People gather for a vigil, after three Palestinian American students were shot near the University of Vermont campus, in Pliny Park in Brattleboro, Vt., on Nov. 27, 2023.
Photo: Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP
When a white man shot three Palestinian students in Burlington, Vermont, it struck much of America as the least likely place for the violence of Israel–Palestine to show its teeth. Vermont is peaceful. Vermont is civil. Vermont is tolerant. It had to be an aberration.
In fact, it turned out that Jason Eaton — the man charged with shooting Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ali Ahmad — is not a Vermonter. He’s from Syracuse, New York, just recently relocated to Burlington, where he bought the gun. He might not have had plans to stay. Yes, it had to be an aberration.
I have lived half-time in Vermont for 32 years. The home my partner and I share is on a dirt road in a small town in the rural Northeast Kingdom, which is about as far as you can get, economically, culturally, and politically, from where the shooting took place. Burlington, the quip goes, is lovely because it’s so near Vermont.
Avoiding confrontation can leave conflict, and injustice, to fester.
I know Vermont niceness. My daily life there is often eased by it. It’s pleasant to live in a low-crime state. As a New York Jew, however, I’m skeptical that being nice is an antidote to violence. If anything, the shooting — and Vermonters’ responses to it — illuminates the dark side of civility. To be civil is to hold your tongue to avoid confrontation. But avoiding confrontation can leave conflict, and injustice, to fester.
It should go without saying that Eaton was not driven to pull the trigger out of frustration with an excess of good manners surrounding him. Vermont did not make him do it. If we can learn anything from what happened there, though, it is that the only way to the other side of conflict is through conflict — not through war, but through politics.
Here in the frigid north, niceness can save your life, as when a stranger stops to dig your car out of a snowdrift in the middle of the night. It can also be tedious to the point of exasperation. What passes for a protest march is a quiet stroll to the statehouse lawn, where you stamp your cold feet and drink tea out of PFOA-free flasks. Speakers try to rouse the occasional desultory chant. People bring their dogs.
To a flatlander like me, Vermont niceness can be illegible. At the first local public meeting I attended, the issue — raising a bond to build a new school — was in hot dispute. But I later had to quiz my partner, a native Vermonter, about which side various speakers were on. That’s how restrained everybody was.
Over the decades, I’ve learned how important civility is to small town life. If you speak ill of your neighbor, word will get around, and it won’t be long before you run into her at the grocery store or are elected to serve on a town committee with her. What’s good about small communities is also what’s bad: Everyone knows you.
And if they don’t? After the shooting, a white recent transplant to Vermont wrote a New York Times op-ed exploring what it’s like to be Muslim, or Black or brown, in the Green Mountain State. Among the people he spoke to was Mia Schultz, the African American president of the Rutland area NAACP branch. To people of color, Schultz said, the shooting was horrific but not shocking. Sure, there’s overt racism in the state, she and other Vermonters of color told the writer, but mostly racism shows up by not showing its face. Life in Vermont can be like the film “Get Out.” The white people are really nice — until they aren’t.
“I know about people who go back to the South because, they say, at least I know what I’m encountering,” Schultz said. “I know how to navigate people who are outright hateful.”
To be different in a place where most everyone is the same is to be the object of both acute curiosity and invisibility, assiduous inclusion and institutional inequality. Vermont is proud of its four decades of refugee resettlement. The press frequently covers the state’s Somali, Kenyan, and other African immigrant communities; reporters like to include such exotic details as “women in kaleidoscopically patterned wrappas” and stores purveying “fufu flour.” The Association of Africans Living in Vermont — now AALV, which serves immigrants from everywhere — is so glutted with used furniture, clothes, and baby items that its website asks people to stop donating them. That’s a lot of attention paid to folks who comprise less than one-eighth of Vermont’s 8,000 resident refugees and even a smaller handful of Vermont immigrants overall. Among the 27,000-plus foreign-born Vermonters, almost half come from Europe and Canada; in 2021, 3.6 percent were African.
A friend told me that when her African-born Black son was little, he was in frequent demand for photo shoots and other public displays of Vermont “diversity.” Now that he’s big, he’s just another Black teenager. The African American children of Black African immigrants are arrested, detained, and transferred from juvenile to criminal courts at highly disproportionate rates compared to their white counterparts. And it’s not just the cops who exhibit racism. The shooting of those three brown men has scared the shit out of my friend’s kid.
Niceness is not always a cover for outright hatred; not every velvet glove has an iron fist inside it. But civility can work to deny or minimize bigotry, and paper over injustice. I once found myself sipping wine on a porch with a woman who had met the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist at a soiree on the lake where he summered. “Bill” was gracious and funny, she trilled, and “so brilliant!”
