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Forum starts a community conversation about racism in Keene

Justin Smith is a young black man who has lived in Keene for the past two years. He moved here because he heard it was a great place to live, but said some people haven’t made him feel very welcome.

Smith has experienced multiple instances of racism since moving to the Elm City, he said during a public forum Keene officials hosted via Zoom on Monday evening. The most recent, he said, took place within the past two weeks while he was walking down Main Street.

“It’s difficult to, at first, want to move to a place because you hear of how great it is, then to be living here and dealing with these situations,” Smith said. “The reason I’m sharing this experience is [for] anyone who’s listening to this forum, just to let them know that this is real. It’s not for show; these are real issues that are happening in this town that I now call home.”

Smith was one of dozens of people who spoke during the forum, which had nearly 200 viewers at its peak early in the two-hour event. He wasn’t the only person who shared experiences of being harassed by other community members due to the color of their skin.

Mayor George Hansel called for the forum last week as part of a series of anti-racism measures he announced in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man, in the custody of Minneapolis police. The incident sparked global protests, some of which became violent, calling for criminal justice reform, and in many cases, for police departments to be defunded.

“It’s important to take up this cause because it’s long overdue,” said a woman of color who identified herself as Sandra. “Racism has just been that elephant in the room that we have not been able to get rid of, and this is the time to get rid of it, to the extent that we can.”

Monday’s forum kicked off with opening statements from four panelists: Dottie Morris, Keene State College’s associate vice president for diversity and inclusion; Rick Van Wickler, recently retired superintendent of the Cheshire County jail; Cheshire County Sheriff Eli Rivera; and Keene police Lt. Shane Maxfield. Morris and Van Wickler have also agreed to co-chair the mayor’s new ad hoc committee on racial injustice, another of the anti-racism measures he recently announced.

But the makeup of the panel came under fire from one commenter, who asked why there was only one black person alongside three law enforcement representatives.

“I actually find it kind of inappropriate in terms of what the whole movement is about, which is police brutality targeted specifically toward the black community,” she said. “So I would request that another public forum on the same issue be scheduled as soon as possible with a more appropriate panel for the topic and goals of the discussion.”

Hansel said the law enforcement officials were included because they had expressed interest in participating. He added that he intends to bring more people of color into the fold as members of the ad hoc committee, which will use the information from the forum, and potential future community discussions, to make recommendations to city officials on matters of racial justice.

Much of Monday’s conversation focused on ways to improve the criminal justice system. Calls for the city to get rid of its BearCat, a military-style armored vehicle, were abundant, with many people suggesting that such a vehicle detracts from the mission of community policing.

Others called for shifting some of the funding in the city’s nearly $8 million proposed police budget to cover the cost of mental health services, assistance for people experiencing homelessness or resources for those struggling with addiction. Several called for some of the money remaining in the police budget to be used for more training for officers or to buy body cameras.

However, many speakers, including several who identified themselves as people of color, commended the Keene Police Department, saying they’ve never experienced racism in their interactions with city officers. One of them, Pierre Morton, told a story about his adopted son, who is Puerto Rican, being pulled over for speeding and having a respectable exchange with the officer.

“He said the police stopped him and talked to him, more than that they listened to him,” Morton said. “... I come from Phoenix, Ariz., by way of San Diego, so I know what poor policing looks like. I know what harassment looks like. What we have in Keene, I feel like I’m living in Wonderland for my 19-year-old son to come home and say those wonderful things about getting stopped by the police. That’s unheard of.”

Sandra, the speaker who called racism the elephant in the room, said she has never had a bad interaction with the Keene Police Department, but has experienced racist comments from members of the general public.

However, two speakers criticized the department for not releasing an unredacted use-of-force policy; this lack of transparency, one of them said, does a “disservice” to the community.

The Sentinel obtained a copy of the department’s policy, but it was heavily redacted by the city attorney’s office. Both City Attorney Thomas Mullins and City Manager Elizabeth Dragon cited safety concerns in the city’s declining to release the policy in full.

Anita Rice, who is a graduate of Keene High School, said she experienced significant racism during her years there. She recalled having to remind people in her life not to use racial slurs and said she even experienced prejudice from a past administrator.

