The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Vermont’s only black female state representative resigns after racial harassment, threats

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First came the racist tweets and the online threats.

Then there were the swastikas on the trees.

And then Kiah Morris said her home was invaded.

For Morris, the only black woman in the Vermont House of Representatives, it became too much.

The two-term representative from Bennington had spent the past two years enduring racial harassment and online threats that prompted an investigation by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office.

At the same time, her husband needed open-heart surgery.

And while she had planned to not seek reelection and to finish her term, by Sept. 25 Morris had made up her mind: She would resign, effective immediately.

“The sacrifices were becoming too great,” Morris told The Washington Post on Thursday morning. Her family, she said, will remain her “100 percent focus” moving forward.

Morris’s resignation leaves Rep. Kevin Christie (D) the single black representative in the Vermont House, one of just four people of color in the overwhelmingly white Vermont Legislature in a 94 percent white state.

Morris, who defined her four-year tenure as an advocate for racial justice, women’s and workers’ rights, and health-care access, was elected to the House in 2014 and again in 2016. Fellow lawmakers, such as state Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), said it would be “hard to match her enthusiasm and commitment,” the Bennington Banner reported.

The racial harassment Morris said she experienced began during her 2016 reelection campaign, coinciding with what Morris described as a visible rise of white supremacy in her area during the presidential campaign. Neo-Nazi propaganda started showing up at the door of the Bennington Democratic Party office, she said. Neo-Nazi recruitment fliers were left all over town.

And then, in the days after Morris won the Democratic primary that August, she logged onto Twitter to find a photo showing an offensive caricature of a black person, accompanied by vulgar language that read in part, “I be representin dem white m—–f—–s of Bennington,” as reported by the Berkshire Eagle. The Twitter user, identified as Max Misch, told the Eagle he was “demonstrating the absurdity of a black woman being a Vermont state representative” in a predominantly white district. A judge would later issue a protective stalking order against Misch, requiring him to stay away from Morris, the Bennington Banner reported.

At the time, lawmakers immediately spoke out to denounce the racist tweet and to support Morris, who had shared it on social media.

“These acts are part of a continuum of bias and discrimination,” she wrote on Facebook on Aug. 19, 2016, in a post referencing the racist tweet and another targeting a local resident. “While these recent acts were overt, many experience other acts in silence and without reparation. We each have an obligation to take direct action.”

But the harassment continued through the fall, and before long, she said, the threats and harassment became a regular part of her and her family’s lives — including that of her 7-year-old son. It bled from the Internet into their own personal space, she told The Post, the place where they were supposed to feel safest: their home.

Once their home was vandalized that fall, she said, once the tree trunks nearby were defaced with swastikas, it was like they couldn’t escape it.

More recently, she said, as online racial abuse picked up ahead of her reelection campaign this year, her family received a death threat — which she said her 7-year-old son saw.

“When I looked at all of this in the aggregate and realized the severity of what we could be facing,” she said, “I knew I needed to focus on my family and our safety. As a black mother, it’s my role to emulate the strength and courage that’s necessary to deal with a world that’s not rehearsed at dealing with issues of race, that in many ways is stacked against people of color, and those lessons about the threats to our lives that happen just because of our mere existence should not have to come in this format. It should not have to come into my son’s heart that way.”

Morris said she went to the Bennington police about the online threats and also about the home invasion and vandalism but did not feel as though the investigation was moving. On Aug. 27, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office announced in a brief statement that it had taken up her case, saying it was investigating online threats.

Since Morris has announced her decision not to seek reelection, she said it has seemed as though many Vermonters viewed it as a call for action, horrified that this had happened to an elected leader in their state. “They’re not just saying, ‘Isn’t that a shame?’ ” Morris said. “They’re saying, ‘This should not ever have occurred and we need to get to work.’”

But others have viewed it differently, questioning why Morris would give up, why she would “let them win,” she said. Morris said she has not viewed it this way. It shouldn’t rest on a single person’s shoulders to bring down racism, she said.

“It’s on each and every one of us.”