New investigation sought for Chilmark camp incident

Online petition criticizes Chilmark Town Affairs Council report and seeks improved transparency.

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Saskia and David Vanderhoop at an event in 2018. The Vanderhoops were part of the group that created the petition for a new investigation into the incident at the Chilmark Community Center. — Emily Drazen

A group of Island activists have put together a change.org petition for a transparent and participatory investigation into a strap incident that occurred at a Chilmark summer camp between two white boys and a Black boy.

The incident occured on July 29 at a summer camp at the Chilmark Community Center (CCC), and involved two white boys placing a tent strap around a Black boy’s neck. The boys were ages 8 and 9. A formal report was issued on August 25 by the Chilmark Town Affairs Council (CTAC), the nonprofit entity that runs the summer camp. Last week, the Chilmark select board met to discuss the report and raised questions, and the attorney for the family of the Black child released a statement that called for more reforms by the camp.

The petition, which has garnered 281 signatures in four days, was created by Saskia Vanderhoop and David Vanderhoop of Sassafras Earth Education, Freedom Cartwright of Freedom Rail Tours, Kyle Williams from A Long Talk, and Patrece Petersen of the Martha’s Vineyard Vegan Society. The petition’s goal is to get to 500 signatures.

“As BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) and Abolitionist community members living on Wampanoag land currently known as Martha’s Vineyard, we are going on record as stating that the investigation and communication with the Island community regarding the incident at the Chilmark Community Center, in which two white boys placed a tent strap around the neck of a Black boy, is being mishandled and is causing further harm to all community members, especially those in BIPOC communities,” the online petition titled “Racial Truth and Reconciliation” reads in part.

The group criticized the monthlong wait time for a response from the CTAC representatives, and that the report was unsigned. The petition also took issue with the report’s stated purpose to “answer the question whether race played a role in the incident that occurred at the center on July 29,” calling it “deeply troubling.”

“For a month, our Island community was asked to wait for the results of the investigation, during which we did not receive any updates regarding the investigation, how it was being conducted, or by whom,” the petition said in part.

The group stated that an unsigned report casts doubt on its integrity. “To question whether race played a role in the incident demonstrates a lack of knowledge and understanding of the history of the USA in regard to race and lynching, and a lack of input and guidance from members of the BIPOC community. In other words, only white privilege would pose the question of whether race played a role in an enactment of lynching,” the petiton adds.

The group states the focus is not to shame or punish the boys involved. Instead, it requests the Town Affairs Council, members of the Chilmark Community Center executive committee, and members of the Chilmark select board work with the Island’s BIPOC community and “engage a rigorous, reputable BIPOC organization to handle the investigation and the reporting of the investigation going forward, which includes community listening sessions, and a transparent accounting of the actions and decisions of all involved that led to a lynching enactment of a Black boy in your care.”

Additionally, the group requests a public commitment by the town organizations to take the lead in facilitating an Island-wide conversation about race, and to become models for Island organizations serving youth by making ongoing race awareness education mandatory for staff. 

Saskia and David Vanderhoop told the Times the group plans to submit the petition to the town organizations and select board once it’s collected enough signatures.

“We’ve seen a lot of support. So far we have collected about 280 signatures over the weekend. That’s pretty amazing for a small Island like ours,” Saskia Vanderhoop told The Times. “What we’re really trying to do here on the Island is have transparency and accountability on what has happened. What is equally important is going forward to bring about immediate change. What’s important is our response to this incident, and we believe the response has been extremely inadequate.”

She added that A Long Talk nominated Martha’s Vineyard as a “community of change” and a place that leads on race-related issues.

A Long Talk is an “antiracism activation experience.” Participants complete work materials of multimedia content about the history of racism in the U.S. to provide a common foundation of understanding the issue, according to their website, before three days of virtual conference calls, each 90 minutes. The program holds the conferences once a month. The next Long Talk will be on Oct. 6, 13, and 20, from 8 to 9:30 pm. Signup will be available on its website.

“As a Wampanoag elder and indigenous person from this part of the world, I want to say that growing up here, I see where I was definitely discriminated against, was the brunt of racist comments and actions, and it’s time for a change,” David Vanderhoop said.

He added now was the time for action, and not sweeping issues under the rug. “I think we can all benefit from a conversation about that, so we don’t keep repeating our mistakes of this historical trauma that not only Native people and Black people have been growing through,” he said. “I think we need to set a good example for the next generation and how to deal with these situations.”

Cartwright and Williams could not immediately be reached for comment on their involvement in the petition. Petersen said he had nothing more to add at this time.

President of the CTAC Jeff Herman could not immediately be reached for comment.

18 COMMENTS

  1. First of all, during investigations, the public isn’t usually notified of the progress until they have completed their investigating.
    Secondly, how do the parents (of the child who was bullied) feel about this petition? Were they satisfied with the investigation?
    If all parties involved are satisfied, then why are others making this a spectacle by putting it in the paper and getting their names in print?

  2. Perhaps the investigation should be turned over to Mr. Wasserman, in fact I am surprised he hasn’t volunteered yet!

  3. The Town of Chilmark investigating the Town of Chilmark couldn’t possibly arrive at wrong decision, could it?

  4. Come on — How many investigations do we need for an incident that occurred between some 9 year old kids ?
    It’s been investigated, and investigated–

    The liberals here are playing into the hands of the real racists, by demanding that some investigation at some point determine that this was racially motivated..
    Their refusal to accept the results of the investigations undermines the credibility of those who are concerned.
    Sorry, it’s likely that it wasn’t racially motivated.
    The reality is that every incident is not racially motivated, no matter how many times you investigate it..

