'If I get killed it won't be an accident': Progressive Vermont family faces threats

Ryan Mercer, Burlington Free Press
'If I get killed it won't be an accident': Progressive Vermont family faces threats

MILTON, Vt. – A red car swerved onto a collision path with a boy biking near his home. It pulled away at the last moment.

The 12-year-old saw that same car one day earlier, according to the October police report. The driver, a male with a scruffy beard, maybe in his early 20s, had flipped him the finger as he passed.

Two years earlier, his family's movie night was interrupted by popping sounds.

By the time they realized what was happening, more than 100 paint balls had been fired at the Doners' home. They'd hung a Black Lives Matter flag by the front door months earlier. The paint balls were blue.

Those are several of the actions targeting the Doner family that are documented in police reports obtained by the Free Press. They serve as ugly reminders that – despite its crunchy, progressive reputation  – intolerance of one type or another also exists in Vermont. That intolerance runs the gamut from abusive social media posts to acts meant to intimidate and frighten, carried out the dark of night.

The Doner family has experienced both.

Quinn Ember Doner identifies as a non-binary trans woman, who uses the pronouns they/them. Doner supports the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ rights, and other progressive causes. 

Quinn Doner of Milton holds up what is left of their family's Black Lives Matter flag that was ripped down from the front steps of their home in November 2019. It's not the first time they've been vandalized and, Doner suspects, it also won't be the last. Doner identifies as a non-binary trans woman, who uses the pronouns they/them, supports the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ rights, and other progressive causes. Doner believes they've been targeted for the flag and for their gender identity.

'Unnerving' comments on Facebook

Someone took a photo of Doner at a 2018 gun-control rally in Montpelier. It showed up on the Vermont Parents for Gun Rights Facebook page, showing Doner smiling and holding an anti-gun poster that read "F*ck this Sh*t" with the letter "u" replaced by a drawing of a flower and the "i" with a drawing of an assault rifle. The photo post on the pro-gun group’s page has more than 40 comments.

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Some raise serious arguments about gun ownership rights. Many more contain fairly benign, teasing or just crude insults. But a handful of comments are much more disturbing. 

"Smash on site," said one Facebook commenter of the photo of Doner.

"Waste of good air," another stated.

Shown in this Milton Police Department report, a comment describes specific details of the Doner family's home address on the Vermont Parents for Gun Rights Facebook page. The photo of Quinn Doner was taken at the March for Our Lives rally in February 2018 in Montpelier and was universally ridiculed because Doner supports gun control. It is unclear who took the photo or who posted it to the group's page.

One person went as far as to comment about where Doner lived, including the street, a detailed description of the two flags that hung out front, and even that the family bought the residence through Habitat for Humanity, an affordable housing program.

"That was a little unnerving," Doner said. The family decided to call police, afraid of what might come next. 

Milton police tried to talk to the commenter, but were unsuccessful in making contact, they said. Though a concern to authorities, the act by itself didn’t break any laws.

Doner has been the target of abusive comments on other various Facebook posts as well. They've been called a "freak," a "thing," and "mentally ill."

In December 2018, the Doner home was shot with more than 100 blue paintballs. Quinn Doner believes the act was in response to a Black Lives Matter flag hanging outside the family's Milton home, which has been stolen twice.

The Free Press contacted one of the administrators of the Vermont Parents for Gun Rights Facebook page who identified herself as Liz Mason.

"We don't condone such comments," she said via messenger of the comments made on the Doner photo post on the group's page. "But we also support the bill of rights. Freedom of speech is included in that."

After the photo was posted, Doner messaged the Facebook group and asked that it be removed.

"I'm sorry you don't like your photo being blasted on the internet," was the response from an administrator. The photo remained as of the publication of this story. 

'Most people in Milton are good people'

Doner is a substitute teacher in Milton and goes by the gender-neutral title of Mx. at school. They also frequent school board meetings and had strong opinions during the 2016 Black Lives Matter flag raising debate at the high school. All of this had made Doner easy to recognize.  

When Doner walks around town, sometimes people passing by in a car will shout obscenities at them. If the insults are bad enough, Doner jokes that they give them the finger in response. 

"I got beat up plenty," said Doner of growing up in Enosburg Falls, about a 40 minutes north of Milton in Franklin County. "This has never been a kind state if you are different."

A vehicle swerved into the path of Quinn Doner's son while he was biking near his home, described in this complaint to the Milton Police Department obtain through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Doner, now 51, jokes that back then the bullies thought they were gay instead of trans, not that it would have mattered much. As for the shouts from passing cars now, Doner tries to laugh that off, but behind the humor lies a deep-seated fear that, at some point, those insults could turn into acts of violence. 

"I will watch my back I suppose," they said.

Most of the more than 10,000 residents in town are happy to leave well enough alone when it comes to each others' personal choices or political views. Incidents like the ones impacting the Doner family are rare, according to Milton Police Chief Stephen Laroche. He believes the people behind the incidents at the Doner home are few. But even still, he is deeply troubled by what they've endured.

