Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts

On Monday, January 14th, the Vermont Attorney General announced the findings of their investigation in to the ongoing harassment and terrorism that my family has endured over the last few years, including acts by racist, white nationalists. Their conclusion was that ultimately, the right to free speech supersedes the right to human dignity and freedom from terrorism. Many legal observers believe there were other charges under current Vermont law that were not applied, but the sole focus was on the legality of hate speech. This is a decision that has rocked our little state and shocked observers from throughout the nation. Much of the pain centers on the knowledge that marginalized peoples are consistently required to endure great injustices, humiliation and the diminishment of their humanity in favor of the rule of law. In my circumstance, an avowed neo-nazi and his supporters were affirmed in their right to terrorize anyone they choose to as they choose and protected in their right to enter a synagogue (where the press conference was held) wearing firearms - little more than two months after a massacre occurred at a house of worship in Pittsburgh. What some did not see, were the courageous people who used their bodies and coats to block my stalker from public view. They sang hymns and freedom songs while challenging him directly until I and others could be moved to safety. Friend, fierce advocate and warrior Sha’an Mouliert had this to say about the event on her Facebook page:

“This morning I attended the press conference to witness Neo Nazi Max Misch, the man who harassed Kiah and caused her to resign, surrounded by people holding their coats up like angel wings singing "This Little Light of Mine.” I joined them, sans wings, and joyfully sang one verse while locking eyes with him. As Black woman whose head was wrapped in a Gele, singing one her favorite songs to a Neo Nazi at Beth El Congregation was beyond liberating.“

What we know, is that our laws change when the dominant structures in power are forced to recognize needed shifts in our moral compass and implement radical societal equity. The time is now. My remarks at the press conference are below:

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Thank you everyone for being here and thank you to everyone who has supported us through this process. As you know, I wrote an editorial to try and capture our gratitude, love and hope for our community and state, but words will never suffice the enormity of our hearts.

In June, 1964, the members of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi made the crucial decision that they would become a site of a Freedom School. Freedom schools were central hubs of learning designed to activate local youth in the resistance movement for racial and civil rights through exceptional education and training in protest strategies. Freedom schools were an integral part of the Freedom Summer activities that promoted mass voter registration and the Freedom Riders non-violent protests that we all are familiar with.

Reports of widespread and violent responses to the resistance in the United States were prevalent in those days. Church burnings, acts of terrorism, mass lynchings and grotesque police brutality were every day occurrences. Yet in the depths of the rural south, a community decided to risk it all to do what their faith compelled them to do. They made the deliberate choice to engage in direct action in a fight for our nation’s very soul.  This small church, at the end of a dirt road, attended by African-Americans who were prepared to stand up and be counted. In essence, they committed their house of God into a place that would do God’s work towards the liberation of all people, knowing fully their resistance would bring violence in mockery of the light of their faith.

My great-grandfather, JR “Bud” Cole was a deacon at Mt. Zion United Methodist  Church. The violence came as expected. A massive convoy of Klansmen looking for “white traitors,” who might be aiding the all black church came to the house of worship as they filtered outside at the end of a standard church business meeting. The mob forced them out of their cars and beat my great-grandfather nearly to death while his wife Beatrice watched in horror. The men also beat a grandmother and her young grandson who as they tried to escape. My great-grandmother dropped to her knees and shouted out fervent prayers to the heavens for the violence to cease.  She prayed as it was all she knew to do.  She said, “Father I stretch my hands to thee, no other help I know. If thou withdraw thyself from me, where else can I go?” Stunned, the men stopped the beating, but then proceeded to burn the church down to the ground.

In our family, we say that it was my great-grandmother’s prayers that made those men cease the violent attempted murder of her husband and others there. Some days later, my great-grandfather would receive only rudimentary first aid by local doctors and as a result became permanently disabled from the injuries with a near total loss of use of his leg for the rest of his life.

Just a few days later, civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andy Goodman were called to Philadelphia to bear witness and to support the investigation into the act of terrorism. My great-grandparents would host them in their home, feed their bodies and spirits and share their stories of what happened. Shortly after, the Mississippi Klan would gather that night, following a tip, in collusion with local police to find the three young men, arrest and detain them. A mob of well-dressed, white men who were local leaders, business owners, and farmers would remove them from the jail and proceed to murder them execution-style. The story of the murders was fictionalized in the movie Mississippi Burning

This is generational trauma, one which remains ever present for those of us whose very survival is linked to these human atrocities. We do not forget the architects of these acts. We do not forget the names of the organizations who espouse beliefs and put into action campaigns of terror. We do not forget the symbols. We do not forget the words used as weapons. This memory is long and necessary.

I stand before you today on the shoulders of my ancestors who risked their lives to demand and end to willful ignorance of our issues of racism, bias and bigotry and the moral costs they extract from our society and the soul of our communities, state and nation.

All of the accounts of what happened to me and my family over the years are enormous in scale and historically rooted in a legacy of white supremacy, misogyny and inequity. I will say that again: All of the accounts of what happened to me and my family over the years are enormous in scale and historically rooted in a legacy of white supremacy, misogyny and inequity.

We did everything we were told to do, reported as we should, held nothing back and trusted in a system that was insufficient, and inept at addressing and repairing the harm done. In the end we were told that there was nothing to be done. Essentially, our legal system, told us, that what was happening was acceptable. That for some members of our society, we endorse this behavior, these dialogues, this acerbic vitriol, the defamation, the blatant lies, the intimidation, the silencing and the lethality upon our lives. Our judicial system, quite literally told marginalized peoples that engaging on any level with those who harm us disqualifies us from its protections. That we are complicit in our abuse. That I was deserving of no protection, support or empathy for my very humanity.

For two years, we lived in my husband’s childhood home feeling unsafe. Never sleeping peacefully because we had to be vigilant.  Learning over time the conversations at the local gas station, at private clubs, downtown businesses and places we once felt welcome in that spoke my name in hateful tones, spread repugnant rumors and stoked the flames of those who wished me and my family harm on a daily basis.

These larger acts are but manifestation of the complexities of how racism, bias and discrimination show up in our lives every day. Those of us impacted engage in a minimization of the impacts for our very survival. It is death by a thousand paper cuts and no one wants to live in that headspace every day. So you dismiss much of it, rationalize it away, and look for the escape route away from the ugly truth about it all.

We did that. When I reflect on the day that the image came up on my husband’s computer, we didn’t have much of a reaction at first. It was a numbness and confusion. I am blessed that as a legislator, I had access to attorneys who had been advising me about the increased harassment at hand. It was their suggestion that I take it seriously, that my life is worth it and that action should be taken. They appropriately advocated for my family’s safety and were willing to recognize that for all appearances we were in danger. My friends and neighbors do not have that same support in their every day lives.

It unfortunately needs to be said: I am not the cause of racism in our state. Our local, regional and state, economic challenges cannot be laid at my feet. It is not on me to make everyone whole again. Nor is it my burden to help us all heal from this moment. That is your work today.

Since this journey began, so many from throughout the state have been willing to dive in and get to work to address these issues. Workshops, dialogues, reading groups, planning teams, task force groups and more are developing all over the state to tackle this moment. Because the work is not done and is still in its infancy, we look to each of you to do the work, and have the courage to rise up and dive in. Do this work for all of us. The soul of our state in your hands. Take good care with it.

Kiah Morris