As much as people ask police departments to change their practices and approaches to criminal justice, she said, progress won’t be made in the fight against racism until communities are ready to step up.

“If the community doesn’t buy in,” she said, “we’re just going to continue in this cycle.”

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Local gyms reopen with limited capacity

Before Monday, Jenifer Marchesi hadn’t been to the pool at the Keene Family YMCA for 13 weeks and three days. She counted.

And after her first swim in more than three months, she said it was great to be back in the pool.

“It’s fantastic,” Marchesi, of Alstead, said as she exited the facility on Summit Road on Monday morning. “... And it’s clean, and they’re really well organized.”

Though the gym at the YMCA has been open on a limited basis since June 3, additional restrictions on gyms, and nearly all businesses statewide, were lifted Monday as New Hampshire’s stay-at-home order expired. The order, which Gov. Chris Sununu initially put in place due to COVID-19 on March 27 now transitions to a “safer at home” advisory, which removes the prohibition on gatherings of 10 or more people and the distinction between essential and nonessential businesses.

All of the businesses and other institutions that can now resume operations — such as libraries, museums, arts galleries, pools and indoor dining at restaurants — must follow the state’s universal guidelines to reopen. These standards include screening employees for COVID-19 symptoms when they arrive for work and requiring them to wear cloth face coverings and practice social distancing whenever possible.

The state also provided some industry-specific guidelines. Gyms, for example, must rearrange equipment to be at least 6 feet apart, and are limited to 50 percent capacity. At the Keene YMCA, employees also take the temperature of every member who comes for a workout, and ask them if they have experienced any COVID-19 symptoms recently. Members get their own spray bottles to clean any equipment they use.

“I make sure I wear a mask when I am going between rooms, and stay far apart from everyone else that may be in there,” said Nate Simonds of Keene, a Y member who went to the gym to lift weights Monday afternoon. “And every time I use a piece of equipment, I make sure I wipe it down before and after I use it. I’m pretty diligent about that.”

The Y’s partial reopening of its gym came two days after the state permitted fitness centers to resume small workout classes and one-on-one training.

Since then, the gym has been operating on a reservation system for individual workouts and classes, many of which are held outdoors. Dan Smith, the organization’s CEO, said Monday he doesn’t anticipate the Y making any significant change to these procedures soon, even in light of the end of the state’s stay-at-home order.

“We’re still going to have social distancing and cleaning requirements within that,” Smith said. “And our capacity to deliver that in a way that keeps everybody safe has got some limits.”

Option 1 Fitness, at 428 Winchester St. in Keene, has been closed since March 18, but the gym was a flurry of activity Monday morning as staff prepared to reopen the following day.

“We’ve been tirelessly cleaning, all hands on deck,” said Renee DiCastro, the gym’s owner.

She added that gym members “have been really supportive and patient and understanding, which I can’t thank them enough for.”

Option 1 is normally open 24/7, but for now, its hours will be 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Even with reduced hours, though, DiCastro said the gym’s staff is thrilled to welcome members back.

“It’s paramount to be able to go to the gym, for mental, physical, immune [health],” she said. “I mean, there’s so many benefits of exercise. And we understand that there are going to be people who don’t want to come back right away.”

So, DiCastro said, Option 1 will continue to offer virtual workout classes online.

Planet Fitness announced Monday that it plans to reopen its Keene location, and its 18 other gyms in New Hampshire, on Thursday. The gym will require members to wear masks when not working out, and will be limited to 50 percent capacity.

Libraries were also allowed to reopen starting Monday. For the time being, though, the Keene Public Library will keeps its doors closed, and continue its current virtual programs and curbside pickup. Library Director Marti Fiske said the facility hopes to reopen in early to mid-July.

The library also began its summer lunch program Monday. Bagged lunches for children and families will be available at the library on a first-come, first-served basis from noon to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, Fiske said.

Supreme Court: gay, transgender workers protected by federal law forbidding discrimination

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a landmark federal civil rights law from the 1960s protects gay and transgender workers, a watershed ruling for LGBTQ rights written by one of the court’s most conservative justices.

