By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
Tabitha Moore, a sixth-generation Vermonter, is known for being outspoken about racial injustice, particularly in Rutland County, where she lives and leads a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Oft-quoted by media outlets, Moore has spoken at events around the state protesting the killing of George Floyd by white police officers in Minneapolis. Her visibility has increased in recent months, prompting parallel increases in criticism from those who disagree with her ideas.
Recently, Moore said, that criticism has devolved into harassment. She said other high-visibility people of color in Vermont report facing similar backlash after speaking out.
In June, Moore’s oldest daughter, now a senior at Mill River Union High School, faced criticism of her own after she asked the school board to raise the Black Lives Matter flag at all of the district’s schools. Her proposal passed, but after 500 area residents signed a petition opposing it. Adults who were angry about the flags are still trying to contact her 17-year-old daughter, Moore said.
In addition to her position as the president of Rutland’s NAACP, the mother of three is a full-time training coordinator at the University of Vermont, where she works with youth who have been exposed to domestic violence and the criminal justice system. Formerly a school counselor at Mill River Union High School, she’s also completing a doctorate in transformative social change through California-based Saybrook University.
Recently, Moore announced her run for Rutland County’s high bailiff position. She’s hoping her campaign will, at minimum, raise awareness about the position, which is often occupied by a law enforcement officer looking to become sheriff. The high bailiff can, if necessary, arrest the sheriff.
Moore has worked alongside law enforcement in several capacities. After attending college and graduate school in New York, she served as the assistant director of Juvenile Detention Services, and as a probation officer at the Onondaga County Probation Center. She currently consults with local police departments looking to implement racially just practices.
In September, Moore spoke with VTDigger about her recent experiences as one of Vermont’s most prominent Black leaders in a moment of historical social unrest.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In 2019, you told the Brattleboro Reformer that you were exhausted. It’s been three months since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis and about a week since Jacob Blake was shot in Kenosha by police. How are you?
Tabitha Moore: I am even more tired, more disheartened. It’s been a really awful summer, especially with what’s been happening for my family, and it’s getting worse. But I also know that, now more than ever, I need to take care of myself so that I can continue to fight. I’m more resolved to keep going, but I am falling apart.
You chartered a Rutland chapter of the NAACP in 2016, and thereby created the city’s first racial justice organization. Why did you do it?
TM: I grew up here, in the area, and I never really felt entirely welcome, even though this is my home. There were just so many messages that I got, that I didn’t belong. I wanted to know something more than what I was being taught. And so I left in 1996. When I came back in ‘09, and saw it was exactly the same, I was disheartened. I knew I had to start something that would be a beacon of hope, and provide space for like-minded people to gather and create ideas to celebrate the ways that our community can be great, but also critique the ways we need to reflect the diversity that exists and welcome the diversity that we want to exist.
What did you learn in the first couple of years as a person in leadership at a racial justice organization in Rutland?
TM: We can’t move faster than people are ready. I learned that pace of progress is determined by how much people know and are willing to engage. While on one hand, I need to push, I also need to respect that. That’s where it gets really difficult, when you’re talking about racial justice and people’s ability to thrive, or even live, or to see justice. I learned that my community is not as ready for this as I hoped. But there are a lot of people who are willing to try.
What drew you to the conclusion that the community wasn’t ready?
TM: Working in the school, I often saw and experienced racism that was horrific, and would often talk to people who were experiencing racism that was horrific. The lack of resources for people of color, even to see a grocery clerk who looks like you, is problematic. They sold the Confederate flag at the Vermont State Fair, and people really struggled to see why that was a problem. And then there’s the Syrian refugee issue, and the fact that we, as a community, said that xenophobia and our personal comfort is more important than whether or not people get to live.
What have the last three months of protests and heightened awareness done for the racial justice movement in southern Vermont?
TM: I think that racism has become so undeniable. It’s much more difficult to do the mental gymnastics required to pretend that racism isn’t a thing. People who are generally well-intentioned, who want everybody to be healthy, or have equal access — they are finding themselves compelled to join movements in ways that they hadn’t previously.
Still, in order for this to end peacefully — and we’ve been fighting peacefully for a very long time — white people have to get it. And they have to be willing to give up their power. And make room for fair process that isn’t run by them. If people are not willing to do that — believe me, we are no longer willing to die. We are tired of dying. White people need to get it faster.
You’re looking to move from your home in Wallingford. Why?
TM: At some point, you can only take so much. My daughter is getting threatened by people. Adults. I’m not OK with that. For a long time, my family has endured the rap that I’ve taken for the choices I’ve made to engage our community in conversation and movement around racism. But when it comes to my children — you know, I’m looking at this, and I’m like, I’m not OK. We are not OK.
I tried to keep my plans to move as quiet as possible, but as things have gotten worse, that’s become harder. Last night, my youngest would not go to sleep until 1 a.m. She was having an anxiety attack because she thought somebody was breaking into the house. Even my ex-husband, who I talk with, he’s like, ‘I knew the day you started this branch that we were going to have to worry.’ He knew that there would be potential threats. The heightened level of security that my family has had to have is unsustainable.
Our Black Lives Matter pallet was vandalized, the one that we couldn’t keep in our yard, because my daughter was afraid that the adults who were threatening us would see it and do something to it. We put it on our white neighbor’s yard, and lo and behold, somebody still vandalized it. We get a lot of messages, just like I did in 1996, that we aren’t welcome here.
As Vermonters, why do we need to allocate time and resources to reforming systems that accommodate people of color when we have so few here?
TM: Vermont is not white by mistake. It’s not just a happenstance. I would actually say that we’re not ahead, we’re very far behind. We don’t even understand why Vermont is so white.
White supremacists are aware that this is a white space. It’s a hotbed for white supremacy growth because white Vermonters don’t get it, and don’t really, largely, seem to understand why they should be doing something about it. That is what makes this place so vulnerable to white supremacy because people — white folks, by and large — are comfortable with not knowing. And that’s part of white privilege.
Is it common for Black people and other people of color to move out of certain communities within Vermont?
TM: Yeah. It’s a testament to what happens when people try to fight this fight here. It’s testament to the ways that white supremacy is built into the fabric of our community, in some ways that are intentional, and in some ways that have just been carried on.
My story’s just louder because I’m more visible, but there are Black and brown people who come to the state all the time, who want to stay and make it their home. Very few make it past three years because of the racism that they experience. The number of calls I get every year about Confederate flags in Vermont — and in particular, in Rutland — people come here to escape racism, and they don’t expect to see those sorts of things.
Where will you go?
TM: I don’t know. Obviously, the fact that I’m running for high bailiff means that I would consider Rutland County. You know, this is my home, I don’t want to leave. And I’m also not going to kill myself to try to make it a better place.
It’s a matter of finding the place that, when bad things happen regarding race, that there’s at least some acknowledgement and admission that racism is a problem. And that is the opposite of what we get here. It’s like screaming into a vacuum. If I’m gonna scream, I’d at least like to scream at a wall, because at least I’d get some echo.