Rep. Kiah Morris Resigns Amid Slew of Racial Harrassment and Threats

By NORA PEACHIN

PUBLIC DOMAIN
Former State Representative Kiah Morris.

Representative Ruqaiyah ‘Kiah’ Morris (D-Bennington) formally resigned her seat in the Vermont House a little over two weeks ago in light of prolonged racial harassment that pushed her story to national headlines. Elected in 2014 and reelected in 2016, Morris was only the second African-American woman to serve in the State Legislature in Vermont’s history.

On Tuesday, Sept. 25, the day of her official resignation, Morris explained her departure on Facebook. She recounted facing “continued [racial] harassment,” including “racist comments and threats on social media, vandalism at her home and at the local Democratic Party office, and unwanted intrusion on her home and property,” according to an interview she did with Seven Days.

Morris also wrote of her need to support her husband in his “long physical journey of recovery following extensive open-heart surgery.” She plans to focus on helping him recover and caring for her family, according to an interview with The Washington Post.

SGA President Nia Robinson ’19 considers Morris’ resignation significant “because it shows that black women are not immune to racism because of the positions they hold. It also shows that we haven’t progressed — as much as we boast about it.”

“How unfortunate is it that Kiah Morris has to negotiate her role with the safety of herself and her family?” Robinson said. “Instead of offering suggestions and expressing concerns about the content of the work done, the comments attack her directly as a black woman.”

She is an incredibly effective legislator and she was an incredibly powerful voice for people who were literally at the table in Montpelier, so it is a huge loss to our government and a huge loss to our house.”

— RUTH HARDEY

Morris’ accomplishments and work are described in full on her website (kiahmorris.com). In a post on Facebook on Aug. 24, Morris outlined an extensive list of the victories and causes to which she was most proud to contribute her support and leadership. The list includes but is not limited to: “no cost contraceptive access for all Vermonters, prescription drug price transparency, support for establishment of gender neutral bathrooms and [establishment of a] medicinal cannabis dispensary in Bennington.”

“I am devastated by the fact that she had to resign,” said Ruth Hardy, Democratic candidate for the state Senate for Addison County, in an interview with The Campus. “She is an incredibly effective legislator and she was an incredibly powerful voice for people who were literally at the table in Montpelier, so it is a huge loss to our government and a huge loss to our house.”

She is on the Board of United Children’s Services, serves as a Sisters on the Planet Ambassador for Oxfam America, Leader with Rights and Democracy Vermont, and is on the advisory councils for Emerge Vermont and Black Lives Matter Vermont. She is passionate about social justice, intersectionality, and amplifying diverse voices.

Morris told The Washington Post that the racial harassment she experienced began in 2016, during her reelection campaign. She noted that it coincided with 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,” Morris said in the same interview. “Neo-Nazi recruitment fliers were left all over town.”

Morris had announced on Aug. 24 that she was dropping her bid for reelection, but that she was determined to finish out her term. 

“The last two years have been emotionally difficult for many. Political discourse, and in particular within the sphere of social media has been divisive, inflammatory and at times, even dangerous,” she wrote on Facebook. “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.”

However, the severity and frequency of the harassment she and her family continued to face forced her to change her plans and resign before the end of her term. 

“This is a reality, especially for candidates of color — women of color in particular,” Hardy said. She added that gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist, who is transgender, has also received death threats and harassment. “I think it is a really sad and horrifying comment on our society,” she said.

In an interview with Vermont Public Radio on Aug. 30, Morris described feeling underwhelmed by the response of the Bennington Police Department when she reported the incidents of harassment. Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said in a release issue on Sept. 1 that Morris and her husband initiated conversations with police in September 2016 and filed a complaint the following month. Despite investigations into the complaint, no criminal charges were brought forward and no further complaints were filed until July of this year. In the same statement, Doucette claimed that all of Morris and her husbands’ complaints had been “investigated appropriately and efficiently.” 

He described “a series of what seemed to be miscommunications between the couple and [the] police,” according to VTDigger.

Morris was the only African-American woman in the Vermont Legislature, and one of only a handful of non-white legislators.

“We need to be clear and confront the fact that in 2018 a black woman was led to resign in response to racial harassment. Some may react in disbelief, but this is a reality many black officials have to face,” Robinson said.

Robinson addressed the importance of representation in government, and spoke of her own experiences being part of a minority in a state that is 94.5% white, according to the United States Census Bureau. 

“When I came to Vermont for school three years ago, the ‘nice’ people and community couldn’t mask the Confederate flags and uncomfortable stares,” Robinson recounted. “Representation is so important because it shows what is available. You get to see people 

who have fought against odds and created a space for themselves. Representation is where we find the role models. I hope we get to a point where representation is not something we have to look for. We should get beyond the ‘firsts,’” she declared.

On Aug. 27, a few days after Morris’ resignation, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan announced that he had launched an investigation into the threats Morris allegedly faced. “The Attorney General’s Office will work with the Vermont State Police and appropriate computer forensic experts to ensure a thorough and complete investigation of this matter,” claimed the statement posted by his office.

In late August, after Morris ended her bid for a third term in the house, Democratic Party committee members chose Jim Carroll to replace Morris on the November 6 ballot. As a tribute to Morris, Bennington Democrats voted to keep her seat open until the beginning of the next legislative session, according to VTDigger.

“In Kiah’s case, especially because Vermont is such an overwhelmingly white place, to be an African-American woman who serves her community so effectively, to be the victim of such horrible harassment is devastating,” Hardy said. “We all, especially white people like me, need to step up and say, ‘This is not okay, we need to do something about that.’”

Additional reporting by Bochu Ding.

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Rep. Kiah Morris Resigns Amid Slew of Racial Harrassment and Threats