At a heated public forum in Burlington, more than a dozen protesters and their supporters charged city police with using excessive force during a demonstration in late July.
Officials listened soberly Monday night as speakers described what they saw and experienced on July 29 as police dispersed protesters who had briefly blocked buses at the Hilton Hotel prior to a conference of regional governors and Canadian premiers.
After they spoke, Mayor Miro Weinberger provided a brief response describing the internal review process that is under way.
“Burlington should remain, as it has long been, a city where all citizens can safely and competently express their views at all times,” Weinberger said. “We can learn from that day so that our community – protesters, law enforcement, everyone – will have the best chance of engaging in civil, peaceful, productive, incident-free protests in the future.”
Completion of an “after-action report” is expected in about two weeks, he said. That preliminary report, a public document to be posted to the Internet, will be reviewed at a Police Commission meeting where the public can respond to its findings. “The commission will then deliberate, consider the comments on the report, and make recommendations including possible changes to be included in the final version,” Weinberger explained.
The confrontation between protesters and police occurred after hours of peaceful demonstrations on a sunny Sunday. Hundreds of protesters had gathered in Burlington as part of a mobilization against tar sands oil shipments and other regional development projects. When about 30 people attempted to block a bus taking conference participants to dinner, however, riot-clad police assembled and the protesters were told to move.
An initial police report of the incident said that some protesters “began pushing back” while others were on the ground with locked arms. Protesters insist that they were completely nonviolent. That report says that “two officers discharged defensive munitions,” listing eight to 10 pepper balls, a sting ball round that projected several rubber “stingball pellets,” and pepper spray.
No one was arrested but officials say that a criminal investigation is in progress.
Several who addressed the City Council during the forum were present at the protest, including at least two people who say they were shot with so-called “non-lethal” weapons. Marni Faye Salerno said she was shocked that, rather than arresting her, the police opted to attack, while Jonathan Leavitt claimed that he was walking away with his hands up when he was hit with rubber pellets.
Genese Grill, a former Burlington College faculty member, accused authorities of “treacherously stifling our students’ voices.” Thomas Grace called the actions of the police an attack “on the rights of all people to challenge injustice.”
Sandra Baird and others who spoke on Monday want an independent investigation, arguing that an internal review is not likely to be complete or balanced.
Leavitt and attorney Sandra Baird reminded city officials that Burlington has seen many protests involving civil disobedience over the years, but no response involving such force. “In this case, why weren’t they (protesters) cited?” Baird asked. Answering her own question Baird suggested that the reason may be that people in charge “didn’t want to hear their side of the story.”
She and others who spoke on Monday want an independent investigation, arguing that an internal review is not likely to be complete or balanced.
Bill Oetjen, who has spoken to the council several times as part of the Occupy movement, was visibly angry as he challenged the officials.
“You people need the Occupy movement to help you avoid making stupid, embarrassing mistakes,” he began, specifically mentioning Weinberger’s support for the basing of F-35s at the Burlington airport. “But instead, because of police brutality we have to talk about this.”
Oetjen described the conference of New England governors and Eastern Canadian premiers that prompted the protests as a gathering of the “richest and most power people in our region” to “divide up resources behind closed doors. My friends gathered to send a message, to put their bodies in front of a bus to deliver a message.” They harmed no one, he said, but “were attacked by a militarized police, a police department out of control.”
He and others want those who authorized the actions of the police “to step forward and step down.” A sign carried by one person standing at the back of Contois Auditorium was more direct: “Miro – Fire (Police Chief) Schirling Then Resign.”
Weinberger listened closely to the remarks and occasionally took notes. When they were over, he read a prepared statement. “I fully share the view expressed by many here tonight that
Burlington should remain, as it has long been, a city where all citizens can safely and competently express their views at all times,” he said. “It’s important as a community that we fully understand what happened on July 29.”
His review of the steps taken and plans for a Police Commission review concluded with a pledge to “do all I can to ensure that Burlington remains a place that respects, encourages and celebrates freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.”
After the hour-long forum and Weinberger’s update, most of the protesters left the auditorium, and the council meeting turned to a series of reports and resolutions.
Debate on a resolution concerning the future of the Moran Plant on the city’s waterfront was postponed until September. Independent Sharon Bushor, one of the sponsors, told VTDigger.org that Weinberger requested the delay to discuss some of his concerns. “I don’t know exactly what he has in mind,” Bushor said. However, she acknowledged that the sponsors had not “reached out” to the mayor early enough and were open to his ideas.
Planning and Zoning Director David White provided an abbreviated PowerPoint presentation on planBTV, the proposed master plan for downtown and the waterfront. Other reports covered recent developments at the Burlington International Airport, the Church Street Marketplace, and the Burlington Conservation Board. A resolution on landlord accountability was also passed.