Activists rally in Burlington to draw attention to tar sands oil as notables arrive for conference

Protesters converge on the Hilton Hotel in Burlington. Photo by Greg Guma

Protesters converge on the Hilton Hotel in Burlington. Photo by Greg Guma

UPDATE: Protesters attempted to block conferee buses on Sunday evening and after a confrontation escalated with a crowd control team wearing plastic shields, Burlington police fired pepper spray into the group of protesters. Read the story.

Two days of protest activity in Burlington, coinciding with an international conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers, began at noon on Sunday with a rally at City Hall Park, a march through downtown streets, a symbolic “human oil spill’ at Battery Park, and mass chanting outside the Hilton hotel, site of the event scheduled for Monday.

About 500 people took part in the first activities of what has been described by organizers in the United States and Canada as a major mobilization against tar sands oil shipments and other regional development projects.

During brief remarks outside City Hall and later in Battery Park, representatives from a Canadian student group, the Vermont Workers Center, the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance, 350.org, the Sierra Club, and organizations from Maine and other states expressed solidarity with organizers of the movement to stop development and shipment of tar sands oil.

Energy companies want to convert an existing pipeline to ship the heavy, corrosive fuel from Canada to East Coast markets. Activists hope to stop it.

“Leaders are not talking about it yet,” said a speaker who urged participants to “put it on the agenda in a way they can’t forget.” At several points in the rally, phrases like “put people and the planet first” turned into spontaneous chants.

Several hundred people then marched through downtown Burlington with a small brass band, eventually reaching the conference site on lower Battery Street. The visible police presence was minimal, although police cars created a blockade that cut off traffic while the protesters occupied the street. Just inside the Hilton’s revolving doors, however, a small police contingent in riot gear stood at attention, ready to act if activists attempted to enter.

The rally moved up to Battery Park overlooking the Burlington waterfront. After several more presentations, hundreds of people wearing black joined in a huge chain representing oil, circling closer and closer as they chanted and created what they dubbed a “human oil spill.”

The activists returned to the Hilton for a second time and attempted to get the attention of conference participants who had arrived.

The conference agenda for July 30 kicks off at 9 a.m. with a welcome by co-chairs Gov. Peter Shumlin and Premier Jean Charest, followed by a discussion of “a clean and cost effective energy future for the Northeast.” The rest of the morning will be devoted to presentations about the commercialization of electric vehicles.

The speakers include Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association; Watson R. Collins III, manager of business development for Northeast Utilities; Pierre-Luc Desgagne, director of strategic planning and government affairs at Hydro-Quebec; Alain Daneu, director of transportation with Quebec’s natural resources ministry; and Daniel Esty, Connecticut commissioner of the Energy and Environmental Protection Department.

Innu activists will hold a 9:30 a.m. press conference outside the hotel, followed by a Bread & Puppet performance at 11:30 a.m. and a noon Burlington Occupy General Assembly in Battery Park.

For the governors, premiers and ambassadors the afternoon focus will be “keeping transportation flowing across a secure border.” Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Brian Searles will be joined by Tom Ruth, CEO of Halifax International Airport Authority; Paul Bingham, CDM Smith leader of economic practice; and David Moloney, senior adviser to the Privy Council Office for Beyond the Border Action Plan Implementation Group.

The conference will end at 4 p.m. with closing remarks by Shumlin and Charest, followed by a press conference. At the same hour, activists will regroup for a protest outside the Citizens Bank on College Street.

Greg Guma

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