About two weeks ago, Vermont state Rep. Ruqaiyah “Kiah” Morris (D-Bennington) shocked the nation when she suddenly resigned from office, citing racist threats against her and her family, as well as family health issues.
The news spread wildly through the media, largely due to the fact that Morris, the only Black woman in the Vermont Legislature, had been the target of escalating harassment.
It perhaps seemed like a disorienting move, particularly in a year when so many Black women are running for office at all levels of government. When Morris announced her decision to step down, which coincided with her husband’s recovery from triple bypass surgery, she was accused by some of letting “them” win.
Friends,Today, I officially announce my formal resignation from my position as the Vermont State Representative serving…
“What a ridiculous assertion,” Morris told ESSENCE. “This was my choice to take my life back; this was my choice to take care of my family. I’ve given significantly, and I’ll give more. But right now…I’ve got to take care of mine…because we need healing. It is not, in any way, a resignation of the fight.”
Morris was elected to represent the town of Bennington in 2014, and her first legislative session was fantastic. As she was preparing for the second session, however, things began to go awry and she became a prime target of racists, neo-Nazis and White supremacists.
It started out as a campaign of racist tweets—something perhaps many Blacks in certain highly visible positions are used to.
“That’s what Trump has brought to us, the ability for people to brandish this sort of hatred openly and not have any repercussions from it,” Morris said.
That campaign exposed the underbelly of Vermont, and the White supremacists throughout the state, and the rest of New England, came out of the woodwork, according to the legislator.
And then the negativity started to creep into her everyday life: Her home was broken into while she and her family slept, she said. Her property was vandalized, their cars were shot with paintballs, and swastikas were painted on trees near her home (she and her young son would see them on their nature walks). White supremacist flyers and propaganda were slid under the door of the Democratic Party headquarters downtown.
Morris went to the police. She said the officers told her that it was unclear what could be done about the situation. It was recommended that she go to the FBI, but the agency decided that the case was not worth pursuing.
“This is a situation where even if you can’t get with the fact that this is a Black woman…and her family [is] being threatened by White supremacist groups, you have an elected official receiving threats and we’re not going to do anything about it?” Morris asked in disbelief. “We can just sort of shrug and say, ‘Sorry, good luck? Go take some safety classes and buy some security cameras.’ That’s our answer?
“There was no activity that took place as far as any kind of pursuit of justice or finding any culpability or creating any greater mechanisms of safety for me or my family,” she added.
And then the death threats came.
Her husband received one and her 7-year-old son saw it. Once again, the police department did nothing.
“We bring the computers to our local law enforcement and our police chief sits on them for three weeks without sending them to the appropriate divisions to have them run for forensics,” she said.
ESSENCE reached out to the Bennington Police Department for comment, but did not receive a response.
Morris wants to make clear that these incidents symbolize what’s been eating away at the fabric of our country for far too long.
“What happened to me and my family [is] emblematic of the issues of systemic racism and how that level of dysfunction [occurs] within our state governments, within our criminal justice system, within our community structures,” she said. “[They] really helped to set the stage for this to happen and to grow in the ways that it did.”
The impact of the events has been detrimental.
“I’m supposed to get my own heart checked out…we’re not sure what’s going on,” she acknowledged. “This is what the stress of racism does.”
It’s not as if vying for political office is easy. Morris roundly criticized the fact that you basically need to be wealthy and willing to sacrifice other projects or a good deal of family time to make a bid.
As a matter of fact, she was hard-pressed to find a woman of color who would run in her stead.
“The system here has structural barriers that would keep most people of color, most people who are not wealthy, from ever being able to do this…. [Y]ou have to give up half a year’s worth of work to serve full-time in the legislature or work two jobs at the same time,” Morris said, noting that legislators are paid only $13,000 a year.
What advice would she have for the scores of women across the country who are running for elected office this November?
“Stay prayerful. Stay close to family,” she said. “Keep in touch with your friends because you will feel alone at times. You will feel like the angry Black woman, but that’s what we need to bring right now. Understand that this is a part of what’s happening, but it doesn’t mean that you deserve or have to accept it. It is your birthright to demand better. Your voice is needed more than ever right now….
“I think as women of color, we also need to, in the same way that we’re bringing the voices of our constituents, we need to bring the voices of our own experiences to make this better for the next women to step into our shoes,” she added.
But one person should not have to bear the brunt of the work, especially in the face of terrifying racism. That is when things start to unravel, as Morris herself has noted in past tweets:
“They win,” when we remain ignorant of the names and stories of leaders of color and marginalized groups who never make front page news. People fighting and grinding, carrying heavy burdens against incredible odds and real danger. Are we supporting them? Are we protecting them?
— Kiah Morris (@KiahMorrisVT) September 1, 2018
“They win,” when we look to a single person as the answer, shoulder shrug when people speak truth to power and minimize the real effects of misogynoir. I am not the first nor the last to face this choice – but let me be the last to endure this in service to the state. End this.
— Kiah Morris (@KiahMorrisVT) September 1, 2018
“We need to stop looking for a movement messiah. We need to do the work ourselves. All of us,” Morris said firmly. “The roots go back centuries. It is within the very DNA of our nation in a way that it’s going to take each and every person to fight this. It is not about any one individual.
“I was in this fight because I was in this seat, and I’ll be in this fight afterward,” she added. “But it’s important to know that this seat never belonged to me; it belonged to the people. And so it is the people that have to carry the work forward.”
For now Morris is focusing on her family, working on her business, writing a book and taking time to breathe.
She says she eventually wants to work with “many of our different organizations that are out there fighting for social justice.” So don’t ever think that her stepping down is a resignation of the fight.