A black Vermont lawmaker first suspended her re-election campaign before resigning altogether from her post following racist attacks against her and her family.
When state Rep. Kiah Morris announced August 24 she was abandoning her bid for a third term in the Vermont House of Representatives, she cited disturbing social media messages. The Bennington Democrat intended to finish her current term, though, she said.
“Political discourse, and in particular within the sphere of social media has been divisive, inflammatory and at times, even dangerous,” Morris wrote. “It is my hope that as a state, we will continue to demand greater support and protections for one another from those forces which seek to divide and destroy our communities.”
She did not elaborate, but her husband, James Lawton, has documented several such messages — including one calling their son a “mongrel” — as well as in-real-life harassment in the form of swastikas painted on trees near their home.
On Tuesday, Morris said she was done with the Legislature. Reached by CNN Friday evening, Morris did not cite the racism she and her family have experienced, saying instead a variety of factors led to her decision, including “the continued harassment, a legal battle to try to find justice and dealing with the investigation.”
“I needed to focus on (my family) 100% to get us on the next step in our journey,” she said.
Morris referred additional questions regarding legal challenges to her attorney, saying this was part of a process “to find resolution to all of these attacks and in ensuring that this won’t happen to other Vermonters.”
“There needs to be a comprehensive response to make sure other people aren’t left feeling helpless or vulnerable and fear for their safety,” Morris said.
In a Facebook post earlier this week, she wrote, “My husband is beginning the long physical journey of recovery following extensive open-heart surgery. We face continued harassment and seek legal remedies to the harm endured.”
Morris posted a photo September 12 on Instagram showing her holding Lawton’s hand in a hospital bed with the caption, “We’re gonna be alright. ❤️ Thank you everyone for the love and support!”
The family’s encounters with racism have been documented. Lawton has posted screenshots of several online attacks, many of them from the same user, whose Twitter account has been suspended. In one, a user tells Morris, “We will continue to fight against your efforts to make our town/state look more like your ugly mongrel son.”
On Facebook, the same user accuses Morris of bringing Somalis, “some who also tested positive for active tuberculosis,” into Bennington and Vermont.
“This area is 96% white and 1% black, though the vast majority of issues she champions are related to Black Lives Matter, illegal immigrants, non-white refugees, etc.,” says the post, which employs hashtags decrying migrants, “illegals” and refugees.
Morris was one of a handful of black legislators in the state and the only black woman. About 1.4% of Vermont residents are black, a percentage more or less mirrored by the town of Bennington and Bennington County, parts of which Morris has represented.
In August, Lawton also posted a photo of a swastika on a tree, and said there were five found in the neighborhood around the same time that the family was a victim of a 2016 home invasion.
The Vermont attorney general’s office announced August 27 it had opened an investigation into “complaints of online threats” against the lawmaker. Assistant Attorney General Ryan Kriger told CNN on Thursday he would gather information and get back to the network.
Bennington police Chief Paul Doucette issued a September 1 open letter, obtained by Vermont Public Radio, in response to claims his officers hadn’t investigated Morris’ allegations. He said the lawmaker and her family declined to press charges in regard to a September 2016 incident. An October 2016 incident did not yield enough evidence to warrant charges, he wrote.
Morris said the Bennington police department’s statements are “patently false.”
She says they voluntarily brought their laptops to the station the day after she and her husband were threatened and went weeks without a response from law enforcement.
“If they did not have the capacity or the capability to do that type of investigation, then they needed to work in concert with those who can,” she said.
In response to Lawton’s complaints this year that the family had been subjected to threats and that his computer had been hacked, Doucette wrote that police took two computers into evidence. Because the Bennington police does not have a computer forensics unit, the devices were sent to the Vermont State Police, he wrote.
Doucette added his initial inclination is that there was not sufficient evidence to press charges.
“On August 31, 2018, I met with an investigator with the Vermont State Police and provided all of the reports and documents we had pertaining to this investigation,” the chief wrote, saying no further information would be available during the state police investigation.
Bennington police were in training Thursday, and a person answering the phone at the department said Doucette would not be available during training.
‘I was in the fight before I was in the seat’
Morris said she has been encouraged by the response to her resignation.
“The support not only locally has been powerful to see, but it’s also been statewide and that’s been quite phenomenal to witness. Overwhelmingly, people have been shaken by me telling my truth,” she said.
“I feel proud of all that has been accomplished. I am honored to have been able to serve in this role. I feel that I needed to give myself and my family the space to heal from everything that was happening to us, but I needed to press the conversation that public service by people of color and other marginalized groups does not have to require martyrdom.
“The risk and the dangers are there. It’s part of our national climate. That does not make it acceptable. It should not have to be a norm. It cannot be a norm if we are truly to transform our country.”
Morris, the mother of a 7-year-old, issued a plea August 12, the anniversary of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, urging Vermonters never to remain silent in the face of racism.
“Don’t wait until our funerals to speak our names, have the courage to take action in support of our lives and protect us as you are charged to do. Do not give greater importance to free speech over human lives and dignity. The violence is here. Where are you?” she tweeted.
As for her future political plans, Morris says she isn’t sure what’s next.
“I can say that I was in the fight before I was in the seat and I can say that I will be in the fight in the future.”