Home News and Features Threats to Democracy: Misogyny, Racism, and Biased Policing

Threats to Democracy: Misogyny, Racism, and Biased Policing

In the House Chamber during the panel discussion of “Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age,” are, from left: Xusana Davis, Vermont’s executive director of racial equity; representative Taylor Small of Chittenden 6-7 and the first transgender woman to serve in the Vermont legislature; Kiah Morris, former state representative and current executive director of Rights & Democracy; Guylaine Maroist, co-director of “Backlash”; and moderator Esther Charlestin. Photo courtesy of La Ruelle Films.
Two powerful programs held in Montpelier earlier this month emphasized how serious our problems with misogyny, racism, and biased policing are — nationally, internationally, and here in Vermont. Speakers in both programs said that while we often see problems as individual misconduct, they are actually ingrained conditions in how our society is structured.

“Your country is the biggest, the strongest democracy of this planet,” said Canadian filmmaker Guylaine Maroist. “This is a democratic issue, and we have to act.” Although Maroist was speaking about misogyny, her comments aptly apply to the other main themes from the two evening programs — racism and biased policing.

Maroist was part of a panel discussion that followed the first U.S. screening of “Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age.” She is co-director of the 2022 documentary by Quebec-based La Ruelle Films, which was shown in the packed House Chamber at the Vermont Statehouse on Feb. 7.

Featured in the international documentary is former two-term Bennington Representative Kiah Morse, who resigned her elected position in 2018 after extreme digital and in-person racial and misogynistic harassment. Morris is one of four women featured in “Backlash.” Now the executive director of Rights & Democracy, Morris sat in the audience for the screening and participated in the panel discussion. There was a bittersweet irony to her sitting in the room as we watched her on screen, portrayed in that same room, on the Statehouse steps, and on State Street, as her story evolved.

Two nights later, just two buildings away in the Pavilion Auditorium, the Rutland Area and Windham County branches of the NAACP and the ACLU of Vermont gave Vermonters the chance to hear the stories of six family members who have lost loved ones to racially tinged police behavior. About 60 people attended, and about a hundred more joined through Zoom

Calvina “Cal” Brown and Michael Brown Sr., parents of Michael Brown, Jr., the unarmed 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Both spoke at Voices from the Front: Structural Racism & Policing. Photo by Tom McKone.
Although the panelists came from as far as Florida, Missouri, and California, they stressed that Vermont is not immune to racism and bad policing. As she opened the program, veteran Vermont equity and racial justice advocate Tabitha Moore drew on several examples of recent questionable and blatant misconduct by county sheriffs and state police.

“Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age”

 “Backlash,” which includes interviews with online harassment experts, focuses on the compelling stories of four women who stood up in the face of harassment. As well as Morris, the film features a high-ranking Italian politician, a Parisian actor and YouTuber, and a Quebec elementary school teacher whose five years of harassment began while she was a university student in Montreal.

The film shows a consistent pattern in which women who refuse to back down or step away continue to be harassed, and the harassment escalates. The film portrays social media companies as interested primarily in making money, with little regard for protecting victims of harassment — regularly citing freedom of speech and the privacy of others — as they do nothing to stop harassment. It also portrays police and others in positions of authority as either unable or unwilling to help. Black and transgender women face the strongest harassment, Maroist said.

“We need to see that these are crimes of a new, modern age,” Morris says in the film. “That terrorism gives a direct pathway to real violence in the physical world.”

“These social media companies are bigger than the United States,” Morris added during the panel discussion. “We allowed this to become the monster that it is, and it is up to us to demand it to change.”

Voices from the Front: Structural Racism & Policing

In the program sponsored by the ACLU of Vermont and the two NAACP branches, panelists shared heartbreaking stories of family losses, examples of police violence and lack of compassion, and accounts of systemic failures to protect and support people. They emphasized that Vermont already has problems with misogyny, racism, gun violence, and police misconduct, and that we should act both to stop those problems and to make sure they don’t get worse. 

“We pretend that Vermont exceptionalism will save us from this very real narrative that is sweeping our nation,” Moore said. “There are structural changes in public safety that would benefit us all.”

Deanna and Andrew Joseph, Jr., told the story of how their 14-year-old son, Andrew Joseph III, was killed after a situation that was very poorly handled by Florida police, the ensuing frustrations with government agencies, and the never-ending suffering.

“Racism is the biggest problem on the planet, including in Vermont,” Andrew Joseph said. “In America, there’s a Black experience, and there’s a white experience. There’s supposed to be one experience. … The police are the strong arm, the muscle for white supremacy.”

Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson brought up the news reports that had come out that day about Vermont state troopers who had been using racist epithets in online and off-duty games they played and he questioned how behaving that way could not affect their performance as police.

Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, a computer systems engineer in California’s Silicon Valley, the founder of four grassroots social justice organizations, and the uncle of Oscar Grant, who was killed by a police officer in 2009. Photo by Tom McKone.

Calls for Action

Members of both panels talked about the urgent need for change, lamented how slow and inadequate change has been, voiced the need to be proactive, and expressed optimism for the future. Several criticized the media for too-easily accepting police accounts of events without fact-checking.

“Please don’t ask us to be patient with the process while we are in pain,” Morris said. “It does not need to take years, because it took a moment to alter everyone’s life — permanently.”

Representative Taylor Small, who represents Chittenden 6-7 and is the first transgender woman to serve in the Vermont legislature, participated in the “Backlash” panel and said one necessary step is to seek out difficult conversations with those who may disagree with us, as she said she has been doing with some of her fellow legislators.

“When I show them my humanity, they show me theirs,” Small said, “and that is how we move forward.”

Beatrice “Auntie Bee” Johnson, social justice activist and co-founder of Love Not Blood Campaign and two other organizations that support families and social justice. Photo by Tom McKone.
“That’s what this is all about,” Johnson said, speaking about police accountability and transparency, “making sure we keep our rights and we have a right to life, and we’re calling on you to help us make that a reality.”

The second screening of “Backlash” will be at the Essex Cinemas in Essex Junction, on Thursday, Feb. 23, at 7:00 p.m., and future screenings in New England are planned. The trailer gives an introduction to the film and can be watched on YouTube.