Many urgent questions have arisen since Burlington police shot protesters engaged in civil disobedience with projectiles and chemical agents: The appropriateness of the police department who shot Vermonters investigating themselves; Which agencies were involved; The trainings to prep for such situations; what the policies on nonlethal force were and whether they were followed; The reports of police removing their badges; Whether the munitions as WPTZ reports were 6 years past their expiration date. These questions shouldn't be answered by a party with a clear vested interest in the outcomes such as the same police department who shot Vermonters.
What will happen to Burlington's unique social fabric if peaceful civil disobedience is deterred though being shot with projectiles and chemical agents? How will Vermonters express their discontent in this era of economic crises and militaristic foreign policy if civil disobedience is deterred by police violence?
Mayor Weinberger immediately endorsed the actions of the police before any sort of inquiry had even begun. It wholly really inappropriate for the Mayor, or any policy maker, to have endorsed the police department's shooting nonviolent Vermont citizens engaged in protected speech before an sort of investigation was even started. Additionally, one didn't get the sense that the police inquiry into themselves would yield meaningful accountability when the Chief of Police, rather than quietly and diligently overseeing the investigation, instead was making erroneous statements on VPR, as did his assistant on Front Porch Forum, about the actions of peaceful protesters, claiming the use of excessive use of force was justified based on protesters touching batons. This is something which Chief Schirling would later admit didn't happen as Seven Days reported. Then, rather than presiding over the investigation, according to City Councilor Max Tracy, the Chief went on vacation. Perhaps predictably, the only accountably in the police department's internal report was to "welcome operational suggestions." Under the "Policy Implications" section this lack of accountability becomes even more stark, as main recommendation is to put the internal report on file: "We recommend memorializing this in an updated version of the Department’s Response to Resistance/Use of Force Policy." Putting a report on file isn't going to rebuild our communities trust.
A respect for civic engagement and peaceful dissent has long been a part of Vermont's culture. Perhaps many of you know State Senator Philip Baruth, he joined a 129 other Vermonters doing civil disobedience at Vermont Yankee this spring. No one was shot by police. Perhaps many of you know Phil Fiermonte, Bernie Sanders' Vermont Chief of Staff who was part of the "Winooski 44," 44 people who occupied Senator Stafford's office for three days over controversial arms shipments to Contras in Nicaragua. Again, no one was shot with rubber munitions or chemical agents. Police simply took the protesters into custody and let the courts decide how to proceed. Charges were dropped in both cases. Protesters performed civil disobedience at war profiteer General Dynamics on the 5th anniversary of the war in Iraq, blockading General Dynamics all day. No one was shot by police. No one was even arrested, police talked and joked with protesters and opened up a neighboring businesses parking lot. In 2004 protesters occupied the intersection, of Pearl Street and Church Street, stopping traffic with civil disobedience to protest George Bush's re-election. No one was shot, no one was even arrested. In October 1988, protesting the US dirty wars in Central America 44 activists occupied the firing range. No one was shot by police. In 2007 protesters did civil disobedience occupy a Williston recruitment center. No one was shot and the charges were dropped. In March of 2003, protesting Shock and Awe in Iraq, protesters occupied intersections blocking traffic in both Burlington (North Winooski Ave and College St and Williston, Vermont's intersection of 2A and Maple Tree Place). No one was shot much less arrested. In April of 2003 protesters occupied the front entry way of the Burlington Free Press, to protest perceived bias coverage, by spilling fake blood on themselves and staging a die in. No one was shot much less arrested. The sheer number of civil disobedience arrests in the office of our congressional delegation problematizes any sort of easy recap, but suffice to say no one was ever shot. All of the above represents Vermont's culture of Thoreau style civil disobedience.
Unfortunately, July 29th Burlington Police deviated dramatically from our culture, using excessive force on protesters doing peaceful non-violent civil disobedience. It was impressive to see the level of restraint and calm, protesters displayed even as officers in riot gear curiously broke from Burlington's culture, not attempting to arrest anyone, preferring to use pepper spray, push and throw peaceful Burlingtonians to the ground. At this point it seemed as though every protester was dispersing from the specified area. It's really troubling that, at this moment of departure, as Burlington residents were in the process of dispersing that officers would further escalate the situation. I watched in horror as officers broke out weapons and started shooting Burlington citizens with munitions as they were walking away. Some protesters were shot 19 times with munitions as they walked away, peacefully pleading for calm with their hands raised. Still not a single arrested was attempted, and the police department who shot Burlingtonians curiously was allowed to investigate themselves.
Since Bernie Sanders's mayoral administration Burlington had build a unique social fabric, a certain Vermont exceptionalism, where citizens rights to peacefully protest were respected and this sort of police violence wasn't used on peaceful protesters. That legacy built trust. Hopefully through an independent investigation which, through answering many urgent questions about actions taken toward citizens in Burlington Sunday July 29th, and meaningful accountability, our community’s unique social fabric and trust can be repaired.
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