    • Don, had this assault occurred against your child, would you be satisfied with an unsigned report that found no fault and more importantly didn’t address any steps to ensure that such an assault doesn’t occur again? I think if you honestly read the full investigative report you will see why even the Select Board members found it to be problematic and less than transparent.

      • Kyle, I totally agree with you that many in our community have not treated this situation as they would if their own were involved. That bothers me most. One thing is for sure — this incident has prompted a lot of racist reactions. Some even tried to put the blame back on the Black child, despite the police acknowledging the basic facts are not in dispute. This boy has been devalued and his situation mocked because some view this as a political topic on which to rant rather than a tragic experience for a young kid. Perspective is needed. Not everything has to be a part of our stupid cultural divide or is worthy of a glib response. Sometimes we can just look at a terrible situation with empathy and aim to prevent a repeat. That shouldn’t be “left” or “right”, it should be a universal model of responsibility coming from all adults. No wonder kids don’t show respect when their parents refuse to teach it.

      • Katie– I do not base my opinions about the legal precedents of court cases or investigations on how it would affect me personally.
        I try to take a look at the bigger picture.
        And how would you propose to prevent 9 year old boys from doing anything like this in the future ?
        Or how would you prevent a nine year old boy from touching the breast of a 9 year old girl ?
        My point is that something happened, it was looked into, and some people don’t like the conclusion.. I am not making a case as to whether this was racially motivated or not– I am just pointing out that this was investigated. People should accept that. And if we had another 4 investigations, and one of them concluded that it was racially motivated, then what ?
        Do we throw the white kids in jail, ? maybe the parents ? The kids are already out of the program–
        Tell me the point of further investigation.

        • I wasn’t referring to your post. I was speaking in general about a bunch of insensitive, unhelpful, sarcastic, and sometimes racist replies, here and elsewhere, since this incident was made public over a month ago. Kyle’s comment raised the question everyone should ask themselves when replying to this matter — would I want the same things said or done if my child were attacked? I have thought this often, so I seconded it.

          There have been many remarks that didn’t deserve to see the light of day. No respect shown for this boy or his family. Just misdirection and politicizing of what was (is) a traumatic event for a family. The irony that I can’t believe people miss is that in debating whether this was racist and whether racism is common, some came out of the woodwork to prove how it’s alive and well on MV within adult circles.

          I didn’t say anything about conducting further investigation. I think we already know change is needed and that this was malicious. But that is not my call and I respect that people would like some more basic info about this report.

          I would propose that they kick kids out of camp or similar once they’ve targeted, shoved, kicked, and insulted a fellow camper so that things never reach such a dangerous conclusion. If they aren’t allowed privileges, they can’t abuse them. Nor abuse others. I would also propose that some adults in our community stop defending their behavior with baseless hypotheticals and other politically motivated tactics. I was crystal clear on that and said nothing about jail, but scarecrow arguments rule because they are easy. Better to try and make someone’s stance look absurd through dishonest tactics than admit a call for better supervision and empathy is more than reasonable, right?

          This would be a legal case if those responsible were older. All the more reason to break them of this behavior now. Best for everyone involved. But after reading what the anonymous father had to say, I won’t hold my breath that anyone was made to understand the seriousness of their actions. Bullies are always victims in their own minds. I’ve never seen it go any other way.

    • It’s a miracle. Keller’s post is correct and for a liberal it is amazing to see his clear thought. All the rest of it is misplaced white guilt.

      • Andy– my points are always correct..
        Read what I write, rather than what you think I should write..
        if I write something that opposes your narrative, you think i am wrong, and often accuse me of things i don’t think or do.
        I do not lie—

  5. What do 8 & 9 her old’s know about racism except what the adult act out at home, on tv, in video games and so many more avenues.

    Start the investigation in people’s home … See how far that gets you…..

  6. I don’t know that further investigation will turn up anything “overt”, which seems to be Chilmark’s standard for making changes. But they absolutely need to take a hard look at the supervision at this camp going forward and make sure nothing similar ever happens again due to negligence. Adults can’t prevent everything, but this was not a one-time incident or even unpredictable. This didn’t need to happen. Since the boy who was bullied advocated for himself, as the petition states, everyone in charge should’ve made the effort to respect his safety and keep these kids apart. Monitor the situation. Or, better yet, just immediately throw out any camper who kicks and shoves. Nothing would’ve escalated if initial reports of bullying were treated seriously. Why tolerate targeting behavior at all?

    I agree that it’s strange the report is unsigned. I guess that’s in keeping with the Island’s idea of “official”.

  7. Some people are fortunate. An incident happens, it’s investigated, the investigation answers all unanswered questions, and a solution satisfactory to all parties is reached. Great.

    Many of us have not been so fortunate. Either there is no investigation or the investigation is perfunctory. Incidents aren’t taken seriously — even when serious physical harm is involved, even when someone gets killed. So we’re skeptical, especially when an unsigned report is released that doesn’t address the issues involved.

    Many white people seem to think that for an incident to be racially motivated, someone has to be wearing a white hood or yelling racial slurs. A person of color who’s been on the receiving end of racially based “microaggressions” or more serious aggressions knows better.

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