I felt obliged to remind this woman of the judge’s career, dedicated to upholding America’s status quo, circa 1864: the minority opinions in Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, the expediting of death-row appeals and executions. Of course, institutional racism and lethal injection rarely come up over drinks at that lake — where, by the way, Rehnquist and other homeowners signed deeds containing a covenant that prohibited lease or sale to persons of “the Hebrew race.” All true, the woman finally said, perhaps taken aback by my Hebrew aggressiveness. “But he was nice.”
And of course, not everyone is nice all the time. One Fourth of July, a man painted a swastika on a store window on Main Street in our town. Later that day, somebody from something calling itself the Ethan Allen Coalition phoned The Associated Press and claimed responsibility. The coalition’s statement railed against “the welfare and the gays,” as well as “Hollywood Jews, [who] are to blame for everything wrong with law and order in society.” It declared: “We want Vermont for ourselves. We want it back.” The language presaged the “Take Back Vermont” campaign that slimed the state after the legalization of same-sex civil unions in 2006.
The swastika was not ignored. Over 15 complaints were called in to the police. The local paper ran a strong editorial. But the more common response was that of the police officer on duty, who ordered the symbol removed. Then he pronounced the swastika “in very bad taste” and “bizarre,” adding: “It’s important people realize this is not a reflection of the community.” Which community was he referring to? Was I a part of it?
Three college students — from the left, Tahseen Ali Ahmad, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Hisham Awartani — were shot by gunman Jason Eaton in Burlington, Vt.
Photo: Courtesy of Abed Ayoub via AP
I’m not suggesting that our town is a nest of secret racists. It’s not. Still, when I wrote an op-ed for the Times about the event and my experiences of antisemitism in Vermont, my suspicion was confirmed that that the cop’s “community” did not include me. The few other Jews in town were eager to discuss the piece, not always concurring, but thanking me for writing it. I heard other opinions only second and thirdhand. They boiled down to: Why did she have to publicize this unpleasantness? Or, less diplomatically, Who does she think she is? Niceness precluded conversation or, God forbid, confrontation. And that kept the insiders in and the outsiders out.
Civility cloaks bigotry, but it does not eliminate it. “Take Back Vermont” echoed off the mountains again during the 2010 gubernatorial race between Republican Brian Dubie and Democrat Peter Shumlin. Both were born and bred Vermonters, Dubie from Burlington and Shumlin from the crunchy berg of Brattleboro — neither, that is, from the small rural towns that dot the state’s landscape. Because Shumlin was running on the promise of single-payer health care, which had a chance of working, the GOP called in the pros to juice Dubie’s campaign with some disinformation and mild bigotry. The slogan they came up with was “Pure Vermont.”
Dubie bumbled dutifully through. He called the legislature’s health care consultant William Hsiao — a renowned expert and U.S. citizen born in mainland China — “a doctor from Taiwan” invading “a small little state in New England.” At one debate, Dubie waved around a list allegedly containing the names of child pornographers and drug dealers Shumlin would release under a plan to transfer nonviolent prisoners to community supervision. “Pure Vermont” was not meant to evoke maple syrup.
And if Dubie’s Vermont was pure, the large-nosed half-Jewish Shumlin was portrayed as ethically wily (code for Jewish) and “slick” (code for urban, which is code for Jewish or Black). When a Dubie supporter paraded in front of Democratic Party headquarters sporting a huge swastika, the campaign staff dismissed the man as “childish” and his acts as “theater and jokes and games.” Finally, Dubie clarified his position: “Well, first of all, I don’t support swastikas.”
The dog whistles were clear enough. Nevertheless, the press tiptoed around any intimations of racism. A prominent radio host even asked the candidates to pledge not to attack each other. Frustrated by reporters’ reluctance to get their shoes dirty covering what one of them called the “circus” of politics, a white-hat lobbyist wrote that “the media are acting like they don’t want to offend anybody.” He did not mention who else might be silenced by this disinclination to offend, or be offended, on someone else’s behalf.
In a small community, civility keeps the peace. But too much civility, when it comes at the expense of conflict, upholds injustice and fail to address violence.
Right now, in the U.S., our biggest worry is that violence is demolishing democracy. Former Sen. Mitt Romney told the journalist McKay Coppins that Congress members refrained from voting for Donald Trump’s impeachment in fear for their families’ safety. Election workers, relentlessly harassed and threatened by the MAGA hordes, are resigning. The common response is to call for more civility.
Vermont is thick with people working for racial, economic, and gender justice, and they’ve achieved legislation to make it concrete. As everywhere, there’s a distance to go. But civility will have nothing to do with getting there. The avoidance of conflict does not end conflict. Instead, it preempts politics before politics can begin, and that, paradoxically, makes violence more likely.
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