Protesters bring “police brutality” charges to Burlington City Council

Protesters lined the back wall of Contois Auditorium during public comments on excessive force. Photo by Greg Guma

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 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.

Greg Guma

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  • One of the most important things police do in a democracy is to properly and effectively respond to public protest. For insight and direction on this and other important police improvement issues, take a look at “Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police” ( in US and EU). And the blog at where other current police improvement issues are discussed. Good luck and may we all experience not just good but great policing! And great policing is accomplished by police who are well-trained, restrained in their use of force, honest, and courteous to every citizen.

    • Christian Noll

      David thank you.

      Here’s another web site which is dedicated to the betterment of police.

      The recently acquired National Police Misconduct Statistics Reporting Project (NPMSRP)became the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project (NPMRP) under the CATO Institute just two months ago.

      Since there is no national agency nor organization of any kind which tracks, documents or reports incidents of police misconduct, we only have the news media to track it with.

      It is therefore an “Under reporting” if you will. Many incidents are covered up by the fact that they never make it into the media. Many police become skilled at keeping their incidents of misconduct out of the media because of the relationships they’ve developed with them.

      The first act of police misconduct is to mis characterize or misinform. They are allowed to do this. While it might not be “legal” for police to lie, they are still allowed.

      Many police and prosecutors AND judges engage in misconduct which will never go punished or even recognized. Police are allowed to deliberately exacerbate, provoke and taunt peaceful members of the public just to try and provoke a reaction. I mean who are you going to believe? The guy you don’t know? Or the police?

      I know now not to believe the police. Its a sad day we live in. Unitl it happens to you, who cares really. THAT, in part, is how they get away with it.

  • Randy Koch

    Wow, here it is now closer to a month after the police attack and they say they are still investigating. Investigation is what police do for a living: how come this one is taking so long? There must have been hundreds of youtubes of the attack, all kinds of witnesses. What’s the hold up? Are they just running the clock out hoping everyone will forget?

    How lame does the snappy young mayor look reading his canned statements with a serious expression on his face? Your cops shot a bunch of peaceful protests, boyo.

    One thing everybody forgets is that the police shot people. So what does that mean? We live under a government where everybody knows that elections are sort of rigged, law makers lobbied half to death and much of the judiciary ideologically bent. Street demonstrations are one of the last remaining opportunities for authentic democratic expression and now in Vermont the police shoot demonstrators.

    People can no longer feel comfortable bringing their young children to demonstrations, that’s the worst part. How are those children going to learn what it means to function as a citizen in a democracy if they may be shot while expressing themselves?

    • Christian Noll

      “Are they just running the clock out and hoping everyone will forget?”

      Pretty much Randy. Sad as it is, the police don’t really have to be accountable these days and if we leave the “Investigation” up to those we need investigated, you may never hear back from them and if you do, you probably won’t like what they have to say.

      Remember, Wayne Burwell was in his own upstairs bathroom, sitting naked on the toilet in a state of Diabetic Shock, when the Hartford Police Tased and maced him, before dragging him outside and Bill Sorrell concluded that the police acted “Lawfully.”

      Did you think Mr Sorrell would care much about a bunch of peaceful protestors?

  • Unbelievable. The BPD has vigorously blocked the public’s demand for an independent inquiry. They, and the mayor, are terrified of people learning the truth about the unprecedented and totally unjustified violence inflicted by the police. They were out of control and are desperate to hide it. We must not rest until there is a full independent inquiry that holds those responsible accountable. We are in a time in which dissent – the voices of ordinary citizens – is all we have left protecting the remnants of our democracy. That right to dissent most be protected for the good of everyone.

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