The banner was raised in late July 2020 and remained up for months with a few periods where it was down for repairs from wind damage.
Schneider, a former select board member, presented the request from the anti-racism group asking to put the banner up for 30 days this fall and again for another 30-day stretch in 2022.
The request went to the board because the banner does not announce an event, so it would require an exception to the banner policy. For the same reason, the board in 2020 heard and approved the initial request to hang the banner.
Select Board Chair Mark Frier was absent from the Oct. 4 meeting, so Vice Chair Chris Viens ran the meeting.
Town Manager Bill Shepeluk cautioned the board about approving the request to allow an organization – in this case, WAARC – to fly a non-event banner.
“I think it would be better if you said that the town wants to fly this banner and make this statement and then it’s the town’s statement,” Shepeluk said. “I think if you allow organizations to put up banners to promote their interests, then you have to allow every organization to do that, and there may be plenty of organizations out there that you don’t want to be putting their speech up.”
Viens followed with a question that touched off an hour-long debate and discussion among board members with audience members weighing in as well.
“When you make the statement ‘the town,’ what does that mean?” he asked the town manager.
Shepeluk answered that it would mean the board speaking for the community. “You are elected representatives of the town of Waterbury,” he replied.
An hour-long debate
The discussion then encompassed whether the banner represents a political statement, whether it’s the town government’s role to fly a banner, and whether a decision in this case could set a precedent that would commit town officials later to approve requests from other groups.
Board member Dani Kehlmann said she didn’t believe saying yes to this request would mean every organization’s request must be approved. “We get to vote and decide … should another organization or another banner come, we get to vote and we get to say no,” she said. “As a representative of the town, I would love to see that banner up saying that we believe that black lives matter.”
Kehlmann said that when the banner was up previously, she heard positive feedback that it conveyed a message of safety, well-being and welcome to “folks who come here, live here, work here.”
Viens was skeptical. “What are goals and objectives of this banner? How does it represent other people of minority or other people period?” he asked.
“I’m wondering if we’re starting to walk down a slippery slope. It is a political issue in my opinion, and quite honestly the taxpayers’ dollars go towards operating the municipality and taking care of the municipality’s business. I don’t believe it’s the business of the municipality to get into social issues. I think we need to stay in our lane,” he said.
Viens then related several anecdotes. “When are we going to erase all this issue of who’s different than who and just treat people the way they need to be treated?” he asked.
Kehlmann agreed that equal treatment is a goal. “But I think we have work to do to get there, and erasing it and not talking about it as elected officials in the town I don’t think is the way to go about it,” she replied.
Viens noted that the board last year adopted a statement that addresses racism and discrimination. The board last summer at the urging of WAARC adopted an official town Declaration of Inclusion that’s posted on the home page of the town’s official website, waterburyvt.com.
Town Clerk Carla Lawrence read the statement in the meeting: “Waterbury condemns racism and welcomes all people, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, age, or disability, and will protect these classes to the fullest extent of the law. As a town, we formally condemn discrimination in all of its forms and commit to fair and equal treatment of everyone in our community. Waterbury has and will continue to be a place where individuals can live freely and express their opinion.”
An alternate suggestion
Viens suggested that the declaration be put on a banner. He turned to then ask WAARC member Maroni Minter, whom he already had mentioned several times up to that point of the meeting. Minter was attending on Zoom. Viens asked what he thought of a banner with the declaration on it. Minter thanked him for the chance to comment and pushed back on whether the “Waterbury Stands with Black Lives Matter” banner message is political.
Although the Black Lives Matter movement came to the forefront last year after the killing in Minnesota by police of George Floyd, a Black man, it actually was formed in 2013, Minter noted, “dedicated to fighting racism and anti-black violence especially in the form of police brutality.”
Minter added: “Black people are far more likely to be killed by police in the United States than white people and far more than any other marginalized community.”
Minter, who helped organize WAARC last year, urged the board to vote on the banner request which he emphasized came from the group. “I am not WAARC. This is a group of people. We have 300 members. Please stop making this about me and you,” he told Viens.
Minter and Viens have clashed publicly over the past year as WAARC members have criticized public statements by Viens as being racist and calling on him and the entire board to increase their awareness of issues around racism and discrimination. The board in recent months has held several training sessions with a racial equity consultant on the topic and is looking to schedule another soon.
Viens last year stepped down as board chair after Minter organized a petition calling for Viens to resign from the board. Viens in March was made vice chair when the board reorganized its leadership following the March Town Meeting Day election.
Board member Mike Bard weighed in to return the discussion to the banner request saying he supports the Black Lives Matter movement. “Black people, people of color, a lot of minorities … there’s been a lot of mistreatment over history, that’s totally undeniable,” he said. “The slippery slope is …What happens if a group of white supremacists came before us and asked us to fly something? There would be a big uproar if we even considered to do that.”
