my family has experienced, that my people have experienced, that Vermonters are experiencing, that are different.”

Morris declined to single out specific comments, but, in the Vermont Edition interview, was asked about two statements.

Republican Rep. Robert Frenier, of Chelsea, who voted against the resolution said he was “happy to affirm the humanity of every American, in fact every human being, but I cannot concur with the assertion in this resolution that African-Americans face 'deadly oppression.'"

Morris called the comment “completely ignorant of the real lived experience of black Americans, of people of color in this state.”

Another lawmaker, Republican Rep. Vicki Strong, of Albany, who voted for the resolution, stated: “I would like to acknowledge the disproportionate number of black unborn children that have been aborted in our country that would have been included in the number of black lives that matter.”

“That’s how we distract ourselves from the conversation,” says Morris in response.

“If we can have this happen here, in our House, you know without a doubt it is happening everywhere in Vermont. It is happening within our workplaces, it is absolutely happening in our schools and our communities. So you either swallow it and you deal with it or you confront it and you change it. And that’s really what we’re trying to do,” Morris said.

The resolution was approved on a 130-6 vote.

In response to an email from VPR, Rep. Robert Frenier said, "Rep. Morris is entitled to her opinions but her charge of racism is too casually made. If you failed to challenge her on the accuracy of the statements in the resolution, which is what I did, you might want to think about your role as a reporter. Too many decent people from both parties thanked me for my comments by saying what "courage" it took to make them. What a sad comment on public discourse that is."

Update 2/15/2018 12:07 p.m. This post was updated to include the response from Rep. Frenier.

A condensed version of this interview was broadcast live on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018 at noon, and rebroadcast at 7 p.m.