Seventeen members of the Vermont House — all white Republicans — opposed a resolution commemorating the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth on Friday. Several of those who voted against the measure criticized its authors for including in it a line referring to President Donald Trump's rhetoric as "highly inflammatory and racist."
"Today, Madame Speaker, you have allowed this body to sink to a new low," Rep. Bob Bancroft (R-Westford) told House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero). Bancroft said that, while he had not voted for Trump and frequently disagreed with the president, he was "ashamed" of the House for adopting a "divisive and politically inflammatory" resolution.
"I'm embarrassed that this body has descended into a political gutter," Bancroft said.
The resolution, authored by Rep. Kevin "Coach" Christie (D-Hartford) and cosponsored by a majority of his colleagues, pays homage to Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when slaves in the Confederate state of Texas were finally declared free. It also describes the recent death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police, and names six other people of color who died in similar circumstances. It declares that Vermonters of color have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic and are "subject to disparate law enforcement treatment."
Christie, who is Black, said he offered the resolution "with mixed emotions, celebration and sadness" and called it critical to remember that systemic racism continues to plague the state and the country.
"I know how difficult it is to understand how Black and brown Vermonters are feeling at this moment, so I ask you to reflect as you and I sit on the floor of the people's House," Christie told his colleagues during the virtual meeting. "When was the last time you were told to go back to the jungle? That was what my daughter was told in [a] school here in Vermont. We still have a lot of work to do, and we need to do it together. Let us start now by voting yes to approve this resolution."
In total, 128 Democrats, Republicans, Progressives and independents supported the measure, while 17 Republicans voted against it. Several of those who opposed it joined Bancroft in explaining their position, and each referred to the line describing Trump's reaction to Floyd's killing: "Whereas, the majority of President Trump's tweeting in response to the death has been highly inflammatory and racist, and he has advocated a much-criticized militaristic response."
Rep. Pattie McCoy (R-Poultney), the House minority leader, said that she and her fellow Republicans had hoped to support the Juneteenth resolution. But she said they could not "in good conscience participate in trying to match President Trump's deliberately provocative and inflammatory rhetoric with more of our own deliberately provocative rhetoric." Rather, she argued, "We should be setting an example as a way forward, and the provocative sections of this resolution, I'm afraid, are not the way to do that and are not examples I am proud of."
Rep. Marianna Gamache (R-Swanton) took it a step further, noting that president Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and alleging that the Ku Klux Klan "was founded by the Democrat Party."
"I am not a racist, never have been, never will be," Gamache said. "That has no bearing on my no vote. This resolution has been completely overrun with politics. I vote against that."
Others who opposed the resolution went out of their way to say that they had family members and friends who are Black. Rep. Larry Cupoli (R-Rutland City) complained that fellow Italian Americans had been discriminated against and that his own heritage "has been violated by removing Columbus Day in our state." Cupoli said he looked forward to celebrating Juneteenth with his "wonderful, talented, biracial grandson."
Rep. Bob Helm (R-Fair Haven) pointed to his own experience in the Vietnam War, during which he said he fought side by side with people of color.
"I have friends that I wallowed in the mud with, friends of about every nationality that there is, but mostly Latin and African and American-white. And I will tell you this: When your lives are on the line, there is no color," he said. "Yes, you were trained, but also you learned and developed a self-preservation necessity of watch for each other. We stood together. We covered each other. We shared our food, our weapons and our ammunition. We would go into the jungle at night as four-man reconnaissance from dusk 'til dawn and, believe me, there was no Black and no whites."
Helm said he read the resolution to suggest he was prejudiced. "You should be more careful of what you accuse [me] of. Please don't even hint that I need training or, worse yet, your guidance," he said. "I will not be boxed in by a group that really have little or no experience in the matter."
Others who opposed the resolution included Reps. Patrick Brennan (R-Colchester), Kenneth Goslant (R-Northfield), Rodney Graham (R-Williamstown), Lisa Hango (R-Berkshire), Rob LaClair (R-Barre Town), Marcia Martel (R-Waterford), Linda Myers (R-Essex), Constance Quimby (R-Concord), Carl Rosenquist (R-Georgia), Vicki Strong (R-Albany), Mark Higley (R-Lowell) and Brian Smith (R-Derby).
Several House members spoke out in favor of the resolution. One, Rep. Charen Fegard (D-Berkshire), did so in highly personal terms.
"I vote yes to honor this day in part because my own great-grandfather was a member of the KKK in Texas, but which we must remember had a robust membership and active agenda of terror here in Vermont," she said. "He was known for being lazy and mean, which fits the model of what I have seen of racists. I cannot do enough in my one life to address the harm that at least one of my own family members and all of his ilk have wreaked upon a people for no reason other than the color of their skin."
Though the debate over the resolution ended with division, Friday's session began with a sense of unity. Rep. Hal Colston (D-Winooski), who is Black, delivered a devotion describing the history of Juneteenth and celebrating its import. He led a small group of House members — most of whom are people of color — in reciting, one by one, Maya Angelou's "Caged Bird."
Christie, who read the poem's concluding lines, added, "We are all caged birds until the bars of systemic racism are removed. We cannot fly like free birds do."