Second instance of racist graffiti reported within 48 hours

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BENNINGTON — A second instance of racist graffiti — this time at the local rec center — was reported less than 48 hours after an Oldcastle Theatre employee notified police that someone had allegedly attempted to break into the theater and wrote "white power" on an outdoor picnic table.

A town employee called the Bennington Police Department around 7:45 a.m. Monday shortly after discovering the words "white power" spray painted in black on the west side of the center, said Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette.

While police are not certain of the time the rec center graffiti occurred, Doucette believes it happened overnight between when the center closed at 5 p.m. Sunday evening and when the town employee noticed the graffiti Monday morning.

"We're not sure if we're dealing with a copycat or if it's the same person or persons involved with Oldcastle," Doucette said.

Members of the Bennington Police Department spent the morning collecting evidence from the area and measuring footprints in the snow to determine if the incidents may have been connected. The investigation is ongoing.

The graffiti has since been painted over by a town employee. Operations at the Rec Center were not affected.

This vandalism came nearly two days after the Oldcastle incident, which was reported around 11:30 a.m. on Saturday as people began arriving at the theater to practice for a play. Doucette says the last person out the door Friday night around 8:30 did not notice any vandalism, so police believe the vandalism occurred within that approximately 15-hour window of time when no employees were at the theater.

The Saakaamu Dance Troupe from the western African country of Ghana were scheduled to perform Saturday night, just hours after the vandalism was discovered. Doucette noted that the troupe also performed Friday night at Bennington Elementary, but no vandalism was reported at that time.

In addition to a broken cellar window, the vandalism included the words "white power" dripped onto a picnic table outside. The medium used to write the words was "some type of red substance, which we do not believe is paint at this time," Doucette said.

The BPD responded to the scene and immediately began their investigation Saturday morning.

"The BPD spent quite a bit of time over there, collecting evidence, measuring footprints in the snow," Doucette said. "We made arrangements to have a local glass company come and board up the windows because all of the regular employees from Oldcastle are out of the area."

Doucette also noted that there was concern about the safety of the audience and dancers for Saturday night's performance due to the nature of the vandalism and the fact that the troupe hails from Africa.

"We were concerned about their safety and wanted to make sure that they felt safe and make sure the performance would go on," Doucette said.

BPD Lt. Camillo Grande met with the leader of the dance group and and made arrangements to detail an officer at the event, at the town's expense.

At the request of Oldcastle, the officer was posted outside the building and remained there for about three and a half hours Saturday evening to ensure the safety of the performers and attendees. No further incidents at Oldcastle were reported that evening.

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"We condemn this incident," Oldcastle producing artistic director Eric Peterson said in an email.

He and others from the theater company are in London on a tour of the city's West End theater district.

"We pride ourselves on being a theater that welcomes everyone," Peterson said. "We are proud to have presented the gloriously talented dancers. Our community deserves better than to be embarrassed and sullied by this hateful conduct. Following the abuse of [former state Rep.] Kiah Morris, this is particularly reprehensible. We apologize to the artists. We will welcome them back any time."

On Monday morning, three members of the BPD canvassed the downtown and stopped by numerous businesses to see if they could review security camera footage that might reveal a suspect for the graffiti. However, police learned that Oldcastle is not covered by any existing security cameras.

Doucette expressed frustration with these instances of hate speech affecting the town.

"I understand the importance of free speech," Doucette said. "This is not free speech. And this goes above and beyond — this is a crime... Not only is it a crime, but it hurts the people in Bennington."

Every Benningtonian is affected by the person or people doing this, he said, and it draws negative attention to the town.

"Bennington is being looked at as a community that is full of racists, when in fact there's probably less than a handful of people in this community that have expressed [racist] thoughts," he said.

Doucette called for Bennington residents to stay vigilant and say something if they see something.

"I think it's time that we police ourselves," he said, asking that if anyone has information about who is responsible for these incidents, that they should contact the BPD so they can put an end to it.

"I don't want to have a situation where every day or every couple of days there's more graffiti, more harmful words painted on our buildings, making people not want to come to Bennington and hurting people that already reside here," he said.

Additionally, he is asking residents to be mindful of social media posts, which tend to blow incidents out of proportion.

"We're asking that people have patience and let us do our jobs, and stop finger pointing," Doucette said. "We don't want second-, third-, fourth-hand information about who might be responsible for this. If you have direct knowledge of who is responsible, we encourage you to contact the BPD."

Residents can also submit an anonymous tip on the BPD's website. Both investigations are ongoing.

Christie Wisniewski can be reached at cwisniewski@benningtonbanner.com and at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.


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