Susan Campbell

There was a moment when Keren Prescott sat in a July court hearing and watched a passel of white men – including Prescott’s expert witness, a sociology professor from La Salle University, her alma mater – discuss when an act can be considered racist.

For so many of us white people – and others – racism is confined to Big R racism. It’s burning a cross, or using the n-word. Anything else is simply a misunderstanding on the part of the person of color, and that delineation may be a big part of our racism problem.

The men volleyed back and forth and for Prescott, “it was kind of like, ‘I’m a Black woman, and I am telling you the things that are being said, you can attach to racism,” she said later.

Earlier this month, the court broadened the definition of racism to include certain speech (in context, “all lives matter” as a counterpoint to Black lives mattering, for instance). The decision, against a white woman who spat on Prescott during a Hartford protest, may help set a precedent for a new age.

Earlier this month, Judge Matthew Budzik ruled against Yuliya Gilshteyn, a white woman who spat on Prescott at a Jan. 6, 2021, protest at the State Capitol, and awarded $295,000 to Prescott. As the judgment said, if a white person spits on a Black person while that Black person is expressing support for, say, Black Lives Matter, and the white person adds racist tropes (Gilshteyn asked Prescott about “black on black crime” and insisted that “all lives matter”), then “a person of ordinary judgment would, at a minimum, entertain the idea that the white person’s decision to spit on the Black person was motivated in substantial part by race.”

People with ordinary judgment should have no argument with that, though Gilshteyn is appealing the case. That’s a pity. The kindest spin one can put on her court arguments is that they defied logic.

“Racism won’t be gone tomorrow, unfortunately,” said Kenneth J. Krayeske, Prescott’s Hartford lawyer. “But we can make it really expensive for white hate to exist.”

On the day Gilshteyn decided to waste her First Amendment right to spit, Prescott was speaking into a megaphone at a Black Lives Matter protest at the State Capitol, and Gilshteyn was there with a different group to protest pandemic medical mandates such as masking. A video shows an unmasked Gilshteyn, cradling a child, standing close to Prescott, and then turning to spit on her. The spit landed on Prescott’s mask, glasses and megaphone.

Getting spat on is humiliating and gross, and it awakened for Prescott, who is immunocompromised, fears that she could have been exposed to COVID-19. It also reawakened the trauma of a past sexual attack.

The court took this seriously, though Gilshteyn was first arrested simply on a breach of peace charge. Those charges were upgraded to include attempted third-degree assault, reckless endangerment, risk of injury to a minor, and deprivation of rights, which is a hate crime. In July 2021, Gilshteyn was granted accelerated rehabilitation, a condition often offered to first-time offenders), and she ordered to complete 100 hours in an anti-crime curriculum within two years. 

The decision moved Prescott to tears.

“It wasn’t until I saw the way that my criminal hearing went with that judge, and seeing her disgust for how my attorney was calling out racism and for her to say something to the effect she was not going to let my attorney use her court as some kind of political playground, as if Black Lives was political, not a human rights issue,” said Prescott.

She didn’t hold out much hope for her next court date.

“I almost don’t expect things to go well,” said Prescott. “I don’t expect to win.”

But she very much needs this win, and so does her family, including her three children, ages 18, 17, and 12. After the announcement, she was still in shock a week later and so too, she said, were the kids.

“Most kids would say, ‘Let’s go to Disney World, let’s get a new car, go on vacation,’” said Prescott. “My kids said, ‘We want a home. Can we get a home now, Mom? Can we talk about what kind of house we can get?’”

Even now, Prescott is cautious. 

“I’m hoping we can settle this and be done,” said Prescott. “If not, I fought this long, and I’ve been poor this long. I can fight this longer. I think that’s the thing, is when you are considered the lowest of the low – Black, queer, disabled, depressed, anxious, single mother – I have nothing to lose. I have everything to gain.”

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Susan Campbell

Author of "Frog Hollow: Stories From an American Neighborhood," "Tempest Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker," and "Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl." Find more at

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