This story was updated at 11:28 p.m.
Vermonters rallied in Burlington and Montpelier Saturday as protests against police brutality erupted across the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
In Burlington, signs and speeches escalated to a verbal confrontation with city police officials as demonstrators marched on the Burlington Police Department. Demonstrators in Montpelier lined the city’s downtown, chanting and waving signs calling for racial justice.
In cities around the country, people took to the streets after Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died Monday when a white police officer kneeled on his neck for more than 8 minutes. Floyd’s death, recorded on video, ignited widespread backlash against racial disparities in police violence.
In sharp contrast to the quiet streets that have characterized the coronavirus crisis since the country shut down in March to prevent the spread of the illness, demonstrations have grown through the week. Protests have become violent in some places, and authorities in nearly a dozen American cities implemented curfews on Saturday as they braced for more.
In Vermont on Saturday, where the governor has ordered gatherings to be capped at 25 people because of Covid-19, people came together wearing masks and carrying signs.
Police estimated between 1,200 and 1,500 people gathered in Burlington, where protesters first met in Battery Park before marching on the city’s police department.
The protest came to a peak when lead organizer Harmony Edosomwan, bullhorn in hand, stood above Burlington Police Chief Jen Morrison on a blue pickup truck in the parking lot of the BPD station.
“Their blood is on your hands, if you don’t do anything to fix this motherf—— department!” Edosomwan shouted into the bull horn, as she poured a bright red liquid substance, symbolizing the blood of people of color who have died in altercations with police, from a jug at the feet of Morrison, Deputy Police Chief Jon Murad and Vermont State Police Captain Garry Scott.
Edosomwan asked the police chief to account for the department’s record of disproportionately using force against people of color and past incidents where Burlington police were accused of brutality against black people.
“If another motherf—— black person, brown person — or even a motherf—— white person — dies on one of y’all’s n—- hands, that building is going motherf—— down,” Edosomwan said. “Do you understand that?”
“I’m going to give y’all grace today, because I believe in people sometimes,” Edosomwan said. “I’m angry as f—. We could easily turn this shit up right now.”
“If you turn this into Minneapolis,” Morrison responded, referencing the center of the unrest, “guess what, it’s going to set us back five more years.”
Earlier in the evening, attendees had attempted to follow guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19 by keeping some distance between people. But the crowd pressed in as people strained to hear the conversation between Edosomwan and Morrison.
Nearby, one protester got into a shouting match with a man trying to keep people from sitting and standing on a BPD police car.
That same man — who was wearing a vest that said security on it, but Morrison confirmed does not work for BPD — also began shouting with protesters who had removed the American and Vermont State Police flag from the station’s flagpole and replaced it with the Black Lives Matter flag.
Vermont and Burlington law enforcement officials had condemned the conduct of Minneapolis police officers against Floyd in statements earlier this week. On Friday, the Vermont State Police announced that it would review its use of force policies and trainings in the wake of Floyd’s death. State Police Col. Matthew Birmingham called the police behavior on the video “beyond disturbing.”
In an interview after the protest, Morrison said that she did not take Edosomwan’s message as a threat, and she met with protesters outside to listen to their frustrations.
“I took it as an expression of the need for us to continue to listen and to work with communities of color,” Morrison. “I think these folks have very legitimate grievances.”
She said the station did see some damage during the protest — it had been spray painted and one window was broken.
Earlier in the evening, before protesters marched to the police station, speakers had shared their anguish over the death of George Floyd in Battery Park to a crowd of attendees, almost all of whom were wearing masks. It began with a moment of silence for Floyd and others who have died from police violence.
“Why must I walk around, each and every day, with black trauma on my back? Why must my days be filled with guilt, grief and walking cautiously?” Edosomwan said, speaking to the crowd. “I’m jealous. I’m jealous there are folks walking the same earth as me and they don’t have a target on their backs.”
People carried signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “white silence is violence.” A caravan of cars continually passed by the park, honking and chanting in support, amid a pandemic when not all were willing to take the risk to attend in person.
In an interview before the demonstration began, Edosomwan said she felt a “calling” within herself to organize the event. “I can’t sit still when an injustice takes place,” she said.
Demonstrators also gathered in other towns to rally against police brutality and racial injustice. Events were planned in Middlebury and Hanover, New Hampshire.
In Montpelier, protesters began gathering around 4:30 p.m. at the intersection of State and Main Streets. Over the next hour, more than 100 people lined the four corners, holding “Black Lives Matter” signs and “Justice for George Floyd” flyers.
Sylvie Dewes, an 8th grader at Main Street Middle School, said she and her friends had posted the flyers around town on Friday — then reposted them on Saturday after several were torn down.
Dewes, 13, is from St. Louis, Missouri, near where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014, sparking a national wave of protests. “I was in 2nd grade during the Ferguson riots in 2014, and so it’s personally really important to me,” Dewes said. “I wanted to inspire others.”
Nathan DeGroot, a local activist, said it was important to show solidarity with the protests happening nationwide. “It’s important to show that we care about people of color in this country, and specifically the black lives that are being lost right now,” they said.
Holding a sign that read, “All cops are complicit,” DeGroot pointed out that 17 Vermonters have died at the hands of police since 2010, and several of those people had mental health issues. “By participating in a police system, you are complicit in the things that happen,” they said.
As protesters crossed the intersection during each cycle of the stoplight, Lindsey Sterrett led the crowd in chants of “No justice, no peace!”
“I’m just mad,” Sterrett said. “I think a lot of people are mad and frustrated, and it feels good to all be here together.”
Sterrett is also an early childhood educator. “I’m most concerned for the children of today and the world they will inherit, and the culture we’re perpetuating,” she said. “We have white privilege. We need to put our bodies on the line, just like other people have done in centuries past. If we don’t do that, nothing is going to change.”
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the pronoun used in reference to Nathan DeGroot. VTDigger regrets the error.
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