Justice Neil Gorsuch and Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s liberals in the 6-3 ruling. They said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination “because of sex,” includes gay and transgender employees.

The decision was a surprise, and not the only one of the day. Even though the court’s conservative majority has been strengthened, it announced Monday that it was turning down a batch of challenges from gun rights groups eager to expand Second Amendment rights. And it rejected the Trump administration’s request to review California’s attempts to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.

The court’s LGBTQ rights ruling is the major decision of the term so far and illustrates the difficulty of predicting how the independent-minded court will rule. Over the next several weeks, the justices will announce the fates of the program extending protection from deportation to undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children, a Louisiana law restricting abortion access, three cases important to religious conservatives, and President Donald Trump’s ongoing battle to keep his private financial records from Congress and a New York prosecutor.

Providing additional interest to Monday’s decision was its author. Gorsuch, Trump’s first appointee to the high court, is such a favorite of conservatives that “But, Gorsuch” has become a catchphrase among those who are not enamored of the president but love his judicial choices.

But the 52-year-old from Colorado signaled during oral arguments that he thought the text of the law — “because of sex” — favored the plaintiffs’ interpretation, and his straightforward opinion read in places as if inspired by their briefs.

“We must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear,” Gorsuch wrote. “An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

Gorsuch and Roberts — the chief justice was on the losing side when the court voted 5-4 five years ago that the Constitution provided a right for gay people to marry — were joined by liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

“This is a huge victory for LGBTQ equality,” said James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union. He added: “The Supreme Court’s clarification that it’s unlawful to fire people because they’re LGBTQ is the result of decades of advocates fighting for our rights. The court has caught up to the majority of our country, which already knows that discriminating against LGBTQ people is both unfair and against the law.”

Many conservatives were appalled by the decision, including some who had worked the hardest for Gorsuch’s confirmation.

“Justice [Antonin] Scalia would be disappointed that his successor has bungled textualism so badly today, for the sake of appealing to college campuses and editorial boards,” said Carrie Severino of the group Judicial Crisis Network.

“You can’t redefine the meaning of words themselves and still be doing textualism,” she said. “This is an ominous sign for anyone concerned about the future of representative democracy.”

Trump, whose administration has moved to ban transgender service members and recently backtracked on medical protections for gay and transgender Americans, was silent about the decision for much of the day, and then ambivalent.

“Well, they’ve ruled,” he told reporters. “I’ve read the decision. And some people were surprised. But they’ve ruled, and we live with their decision; that’s what it’s all about. We live with the decision of the Supreme Court. Very powerful. A very powerful decision, actually. But they have so ruled.”

His presumptive Democratic opponent in November’s election, former vice president Joe Biden, was effusive.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision is a momentous step forward for our country,” Biden said in a statement. “Before today, in more than half of states, LGBTQ+ people could get married one day and be fired from their job the next day under state law, simply because of who they are or who they love.”

He signed off: “Happy Pride!”

Before lower courts began to change past rulings, judges for 50 years had interpreted Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination because of sex to mean only that employers could not treat women worse than men, and vice versa, not that discrimination against LGBTQ employees was prohibited.

That is the view of the law the Trump administration advanced, and that dissenting Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh embraced.

“If every single living American had been surveyed in 1964, it would have been hard to find any who thought that discrimination because of sex meant discrimination because of sexual orientation — not to mention gender identity, a concept that was essentially unknown at the time,” wrote Alito, who was joined by Thomas in his dissent.

The dissenters said their colleagues were changing the law, not interpreting it.

Regardless of whether LGBTQ workers should be protected, Kavanaugh wrote, “our role is not to make or amend the law. As written, Title VII does not prohibit employment discrimination because of sexual orientation.”

Kavanaugh said the majority opinion “rewrites history.”

“Seneca Falls was not Stonewall. The women’s rights movement was not (and is not) the gay rights movement, although many people obviously support or participate in both,” he wrote. “So to think that sexual orientation discrimination is just a form of sex discrimination is not just a mistake of language and psychology, but also a mistake of history and sociology.”

Alito said the effects of the decision would be far-reaching and impossible to predict.