“This isn’t what our community is all about.” he said, adding that this is the first time in his memory that something like this has gone on in town.

"Most in Milton are good people," Doner said. One grandmother brought the family cookies when they put up the Black Lives Matter flag, they said.

A business next door to the Doner’s home provided their security camera footage to the police after the last flag vandalism in November, but the quality and the angle of the video allowed any would-be suspects to remain uncaught.

But Chief Laroche is far from giving up. He hopes that someone in Milton knows who is behind the acts and will do the right thing and come forward with information. 

So far, no one has been charged.

Couple whose Trump flag was torn down empathizes

Gus and Annmarie Klein of Burlington woke in 2018 to find their flag pole toppled and their Trump flag left smoldering on their front step. Gus Klein later told the Free Press that they were lucky the house didn’t catch fire while the couple slept.

“It could have gotten ugly,” he said. 

The Kleins are arguably as opposite the Doners as you can get politically. The Kleins support President Donald Trump as much as Doner opposes him. Despite this, when it comes to freedom of speech or expression, especially on one's own property, the Kleins say no one should experience what the Doners have.

“That’s their home, their personal lives, their beliefs. ... It’s just wrong,” Annmarie Klein said in a phone interview with the Free Press about what the Doner family experienced. “It’s their identity, it's a violation of them personally. I wish I could give them all a hug right now."

“Shame of anyone so full of hate,” said Gus Klein, a veteran of the Vermont National Guard with two Bronze Stars for service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Doner doesn't approve of what happened to the Kleins. But they are quick to point out that what is happening in Milton is quite different.

For starters, the culprits behind the Kleins' burnt Trump flag, two teenage kids, were identified. Burlington police released a statement that the parents of the two teens helped in the investigation.

Doner acknowledges that the vandalism of the Kleins' flag could have become deadly but noted that the police investigation revealed there was no intent to physically harm the Kleins.

"If I get killed it's not going to be an accident," Doner said. 

Vandals still at large. Facebook comments legal. 

"Social media has complicated things over the years," said Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George, who admitted that she's completely abandoned using Facebook personally due to the ugliness of comments made there, although her office holds an account for professional use.

George looked over the comments leveled at Doner's photo on the Vermont Parents for Gun Rights Facebook page and shook her head. But there is little state law can do about it, she said.

Quinn Doner of Milton, a trans woman who uses the pronouns they/them, believes they've been targeted because of their gender identity.

That's because Vermont's primary tool for his kind of issue is a statute first created in 1967. The first part of 13 V.S.A. § 1027, known as "Disturbing peace by use of telephone or other electronic communications" starts off with:

"A person who, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, or annoy, makes contact by means of a telephonic or other electronic communication with another and makes any request, suggestion, or proposal that is obscene, lewd, lascivious, or indecent; threatens to inflict injury or physical harm to the person or property of any person; or disturbs, or attempts to disturb, by repeated telephone calls or other electronic communications, whether or not conversation ensues, the peace, quiet, or right of privacy of any person at the place where the communication or communications are received shall be fined not more than $250.00 or be imprisoned not more than three months, or both."

"It requires that it be directed at that person," said Deputy State's Attorney Sally Adams of any threat or comment that could be acted on by law enforcement. And that's where social media by and large gets around the law. Adams recalled a case where a threat was made on a social platform, that it was obvious who was being threatened, but because that threat wasn't explicitly communicated to the subject, it didn't meet the requirements of the law. 

"It's unfortunate because it clearly was a horrible threat" she said. "But it wasn't a threat that was communicated to that person, and that's the issue."

Despite being updated in 1999 and again in 2013, George thinks the legislature needs modify the law further to address social media, but how is a big question. 

Something like H.496 might help, introduced in 2019 after Vermont state Rep. Kiah Morris of Bennington, who is African American, resigned, citing what she described as targeted harassment by Max Misch, a self-described white nationalist. But that bill is a long way off from becoming law.

According to one of its sponsors, Rep. Martin LaLonde, the bill is under major revision. It received pushback from racial justice proponents and even Morris herself for not having enough input from the communities it was trying to protect. LaLonde pointed out that trying to create a law that protects a victim from the hate speech or bias while preserving freedom of speech is no easy task. 

"That's what we are trying to figure out," he said. 

For now, a legislative solution that would give law enforcement and state prosecutors a better tool seems far off.

As for the vandals, Doner hopes that the police will catch them. When asked whether they would just take the Black Lives Matter flag down, Doner said it's too late for that now. 

"That's exactly what these kinds of people want us to do ... to take it down," Doner said. 

"We didn't even mean to have it up forever ... then when people lashed out so vehemently, now we can't take it down."

Follow Ryan Mercer on Twitter: @ryanmercer1 

This article originally appeared on Burlington Free Press: Trans person in Milton, Vermont, faces Facebook threats and vandalism