Open Letter to the Burlington City Council and Mayor Weinberger

Members of Burlington City Council

Response to Burlington Police Department Excessive Use of Force

20 May 2019

The latest tragedy in the pattern of racially disparate practices of the Burlington Police Department (BPD) is a symptom of a larger problem – the inability or unwillingness to effectively address overt and systemic racism in Burlington, across the state and the nation. African Americans are still engaged, arrested, convicted and incarcerated at disproportionate rates in Vermont and the data tells us that BPD and the Chittenden County States Attorney are leading contributors to this unfair truth.

In addition to the destruction of lives, the breakdown of trust and a diminishing public safety posture, unconstitutional policing distracts us from the problem of which it is only part. The Vermont Attorney General and the Human Rights Commission Task Force, Act 54, (2017) Racial Disparities in State Systems Report (Act 54 State Systems Report) indicated that “In addition, and likely related to the income disparities, racial disparities have been documented in each of the areas identified in Act 54 (education, labor and employment, housing, healthcare and economic development).”

Last year Vermont adopted Act 9 (2018, special session) a law creating a Racial Equity Director (and Panel) with cabinet level authority.  The stated legislative intent of the General Assembly is “to promote racial justice reform throughout the State by mitigating systemic racism in all systems of State government and creating a culture of inclusiveness.” Burlington, the largest city in Vermont with the largest number of African Americans is faced with a unique responsibility.  Burlington must take decisive steps to dismantle systemic racism and aggressively respond to ALL forms of overt racism – not distract us with petty defenses of what we all know to be one of many symptoms of this nation’s original sin.

The Weinberger administration’s efforts towards equity and diversity seem largely perfunctory and have been relegated to “initiatives” buried under the Community Economic Development Office with no individual accountability.  The 2018 “EquityReport”, with no mention of the Diversity and Equity Strategic Plan fails to communicate vitally important disaggregated race demographics data required to measure progress towards equity and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee has disbanded. 

It is now time for the “conspicuously courageous leadership” referred to in the Strategic Plan five years ago. It is time for elected officials to give consideration to expending the “hard earned political capitol” spoke of in the report to bring about change through meaningful community engagement.  As the report suggested, this engagement must encompass “residents from historically marginalized communities who see themselves – and are seen as – full partners in the decision-making, program-planning, and policy-making processes that impact their lives in significant and sustained ways”.

The Act 54 State Systems Report explains, “Addressing these issues also furthers other state goals. To the extent that People of Color are the fastest growing demographic in the state, taking steps to be more inclusive in all aspects of our state systems will further economic growth in a time when our workforce is rapidly aging. In other words, equality of opportunity is good for everyone, White, Black and Brown.” A little over a year later Governor Scott pointed out in his 2019 Budget Address that “we need more tax payers, not more taxes”. 

Maybe the Governor was trying to tell us something when it was within this context that he reminded us to be mindful of “how we treat each other” in our communities; to “reject hate and anger” in our interactions; and to have the “courage to do what is right as opposed to what is easy”.  Now it is the time for Burlington to do our part.  History has taught us that racism doesn’t just go away and privilege always finds safety in silence.

Today, we need a concerted effort of community, elected and appointed officials and organizations to bring about the change to enable us to dismantle systemic in Burlington.  We call on the Weinberger administration to bring the full bear of city’s resources in addressing these efforts:

·      Establish the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee as a standing committee of the city council, charged with oversight of the implementation of the Equity Strategic Plan.  

·      Create an Office of Racial Equity and Civil Rights, charged with addressing matters surrounding systemic racism mitigation and civil rights.

·      Create an Inclusion and Racial Equity Commission comprised of impacted community members appointed by the city council to ensure stakeholder ownership.

Governor Scott concluded his 2019 budget speech with these words: “The best comes when we are guided by our core beliefs.”  It is our hope that our collective core beliefs enable us to make Burlington a place where African Americans are not just safe.  Burlington, Vermont must be a place where African Americans, just as all people thrive and prosper and there is justice for all. 

Mark A. Hughes
Executive Director
Justice For All
t: @Mark_A_Hughes