From left to right: Hawa Adam, Kiran Waqar, Balkisa Omar, Lena Ginawi
Slam poets Muslim Girls Making Change were invited to dine and perform last week at the Burlington Elks Lodge — where a club officer called the police on them. The teenagers have slammed the incident as racial profiling.
"This kind of stuff happens all the time and we're sick of it," member Kiran Waqar told Seven Days on Monday.
"Being a woman of color, I'm going to be getting all these experiences," said another one of the poets, Balkisa Omar.
The high schoolers were invited to a banquet hosted by the Women of UVM social group at the Elks Lodge on North Avenue last Wednesday. The quartet agreed to arrive early to help Omar with a school project. Since the event was scheduled to start at 6 p.m., the teenagers gathered at the back of the building, away from traffic, to do some audio recording.
"We were just talking a little bit, giggling ... average volume of four teenage girls," said Waqar. They were excited about their upcoming July trip to Minnesota, where they will join Michelle Obama and Colin Kaepernick in receiving awards from the National Education Association for their work in promoting human and civil rights.
At some point, a man later identified as lodge secretary Moe Decelles knocked on a window to get their attention, the young women recounted. A couple of minutes later, Decelles approached them and said, "I called the police on you. They're coming right now and I told them you're doing drugs," Waqar recalled.
Decelles told Seven Days on Tuesday that a meeting inside the lodge had already begun and the noise from outside was distracting the attendees and a speaker. He said he'd been told the "UVM president's wife" was scheduled to be the function's guest speaker and said he was unaware that the Muslim Girls Making Change were involved.
Decelles said he thought the teenagers had wandered over from Burlington High School, as students frequently cut through the lodge property.
"There were some girls outside of the building ... and they were giggling and laughing and jumping up and down, and the people in the room kept looking out and being distracted,” Decelles said. “So, I said, 'I’ll go out and talk to them.' I said to them, 'OK girls, you’ve got to move on. You’re distracting the people inside the building who are participating in this meeting.’"
He added, "And every one of them started saying, ‘Why do we have to go?’ Whatever it was, they were all talking at the same time, so I really couldn’t understand them that well. So I said 'Listen, you’ve gotta go, I just called the cops and told them you guys were doing drugs,'" he said.
"Now, I just said that to scare them and to move them along. I came into the building and did call the PD, but I didn’t mention drugs, I just said we have some disruptive people outside of the building and I’d like you to take a look at it."
Confused and shocked, the teenagers sought out Karen Costello, the Women of UVM's outgoing president. An officer from the Burlington Police Department arrived at the Elks Lodge and spoke with Costello, the teens said. Police Chief Brandon del Pozo confirmed an officer investigated a report of "children being disruptive on the property."
In a report, the officer wrote: "The Club was hosting an event and I met with the staff. They advised the children were guest speakers at the event and were merely trying to access the building."
The incident would have been a "non-story," Waqar said, had Decelles simply asked them who they were and what they were doing.
Decelles, who was helping set up and serve food, said he later ran into the girls inside the building and they "started saying how dissatisfied they were with what I did, and there was no reason why I should have done it."
"I said, 'Look, if I offended you, I’m sorry,'" he said.
The quartet nevertheless sat through dinner, performed some poems and held a Q&A session. "[Decelles] worked the rest of the night like it was no big deal," said Waqar.
When the quartet performed "Wake Up America," one of their most well-known poems, Omar said, she teared up because of its message of racism and Islamophobia. "I can't tape something to my forehead and [say], 'These are all my achievements,'" she continued. "Success won't stop you from having these experiences."
Told the young women considered the incident racial profiling, Decelles became upset.
"I could care if they were green, red or blue! It didn’t matter to me," he said. "They were disturbing the function. It had nothing to do with racial profiling, what kind of bullshit’s that? That wouldn’t even enter my thought process. It’s kind of upsetting. I think the whole thing is overblown, way out of proportion."
The high school seniors said they didn't publicize the incident on social media because they were afraid of possible repercussions. Two of their members — Omar and Lena Ginawi — will attend UVM in the fall.
Last Friday — two days after the incident — Cathy Morais, the new president of Women of UVM, and Costello emailed the Elks Lodge to express their "dismay" at how the young poets had been treated, emails the girls provided to Seven Days show. "This extreme overreaction on Mr. Decelles' part is totally unacceptable and should be addressed by your organization through sensitivity and diversity training," they wrote.
"We believe that your organization owes these young women a sincere apology. We are confident that your sense of justice will lead you to do the right thing and we await your prompt response," they wrote.
Randy Corey, the club's exalted ruler (or top officer) replied that he hadn't been informed of the incident. "Please accept my apologies [on] behalf of myself and the Lodge," he wrote back. "I will address this with the Lodge, [its] officers and Mr. Decelles personally."
Waqar described the follow-up actions as "pretty minimal." One email, she said, doesn't make a difference. "I haven't heard of any results."
Corey, Costello and Morais did not respond to requests for an interview.
Decelles told Seven Days he wouldn't have done anything differently. He said the young women never tried to tell him they were involved in the event and instead, "They just went into a rage, all four of them, all at the same time."
"If they would have said they were part of the group, we’re just resting, getting ready — something — but nothing of that nature was said," Decelles said.
He added: "It was an unfortunate event, and on behalf of the Elks, I do apologize."
Ginawi said the incident is a "perfect example of hidden racism" that's pervasive throughout Vermont. While many people praise the quartet, few have stepped up to help them continue to spread their message, she wrote in an email.
"Although what has happened was unacceptable, what we don’t want is people coming up to us and apologizing for what has happened to us," she wrote. "What we want is for people to take action and to do something to prevent this from ever happening again."