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BURLINGTON, Vt. – Scorch marks and the melted plastic remnants of a Vermont couple's Pride Flag cling to the banister of their home, almost a week after it was burned in what police are calling a hate crime.

The apparent arson took place on June 1 – the first day of Pride Month.

Just a few days later, Burlington Deputy Police Chief Jon Murad visited Christopher Vaccaro and Jimmie Searle at their Burlington home with a Pride Flag to replace the couple's own.

Tucked into the new flag was a handwritten card from Police Chief Brandon del Pozo. He wrote about Stonewall, the 1969 riots against police violence in Manhattan, and the historical oppression of the LGBTQ+ community by police.

“That was a really touching thing," said Vaccaro of the Burlington Police Department’s gesture. "Actually, we both started to get a little teary-eyed."

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When police arrived at Vaccaro and Seale's home June 1, they found evidence the flag was burned. Police continue to search for further evidence and for suspects.

This jarring news interrupted the couple on a trip to Montreal as they celebrated the beginning of Pride Month.

“We were really scared,” Vaccaro said. “We were so troubled by the fact that we could have been there and someone could have gotten hurt or the house could have gone up in flames and so we started panicking.”

Said Searle: “It’s a lot more than just burning a flag down. They could have killed people. This isn’t something to be taken lightly. It’s just frightening that someone thought that that was OK; that it was an acceptable risk due to their hatred.”

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This incident comes amid a slew of Pride flag burnings and other hate-fueled crimes in New York City and reflects a broader trend of increased hate crimes nationwide.

“Identity-related crimes have a ripple effect," said Skylar Wolfe, director of the SafeSpace Anti-Violence Program at the Vermont Pride Center. "When one of us is hurt out of hate due to our identities, many others experience fear, pain and feelings of isolation."

Increased reports of hate crimes in Vermont, nationwide

Vermont officials are well aware of the disturbing trends.

“There’s no question that nationally, cities, towns and states are receiving more reports and are connecting more investigations of reported hate crimes," said Julio Thompson, assistant to the Vermont attorney general.

“If we look at the numbers that have been publicly reported by the FBI in terms of voluntary reporting from law enforcement, we’ve seen a rise of reported hate crimes by law enforcement in Vermont over the last couple of years,” he said.

Tracking the actual rates of hate crimes can be challenging. For one, victims do not always seek out law enforcement to report incidents.

According to Wolfe, the rise in reporting in Vermont can be partially attributed to improved collaboration between Vermont State Police and the Vermont Attorney General’s Office to “help improve responses and recognition of hate crimes.”

The flag-burning incident has proved sobering to a city police department seeking to support marginalized communities better.

“Hate crime is a terrible way to begin Pride Month. It shows that we still have a long way to go collectively,” said Murad, the Burlington deputy police chief. “But we have come a long way as well, and I think that our police response is indicative of that.”

From police brutality to empathy for LGBTQ+ persons

Marginalized groups have not always been able to trust law-enforcement officers given a history of brutality and oppression, notes Wolfe of the Vermont Pride Center.

“LGBTQ+ people have been challenging hateful people, laws, and systems that target us based on our identities for more than 50 years,” Wolfe said. The Pride movement began in the 1960s as response led by transgender women of color to discrimination and police violence.

Wolfe contrasted that history with the response in Burlington to the Old North End flag burning.

“It’s crucial that when hate fueled incidences such as this occur, that law enforcement set a clear precedent that hate crimes will be recognized, taken seriously, and not tolerated,” Wolfe said. He commended the actions of Burlington police, saying this is just one step in the right direction.

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Searle, one of the flag's owners, agreed police have acted with empathy.

“They’re definitely taking this seriously and not just as a vandalism,” he said.

Vaccaro and Searle have already replaced the burned flag with a new one.

“They’re not going to force us to act any differently because of their hatred,” Searle said.

“If you’re supporting someone, then fly the flag; let people know that it’s OK,” he said. “But at the same time be careful because this could have happened to anybody.”

Vaccaro also offered a suggestion to challenge this “climate of emboldened discrimination,” asking the Burlington City Council to consider painting a couple of crosswalks with rainbow colors.

“Other cities are doing this and it sends the message to all LGBT residents that they are supported, valued and protected," Vaccaro said.

However, being loud and proud might not be a reality for all members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“June is a reminder to take that extra step at home, in the office, and with your friends to help make the world a little safer for LGBTQ+ people,” the Pride Center's Wolfe said. “Pride should be a reminder that our actions matter – not just in June – but year round and that LGBTQ+ people exist and are still experiencing harm.”

Follow Sadie Housberg on Twitter: @HousbergSadie

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