- Patrick Ripley
- Kara Deleoardis
BURLINGTON — The City of Burlington and the people who call it home are known for openness and tolerance of others. But a rash of vandalism suggests that even the most accepting communities are not immune to hate.
The R.U.1.2? Community Center on Elmwood Avenue has been targeted on three separate occasions in the past four months. In early May, someone threw a brick through the center’s front-porch window and broke several others. In June, the sign in front of the building was tagged “Burn in Hell.” Another front-porch window was smashed over the weekend of August 3. Police are investigating all three incidents as hate crimes.
Interpreting the attacks as “a message that there are people who hate us,” R.U.1.2? Executive Director Kara DeLeonardis observes, “Homophobia and transphobia are alive and well in Vermont.”
Burlington police have canvassed the area around the community center, issued press releases on the matter and conducted interviews, but have not come up with any leads in the case. “One of our detectives has rattled every cage he can find,” says Deputy Chief Mike Schirling, a spokesman for the Burlington Police Department. “We have not come up with a suspect.”
DeLeonardis is less concerned about finding the culprit than in the effect of the aggression on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community. “We’ve had people say, ‘Now we don’t feel safe coming here,’” she says. In the four years since R.U.1.2? moved to its current location, “there’s never been this level of attacks,” DeLeonardis adds. She attributes it to the center’s ever-expanding public visibility and the recent passage of the Gender Identity Non-Discrimination Act in Vermont. The group lobbied for the bill’s passage.
Police say the incidents at R.U.1.2? are the only instances of multiple hate-motivated attacks on a specific individual or location in the city this year. Four other isolated hate crimes also occurred, including one involving a swastika that was painted on the doors of the Unitarian-Universalist Society church at 152 Pearl Street.
DeLeonardis praises Burlington police for applying hate-crime statutes to address the problem — it’s “just another example of how they are ahead of the game,” she observes. “There’s a reason why the state’s only LGBT community center is in Burlington.” That said, the recent attacks are a reminder “that we have so much more work to do around making Vermont a truly safe place.”
In the meantime, DeLeonardis says the LGBT plan is to stay active and visible. Unlike the vandals, who struck on weekend nights when R.U.1.2? was closed, “We’re not going to hide,” she vows. After the first incident in May, the center installed a new alarm system. The next security step? More lights around the building and surveillance cameras.
DeLeonardis is also encouraging neighborhood residents to help in the investigation. “The police are taking this seriously, but they can only do so much without witnesses,” she says.“People are so afraid to call . . . ” DeLeonardis says she spoke with a neighbor who heard glass breaking during the most recent attack but did not call police.
True to form, R.U.1.2? is making the most of a bad situation. The center raised $600 by auctioning off the brick that broke the first window in May. It now sits in a glass case in the center’s library in silent defiance to those who hate.