Kiah Morris was standing next to Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan at a news conference in Bennington, Vt., on Monday, taking questions from reporters about the racial harassment she endured for two years as the state’s only black female representative, when suddenly she stopped talking. She took a breath and then grimaced as everyone turned to find a man in a black shirt emblazoned with Pepe the Frog — an adopted meme for the alt-right — standing in the back of the church.
The whole room seemed to recognize him. Some gasped. Morris backed away.
“No, no, no!” one person in the audience yelled. “Out!”
“This is not safe!” yelled another.
The man was Max Misch, according to the Burlington Free Press, which along with other local news outlets identified the Bennington resident as a self-described white nationalist. The news conference had a lot to do with him. The online messages Misch sent to Morris over a two-year period starting in 2016 were included in a months-long state investigation of the racial harassment the Democrat experienced, although Donovan announced Monday that he could not file charges. Misch had disrupted Morris’s life to the point that she sought, and was granted, a one-year protective order against him in 2016. He and others had disrupted her career so much that Morris abruptly resigned in September, citing the harassment and threats and shocking the Vermont political community.
And now here he was again, disrupting a news conference whose purpose, more than announcing the results of the investigation, Donovan said, was to “address the issue of racism and other forms of bias in our state."
To Misch, the incident was little more than a joke, as he told the Free Press afterward. “I like trolling people — it’s fun,” he said. But to the audience, his interruption appeared to encapsulate everything Donovan said the news conference was about: How, in an overwhelmingly white state, should Vermonters confront the type of racial harassment potent enough to push its only black female representative out of the legislature?
“For people in positions of power in Vermont, who are white, mostly male and mostly from a Christian background, we have to acknowledge that the lived experience of people of color and other backgrounds and heritages are different,” Donovan said before Misch’s interruption. “We must listen to their lived experience.”
On Monday, Donovan released a 10-page report documenting the racially charged messages Morris and her husband received from Misch and others and all the times they called 911 at the sight of unknown vehicles or people lurking outside their home. The details of the report showed a family living in constant fear and suspicion.
“Go back to Africa, it’s the only place you’ll ever be safe,” one message said, according to Donovan’s report.
“Kiah Morris hard at work destroying White Vermont,” another said.
One message from Misch was a tweet including an offensive caricature of a black person and a vulgar message that read in part, “I be representin dem white m--f-----z of Bennington,” and which tagged Morris.
But Donovan said that although the racial harassment was disturbing, it did not rise to the level of criminal charges because of free speech protections. Donovan said that Morris’s car and home had also been burglarized and that items had been stolen, but there was not enough physical evidence to identify any suspects or bring charges for those offenses. Although Morris and her husband thought the incidents were related to the online messages, the report does not note any definitive link.
“Kiah Morris was a victim of racial harassment. Relatively few Vermonters have had any of these experiences, and very few have had these experiences in the context of vicious racial harassment,” Donovan said. But, he added, “the Constitution does not permit us to prosecute racist speech because we find it offensive."
Morris, who spoke to The Washington Post about her decision to resign from the Vermont House in September, said at the news conference Monday that the constant harassment was like “death by a thousand paper cuts,” making her want to “rationalize it away, and look for the escape route from the ugly truth about it all.”
Morris, 42, a racial and social justice advocate, said the harassment escalated after she won the Democratic primary for reelection in 2016. Swastikas appeared on trees along walking trails near her property, she said. Her car and her home were broken into, she reported to police. When she went to vote in November 2016, Misch was at her polling place staring at her, according to Donovan’s report.
That’s when she decided to seek the restraining order, which a judge granted. But as soon as it expired a year later, Misch continued targeting her, according to the report.
“You will never silence me,” he wrote to her on Twitter, the report says. “Every time you attend a political rally at the Four Corners or another local venue and I’m aware of the event, I will troll the hell out of you and the other subversives there. Maybe I’ll bring a friend or three with me too.”
He said in another tweet, “Stop pushing ‘social justice’ on your nearly entirely White constituency in Bennington, VT."
Once Morris resigned in September, one person wrote to her, “Thanks for resigning, now please move out of my state,” said her husband, James Lawton, who read the messages aloud at the news conference.
“We did everything we were supposed to do, reported as we should, held nothing back, and trusted in a system that in the end was insufficient and inept at addressing and repairing the harm done,” Morris said. “In the end we were told there’s nothing to be done.”
Although Donovan could not file charges, he said that political and community leaders had spent the past several months brainstorming a new “bias incident reporting system,” seeking to document attacks on someone’s identity even if they were not a crime.
Misch’s interruption came toward the end of the news conference. He said he just wanted to tell his story, according to the Free Press. But his story would not be he heard over the shouting that erupted in the room. Some community members tried to literally cover him up, finding his Pepe the Frog shirt offensive, the Free Press reported. Some questioned why he was allowed to be there.
“Because it’s America,” one woman answered. “We have to listen to everyone, whether we like it or not, but we don’t have to put up with him! We have to take a stand and make him realize that this is not acceptable!”
Donovan tried to take control again but the audience was too distracted. One of Morris’s former political opponents, identified as Republican Kevin Hoyt by the Vermont alt-weekly Seven Days, tried to take the floor. He said, “I call bull---- on Ms. Morris!” and the room only grew more tense.
“Obviously, racism exists in Vermont state,” Hoyt said, according to Seven Days, adding that he had been falsely accused of being a white supremacist during the campaign. “We don’t want these things but they’re part of our fabric of society. My question is, to what degree, though?”
The crowd began booing him until Donovan yelled loudly enough to regain the floor and have the last word.
“Let’s not give in to hate!” he yelled. “Let’s not end on this tone. We have a challenge to rise above this. We have a challenge to keep our heads high, to not meet hate with hate but civility and decency. I ask you all to do that. Vermont is watching."