Updated: January 14, 2019 07:13 PM
Created: January 14, 2019 01:00 AM
BENNINGTON, VT - In a community well known for taking a stand and making a difference in American history, Bennington, Vermont has now become a battleground for free speech.
"For two years, we lived in my husband's childhood home, feeling unsafe, never sleeping peacefully because we had to be vigilant," said Kiah Morris, a former Vermont House member, who dropped her bid for a third term in August 2018, citing continued harassment.
Morris used to be the only black lawmaker in the Vermont Legislature.
"We did everything we were told to do," Morris stated. "We reported as we should, held nothing back and trusted in a system that was insufficient and inept at addressing and repairing the harm done."
Police responded to complaints by Morris or her family at least 16 times in the last two years, according to records at the Bennington Police Department. Those incidents range from suspicious vehicles parked in the nearby cemetery, to kids knocking on their doors and windows at night, to racially-charged social media messages.
"Over a two year period, Kiah Morris was a victim of online harassment," Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan told a packed news conference Monday morning at the Temple Beth El Synagogue in Bennington.
After a lengthy investigation, Donovan says he won't prosecute anyone for what he calls "vicious and hateful" rhetoric.
"Speech is protected, even when it's offensive, hurtful, and demeaning," Donovan asserted. "In regard to the threats against Kiah Morris, I find the statements presented in this matter, while racist, insulting and degrading, but are not subject to prosecution."
That conclusion didn't sit well with Tabitha Pohl-Moore, President of the Rutland-area NAACP.
"Our system fully acknowledges she faced horrific racism, but we cannot legally hold the people responsible?" Pohl-Moore stated. "That seems wrong. It is wrong."
Donovan used the gathering to launch a new statewide "Bias Incident Reporting System" so that local police and prosecutors can share reports of bias for potential investigation and remedy.
Meanwhile, when the man who made threatening on-line remarks to Morris, barged into Monday's news conference, members of the public blocked his entry, and law enforcement ushered him to the exit.
"This is generational trauma," Morris said, "One which remains ever present for those of us whose very survival is linked to these human atrocities."
Beginning next month, Donovan will begin a series of community forums throughout Vermont, to engage people on ways to identify, prevent, and better respond to hate crimes and bias incidents. Dates and locations will soon be up on the Attorney General's website.
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