Peaceful protest takes a violent turn in Burlington
by John Briggs, Free Press staff writer, Burlington Free Press, July 30, 2012
Burlington police in riot gear shot protesters with what they described as “pepper balls” and “stingball pellets” as a large, peaceful demonstration turned violent and ugly Sunday afternoon.
No arrests were made. It was unclear if any of the protesters were seriously injured.
Six New England governors and five premiers from Canada’s eastern provinces were nowhere to be seen during the melee. There were roughly 500 demonstrators, assembling under the banner “Convergence on the Conference.”
At 3:30 Sunday afternoon they were in front of Burlington’s Hilton Hotel on Battery Street to make their voices heard, “No tar sand pipeline.” They flattened themselves on the pavement to create a symbolic human oil spill.
The protest ended without incident at about 3:45 in front of the hotel, but a smaller number of protesters later blocked the side driveway to the Hilton on College Street. Several said they had heard that buses were arriving to take the governors and premiers to a dinner at Shelburne Farms.
The violence erupted shortly before 5 p.m.
Demonstrators said police in riot gear, about 25 of them, cleared the driveway forcefully, pushing people into the street. At least two individuals were shot with with the non-lethal rounds, and at least two others were hit with pepper spray, according to witnesses.
Burlington Police Lt. Art Cyr, who had monitored the earlier demonstration and who had expressed relief then there had been “no incidents,” said protesters ignored police orders to clear the driveway. He said three individuals were identified who may be charged later with disorderly conduct.
As the confrontation ended later at the hotel driveway on College Street, Cyr, speaking to a demonstrator, said, “Of course I feel bad.”
“It’s ironic,” he told the Free Press. “None of the dignitaries were here. That’s what’s so frustrating.”
Police said the discharges “were defensive, to protect officers from those in the crowd who were moving toward them. At least one other person was sprayed with pepper spray during the incident. Burlington Police do not carry or use ‘rubber bullets’ as has been characterized by some,” the police statement said.
Police said the city will continue to welcome “lawful assembly and discourse.”
Demonstrators involved in the driveway blockage described the police response as unnecessarily violent.
“The demonstrators blocked big gigantic buses,” said Bea Bookchin of Burlington, who had attended the earlier demonstration which ended without incident. “So the police slowly pressed against the people. The police moved forward with their shields against people.”
Brian Tokar of East Montpelier said the demonstrators had blocked the driveway because they saw the buses coming and word spread the governors and premiers were being bused out.
“Two or three lines of people assembled along the sidewalk,” Tokar said. “The police began pushing against the crowd to open the driveway.”
He said he heard shots that sounded like gunshots as the police fired at demonstrators. “Someone got gassed,” he said, “and people said they got punched.”
Responding to a reporter’s question, Tokar said “absolutely’’ — that he thought police overreacted.
“Their only concern was to get the bus out as quickly as possible, no matter what the consequences,” he said.
The police statement said they responded with force only when protesters dragged one officer who was attempting to detain him “20-30 feet west on College Street and other protesters also “moved west” as well.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger also released a statement late Sunday. He praised the “laudable environmental goals” of the marchers and said this about the police action:
“The Burlington police had the responsibility of ensuring the free movement of approximately 200 conference attendees from around the region and world. The police took extensive steps to clear a safe path for the buses without conflict and, when their repeated verbal warnings were ignored, they resolved the situation without serious injury to demonstrators or themselves.”
UVM student David Fernandez, 20, said the demonstrators blocked the driveway “to disrupt them getting to their dinner. They moved us back to the sidewalk,” he said. “The cops said we were blocking the sidewalk, and they moved us into the street.
“One policeman tripped,” over a dropped banner, Fernandez said, “and that’s when they began firing. They pepper-sprayed a man who was just standing there. It was a gross overuse of violence. It was completely unnecessary.”
At 5:30, as another bus pulled out through the driveway, police moved forward and forced the crowd out of the way again, shooting another young woman with a round. Marni Salerno, 23, of Burlington, was shot in the hip at what Free Press photographer Elliot deBruyn said was point blank range.
“We were a peaceful protest,” Salerno said, “and they didn’t need to use that kind of force.”
Photographer DeBruyn said he was also threatened with a pointed weapon. He videotaped Salerno being shot. The video was posted at burlingtonfreepress.com.
“I was in the middle of College Street shooting the video of Salerno being shot when another police officer pointed his weapon at me and told me to ‘get on the sidewalk,’ ” deBruyn said.
DeBruyn said the officer was nudging Salerno with his gun to get her to move away from the bus.
Ki Walker, from Royalton, was one of those sprayed. Minutes later, shirtless, his face and chest covered with a milk solution to cut the spray, he said police had no reason to spray him.
“If they can, they will,” he said. “They do.”
“I want to know why they’re willing to inflict pain,” he continued. “Misunderstanding is met with aggression. It doesn’t make sense. Today we were trying to open up a conversation. This is Vermont. We’ve been shut out.”
During the earlier, peaceful portion of the demonstration, environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, told the crowd this is “a hinge moment in human history.”
He pointed to crop devastation this year across the center of the country from drought and about meager monsoons this year in India, and said that while he had begun a quarter of a century ago to write about potential environmental collapse, “There is nothing abstract about any of this,” he said.
Global temperatures have risen just one degree, McKibben said, calling this year’s weather just “early signs of global warning.”
A broad coalition of environmental groups, including 350.org, the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and others converged in Burlington Sunday to alert the public, they said, to plans by the Canadian pipeline company Enbridge, Inc. to reverse oil flow in Enbridge Line 9 and the Portland/Montreal pipeline and run tar sand oil to Portland, Maine’s Casco Bay for shipment.
Environmentalists call the heavy oil toxic and point to a major spill two years ago in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan as a demonstration of the risks the oil presents to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, to New Hampshire and Maine.
Sunday, the demonstrators — and they came from a variety of groups in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Quebec — gathered at noon in City Hall Park downtown, then moved in a slow parade, in a loop through the downtown, through the Church Street Marketplace, south on South Winooski Avenue, and down Main Street to the lake. Members of the Vermont Workers’ Center also attended.
Burlington police were present, in regular uniforms, blocking traffic to let the marchers pass.
“We’re involved because we have to be,” said Burlington’s Hayley Mason, a member of Fed Up Vermont, which had about 10 people at the rally. “The world is messed up, and historically the only thing that has changed things is when people organize.”
Steve Crowley of the Vermont Sierra Club said he was confident that the governors and premiers they would hear the message.
Bob Klotz, the state coordinator of 350 Maine, said about 70 people from the Maine group made the drive over for Sunday’s demonstration. The goal was “increasing awareness.” The group doesn’t want tar sand coming through Maine.
The large group stopped briefly in Battery Street on their way to the park, shouting at the hotel, “Whose street? Our street!” and “Hey governors, Come on out! We’ve got something to talk about!”
After short speeches in Battery Park, the group practiced moving in a spiral dance while singing. Their lyrics:
There is power in our voices,
There is power in the land,
Saying yes to the earth
We say no to tar sand.