A self-proclaimed white nationalist accused of harassing former state representative Kiah Morris strode into the Congregation Beth El synagogue in Bennington during a press conference held Monday to announce the findings of a state probe into alleged racist acts against the ex-lawmaker.
Morris, a Bennington Democrat who is African American, cited years of racial harassment when she resigned from her position last fall before the end of her term.
The press conference went off the rails when Bennington resident Max Misch entered the room as Morris answered a television reporter's question about the AG's probe. Misch had been subject to a yearlong protective order in 2016 prohibiting him from contacting Morris over a series of racist tweets, messages and online comments he aimed at her.
Misch wore a black long-sleeve shirt bearing the image of alt-right icon Pepe the Frog. Many in the room began shouting "No, no, no!" and "Out!" when he arrived.
"This is not safe," one person shouted. "Why is this asshole allowed to come in here?" someone else in the crowd said.
"Because it's America," another attendee replied. "We have to listen to everyone, whether we like it or not. But we don't have to put up with it."
Attorney General T.J. Donovan stepped back to the podium and sought to regain control of the press conference. But Misch wasn't the only one who had come in protest.
"I call bullshit on Ms. Morris!" yelled Kevin Hoyt, an unsuccessful Republican House candidate, after nudging his way to the front of the packed congregation hall.
Kevin Hoyt, left, and Attorney General T.J. Donovan, right
Hoyt is a political critic of Morris who in September sought a protective order against Morris' husband, James Lawton, for social media posts by Lawton that Hoyt claimed caused others to falsely accuse him of being a Nazi. A judge rejected Hoyt's petition, the Bennington Banner reported.
"As a political opponent who was accused of being a Nazi, I think we're hearing one side of the story," Hoyt said. "I was called a Nazi, I was called a white supremacist. Obviously racism exists in Vermont ... I question to what degree, though."
The chaotic scene overshadowed what had been organized as a display of unity and commitment to address Morris' complaints, in part through rollout of a "bias incident" reporting system to help document discriminatory activity and aid victims in pursuing recourse. Twenty-five representatives from law enforcement, the Vermont legislature and social justice advocacy groups flanked Donovan.
Morris and Lawton stood behind Donovan and each spoke. Lawton read a list of racist comments directed at the pair online over the last two years, while Morris spoke about the "generational trauma" she and her ancestors endured.
"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," she said. "We did everything that we were told to do, reported everything, held nothing back and trusted in a system that, in the end, was insufficient and inept at addressing and repairing the harm done.
"In the end, we were told there was nothing to be done," Morris said.
Donovan had launched a probe shortly after Morris resigned her post, where she was one of the only women of color in the Vermont legislature. Morris dropped her reelection bid in August 2018. She then resigned abruptly on September 26, citing Lawton’s recent open-heart surgery and “continued harassment.”
Morris had previously declined to provide details about the specific harassment incidents she described. Morris told Seven Days last fall that she feared they would be dissected in isolation: "When we see these things in aggregate, we understand it," she said.
However, she has described the response by the Bennington Police Department to her reports as a “shoulder shrug.”
On Monday, Donovan simultaneously defended the Bennington police investigations as "consistent" with those of other local Vermont law enforcement agencies and asserted that Morris had been "a victim of racial harassment."
But none of the allegations made by Morris and Lawton since 2016 could be prosecuted, he said, either for lack of physical evidence or because they involve actions that are protected by the First Amendment.
The findings of the state probe were released Monday in a 10-page report. The report recounts every encounter between Morris and Lawton with law enforcement between March 2016 and October 2018.
The only confirmed racially motivated incidents in which Morris was targeted were a smattering of tweets and other online posts by Misch and others that the report characterizes as “clearly racist and extremely offensive.”
Misch resumed messaging Morris after a protective order she had gotten against him expired in late 2017. In a tweet in July 2018, Misch vowed to “troll the hell out of you and the other subversives there” every time Morris attends a political rally in the area.
Morris and Lawton also reported to authorities a bizarre burglary in October 2016. Lawton initially reported seeing men walking through the Morgan Street public cemetery near their home. Officers who arrived on the scene found several neckties in the cemetery, but no men.
After hearing about the necktie discovery, Lawton later told police he checked his basement, where he stored his necktie collection, and discovered that about 100 were missing. Police interviewed Morris and Lawton a month later. Morris reported that a GPS had been stolen from her vehicle and that someone had shot her political yard sign at her home with a paintball gun.
“The basement was not dusted for fingerprints or swabbed for DNA nor was the neighborhood canvassed to see if anyone else had seen anything suspicious,” The AG report states. “According to [BPD] Chief Doucette, this was not unusual for that sort of case.”
From then on, Lawton continued to report sightings of suspicious people in the cemetery. In one instance, Lawton called to report that he’d discovered footprints in the cemetery that he believed belonged to Misch. Nine months later, a suspicious vehicle Lawton had reported turned out to be a student conducting night photography.
Attorney General T.J. Donovan
Other incidents were obviously racially motivated, but the AG’s office found no evidence that the acts were directed at Morris.
They included a discovery by one of Morris’s neighbors of swastikas painted on trees along a trail that starts 0.4 miles from their home.
In explaining her resignation to Vermont Public Radio last fall, Morris alluded to propaganda left at the door of Vermont Democratic Party offices in Bennington. The AG’s report states that the material included anti-Hispanic and anti-semitic cartoons and a Trump campaign poster.
One other incident turned out to be a misunderstanding.
Lawton reported to authorities in July 2018 that someone had apparently hacked his laptop to change a username to read "dead dead.” An analysis eventually determined that the username had belonged to the laptop’s previous owner.
Vermont state police informed Morris and Lawton of that finding on October 10, two weeks after Morris resigned. Donovan said Monday that Lawton’s hacking suspicions were understandable, given the context of online racial harassment directed at the family.
Misch’s appearance seemed to underscore that point.