One example he provided: “For women who have been victimized by sexual assault or abuse, the experience of seeing an unclothed person with the anatomy of a male in a confined and sensitive location such as a bathroom or locker room can cause serious psychological harm.”

He said the majority did not address how the ruling would affect housing, religious employers or sports: “The entire federal judiciary will be mired for years in disputes about the reach of the Court’s reasoning.”

Gorsuch agreed that the ruling addressed only the issues that sprung from the employment discrimination the law addresses but said that the most important step was to provide a clear answer to that.

“It is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex,” Gorsuch wrote, and loaded his opinion with common examples.

“Consider, for example, an employer with two employees, both of whom are attracted to men. The two individuals are, to the employer’s mind, materially identical in all respects, except that one is a man and the other a woman. If the employer fires the male employee for no reason other than the fact he is attracted to men, the employer discriminates against him for traits or actions it tolerates in his female colleague.”

It was exactly the message that lawyers for the gay and transgender employees had made.

Gorsuch acknowledged that lawmakers in 1964 probably were not intending to protect gay and transgender workers. But the words of the statute they wrote do that, he said.

“Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees,” he wrote. “But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands.”

He said the decision was narrow — “we do not purport to address bathrooms, locker rooms, or anything else of the kind” — and that there might be constitutional protections or other federal laws shielding religious employers, but that also was not before the court. “How these doctrines protecting religious liberty interact with Title VII are questions for future cases too,” he wrote.

Kelly Shackelford, president of the conservative First Liberty Institute, said in a statement, “We are grateful that the Supreme Court was clear in the opinion that this federal statute does not overrule peoples’ religious freedoms. We will find out in the very near future whether this is a hollow promise or a truthful assurance that the religious liberty of all Americans will be protected.”

Major employers had urged the court to find that Title VII provided protection, and unions were happy as well. Jerame Davis, the executive director of Pride at Work, a nonprofit focused on LGBTQ employment rights funded by the AFL-CIO and other unions, said “the Supreme Court has seen our humanity.”

Others found a symbolic importance to the decision beyond the employment aspects.

Indiana University law professor Steve Sanders noted that Gorsuch, in writing his opinion, used the preferred pronouns of the transgender plaintiff, Aimee Stephens.

“It may prove very significant that the opinion implicitly takes seriously the idea that a person can transition genders,” Sanders said in a statement. “That remains a controversial concept among many conservatives.”

The court combined two cases to consider whether gay workers are protected under the law. Gerald Bostock claimed that he was fired from his job as a social worker in Clayton County, Ga., after he became more open about being gay, including joining a gay softball league. Donald Zarda said he was fired as a skydiving instructor after joking with a female client to whom he was strapped for a tandem dive that he was gay. (Zarda died in 2014.)

The transgender case was brought by Stephens, who worked for years at a Michigan funeral home before being fired after informing the owners and colleagues of her gender transition. Stephens died of kidney failure in May, after seeing her case argued at the Supreme Court in October.

Before her death, Stephens prepared a statement through the American Civil Liberties Union in anticipation of a possible ruling in her favor.

“Firing me because I’m transgender was discrimination, plain and simple, and I am glad the court recognized that what happened to me is wrong and illegal,” she said. “I am thankful that the court said my transgender siblings and I have a place in our laws — it made me feel safer and more included in society.”

The cases were the first the court heard since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, for whom both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh clerked.

Kennedy had written the majority opinion in all of the court’s major cases that advanced gay rights, including the 2015 decision that said gay couples had the constitutional right to marry.

More than 70 friend-of-the-court briefs were filed in the discrimination case, dividing states, religious orders and members of Congress. More than 200 of the nation’s largest employers supported the workers.

The Trump administration’s position put it at odds with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which decided in 2015 that gay and transgender people were federally protected.

Treating a man who is attracted to men differently from a woman who is attracted to men is discrimination, the EEOC reasoned.

Most appellate courts had come to agree with the EEOC, even when they had not done so in the past.

The sexual orientation cases are Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga., and Altitude Express v. Zarda. The other case is R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Eli Rosenberg, Samantha Schmidt and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.