Burlington- Unprovoked, the Burlington Police Department opened fire on unarmed civilians with pepper spray, rubber bullets, and brutal force in order to crush dissent and political opposition to the Northeast Governor’s Conference in Burlington. In addition to Gov. Shumlin, the Conference was composed of Jean Charest, Premier of Quebec Province; and the Governors of New Hampshire, and Maine as well as numerous other delegates who gathered in Burlington to discuss regional economic and security issues.
Arriving in great numbers from locales as far afield as Connecticut, Northern Quebec, and New York City as well as turning out in droves from Burlington itself, the protesters were determined to bring issues such as natural resource extraction, affordable housing, student debt, indigenous peoples’ rights, and a wide array of other issues to the forefront of the conversation between regional elites.
Among the issues raised at the gathering of activists is the alarming fact that over 80% of Vermonters can’t afford a median priced home, that much of our state’s energy solutions are derived from “Green Capitalism” that strips many of the First Nations people of northern Quebec of their rights and culture, and the increasingly crippling amount of student debt facing many who seek higher education. The overall message: We are in crisis and our concerns must be addressed.
Rather than listening and engaging in dialogue between those gathered outside the Hilton Hotel, the order was given to turn out the riot police and put down the dissent as it sprang up in the Green Mountain State. Linking arms, the protesters attempted to block several busses from leaving the Hilton compound: a last ditch attempt to bring the issues to the governors for the day. That’s when everything changed.
In an unprecedented display of force in Vermont, about 30 heavily armed black-clad riot police used brute force to clear away the unarmed protesters: plexi-glass riot shields were thrust outward, gloved hands squeezed around throats, the air was filled with projectiles, and a small section of College Street in Burlington resembled a war zone as the police fired their weapons and civilians scrambled for their lives.
This incident, captured and uploaded numerous times to Youtube and other outlets, signals an escalation and departure from the long tradition of supporting civil disobedience and protest in Vermont. In an Op-Ed by Jo Robin, critical questions are raised about the level of force used against protesters on Sunday as well as possible Federal involvement in the series of events that led to incident on College St. “So what on earth prompted BPD in riot gear to open fire on passionate Vermonters?” asks Robin. “My guess? The FBI in cooperation with Homeland Security. Their visit to at least one activists' home is an indication that they participated in the planning and training of BPD before this action. If this is the case, why on earth is BPD taking the fall for the Feds.”
Robin also notes that throughout the weekend, civilian access the Burlington Police Department building on North Ave. was strictly prohibited. Instead, a handwritten note proclaimed the building to be “Command Unit” as several vehicles from the Department of Homeland Security waited outside. “In what world is it appropriate for the police department of a city of 40,000 people to close its main office to the public on any given day without any information about alternate offices?” Asks Robin, “…these questions remain unanswered. I hope one of our cities journalists will consider the possibility that Federal agents are participating in our local police force's decision making.”
Now, as the country enters one of the most dynamic and arguably unstable periods of its recent history one thing seems clear: As police forces across the country become increasingly militarized, they are more likely to turn to use of brutal force rather than the creativity for which Burlington Chief of Police Mike Schirling has been so lauded for. If you exist in the world as a hammer, everything looks like a nail and should be dealt with accordingly. Militarized police actions can no longer be considered products of large multi-national groups clashing with scores of protesters. The tactics now exist across the board and at every level.
What happened in Burlington was shocking. Upon hearing of the incident on College St and upon seeing the images and video that continue to emerge, many viewers reacted along the lines of “What?! This happened in Vermont?! Vermont?!?!” Systematic repression, police brutality, and the continued devotion to crushing vocal dissent wherever it exists is rapidly becoming the New Normal. We can no longer afford ourselves the comfort and peace of mind provided by “it can’t happen here.” Though it be painful and difficult to accept: it is happening here.
We’ve begun a new and dark chapter in our history: one of shadowy figures knocking on doors, of police training weapons at people who dare to deviate from the approved message, and of citizens looking over their shoulders in their own community.
We’ve begun a new chapter, where the wheel stops next is anyone’s guess.
For more photography by Dylan Kelley visit his blog here.