Kehlmann called that example “a false dichotomy” and repeated her belief that the board could choose. “We keep saying if we fly one we have to fly another. [That] takes away our power as a board. We have a voice. We have voting power. We also get to have input from the town,” she said.
Shepeluk agreed that the board could vote, but he urged the group to consider getting legal advice before granting a group’s request to hang a message banner.
“If you want to pass a motion tonight that the town flies the Black Lives Matter banner for 30 days, I agree you can do that right now,” he said. “If you allow WAARC to fly it, then if another group comes in and wants to fly something that you find distasteful, I think you will have a difficult time saying no to that.”
Schneider spoke up to reiterate his request and defend it as a statement of values. “The Black Lives Matter banner statement is not political. ‘Defund the police?’ That’s about a policy. That’s political. This is about valuing members of the community,” Schneider said. “On Town Meeting Day, we vote as a community all kinds of values. We vote against domestic violence. … We vote to support kids who are abused… We do that all the time.”
Schneider suggested that just as community groups request funding from the town budget, WAARC could request a vote at Town Meeting on whether the banner should be flown.
Several audience members attending in person weighed in.
“When I see a sign that says ‘Black Lives Matter,’ my first thought is all lives do matter,” Elizabeth Walton said, addressing Schneider. “I’m not sure, sir, that you would be OK with my putting a banner up that says ‘all lives matter’ or ‘Waterbury supports all lives matter’ because it’s become politicized…. I believe it’s hurting our country that there’s so much propaganda saying that Americans don’t care about other Americans.”
Jocelyn DePaolis said she was speaking as a biracial woman who was happy last year to see the formation of WAARC and hoped it would address all forms of anti-racism activism mentioning anti-Asian and anti-Semitic racism.
But she said she was disappointed in the group’s focus on the Black Lives Matter messaging. “I don’t think it works for everyone,” she said adding that she opposes flying the banner. “To me, a political banner has no place in our town that will exclude some rather than being inclusive for everyone,” she said.
LeeAnne Viens, whose spouse is Chris Viens, took issue with the “Waterbury stands” phrasing of the WAARC banner. “Who is ‘Waterbury’? I am a resident. I do have a say,” she said. “I don’t stand by Black Lives Matter any more than I stand with the Ku Klux Klan. I don’t stand with anyone. I stand for all. Everyone’s equal. That’s it. That’s what your Declaration of Inclusion says. Did something change that makes us not think that all lives matter?”
Board member Katie Martin then returned to the suggestion that the board create its own banner, suggesting it work with WAARC members to choose wording from the declaration to put on it. Other board members discussed and supported that idea.
Waterbury state legislator Rep. Theresa Wood was in the audience and asked the board to clarify its intentions. She said she would be “delighted if the town does something with its statement” but pointed out that the banner request was a separate matter.
“The town deciding to do something on its own is not the same as responding to the request from WAARC,” Wood said.
Ultimately, the board opted to table the banner request and agreed to the town manager’s suggestion that it get a legal opinion on sanctioning organizations to hang message banners on the town’s banner frame.
Minter after the meeting said he still would like to see the board give WAARC a clear answer to its request. “I want them to vote on it,” he said. “It will tell people who they are.”
Given that WAARC encouraged the board to adopt the Declaration of Inclusion, Minter said there likely would be support in the group for a banner promoting the statement. Members might even have suggestions on designing it, he added.
Reached after the meeting, board Chair Frier said he was disappointed to see how the discussion went.
“This isn’t a crazy idea,” he said of the banner request. “There are plenty of examples of other towns showing support for African-Americans in their communities.”
Frier said there still isn’t a clear understanding of the banner’s message. “I believe a lot of it is education… It’s not that other lives don’t matter,” he said.
He acknowledged that there are multiple aspects of this for the board to consider. One is the policy regarding the banners that hang on the frame beside the town offices and whether exceptions should be made for non-event messages; another is how to decide the specific request from WAARC; another is whether the board wants to make a town banner using language from the inclusion declaration. Frier said he also was concerned at how quickly the meeting discussion became polarized and charged.
“I struggle with how to navigate this,” he said. “I want to make decisions to bring the community together.”
Frier said he would like to talk with WAARC members about how to bring about more education and awareness in the community for the meaning intended by the banner’s message.
As for the request to hang it again, Frier said, “I’m happy to revisit it.”
The banner policy is on the agenda for Monday night’s select board meeting starting at 7 p.m. The board meets in person in the Steele Room at the town offices. The meeting is also accessible via Zoom for people to watch and participate remotely. The agenda with a link to connect is posted online at waterburyvt.com.
Also for Monday is an update from the town’s CVFiber representatives, an interview to fill an opening on the Cemetery Commission, consideration to close Randall Street for Halloween trick-or-treating, and discussion of the entertainment ordinance.
A recording of the Oct. 4 meeting is online at ORCAmedia.net. Due to a technical glitch, the video begins with the meeting in progress.
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