Margolis: Police, politics and protests

Jon Margolis is a VTDigger political columnist.

In a democracy, the majority rules.

But for more than two weeks, the city of Burlington, with more than 40,000 residents, has been embroiled in a controversy kindled by a few hundred protesters demanding the dismissal of three police officers.

That’s about one percent of the city’s population, if all the protesters live in the city.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, scores of residents called to support their demand. But New North End Councilor Ali Dieng noted that all the callers were from the Old North End. In his neighborhood, he said, more people “think protestors should not be in the park. Period.”

He does not agree with them, but his political analysis seems accurate. This campaign to fire officers Jason Bellavance, Cory Campbell and Joseph Corrow is a narrow movement, not a mass movement.

It comes from the political left, but such left-of-liberal pressure groups as the Progressive Party, the ACLU, and the AFL-CIO are not part of it. The labor federation’s president, David Van Deusen, said (via email) that he would “salute the many Burlington residents who have engaged in the protests to demand both meaningful police reform and an end to systemic racism.”

But he didn’t say anything about firing those cops. Neither have the state legislators representing the city. Some churches have supported the rights of the protestors, but not their demand to fire the officers.

None of which invalidates that demand, which does have some support on the City Council, including from president Max Tracy. A plausible case can be made that they should have been fired some time ago. But in a democracy, the fact that the majority appears indifferent to the demand if not opposed to it belongs in the discussion.

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To the extent that there is a discussion. The protestors who gather at Battery Park won’t talk to reporters. They have printed the names of the officers and a few slogans on pieces of cardboard. None of that argues a case.

There is a case, but it gets lost amidst the slogans. The dominant slogan is “Black Lives Matter.” They do, but none of the targeted policemen has ended a Black life. Last year Campbell punched a man who later died of his injuries. The man was white.

But that punch goes unmentioned by the slogans and the signs. Actually, anything specific goes unmentioned by the slogans and the signs, which allege no facts. The protesters present no bill of particulars against the officers.

There are facts to be alleged and a bill of particulars to be presented, but the timing here is relevant. The events which precipitated this controversy occurred in September of 2018 in two separate incidents in and outside downtown bars. In both cases, the officers pushed against a wall or wrestled to the ground three Black men, injuring them.

That was two years ago. These protests began a few weeks ago. The treatment of these Black men by these Burlington cops had been in the news and is the subject of two lawsuits. But it did not become a cause celebre until the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 made police brutality against Black men a national issue.

This does not render the protests invalid. It does suggest that their purpose is to make a general, ideological, statement as much as (more than?) to right a specific wrong.

Specific wrongs there might have been. One of the officers, summoned by the bartender because a fracas was getting out of hand, came upon the bartender and a Black man arguing, and apparently shoved the Black man with both hands. The man fell back, hit his head against a wall, and was knocked unconscious.

For this, the officer (Bellavance) received a two-week suspension because his use of force was found to be “either unnecessary or departed from training.” Neither of the other officers was penalized for either incident.

The police union’s lawyer, Richard Cassidy, acknowledged that the Police Department had chosen to “impose a low level of discipline.”

Really? A low level? You think?

OK, a little restraint here. A policeman’s job is rarely easy and often unsafe. The bartender doesn’t call the cops because an easy-going, soft-spoken customer is bothering people. 

Still, to go up to someone without saying a word and push him with both hands against the wall departs from the most basic of training and from common sense, raising the question: Just what does a Burlington cop have to do to get fired? Kill somebody?

Maybe not even that. Campbell is still on the job. After the punching incident, he got a letter urging him not to use foul language.

But if some of the officers may not have acted properly, the Police Department did. It conducted an investigation and reached decisions, as only it is permitted to do under the city charter. It imposed one punishment. Its decisions, union lawyer Cassidy said, were reviewed by the state’s attorney’s office and in one case by the attorney general.

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In short, the processes prescribed by law and contract (which is law) were followed. Those processes are not perfect. That business about the charter granting all disciplinary power to the Police Department is “not uncommon” according to DeRay Mckesson of the police reform group Campaign Zero, but is “a bad idea.”

Mckessson also said the Burlington police union contract includes five of the six conditions that his organization thinks give police excessive protection from public accountability – items relating to how long disciplinary records are kept, how interrogations may be conducted, who pays for misconduct, what access to information is given to officers, and how extensively they may be disciplined.

All this is debatable. Campaign Zero is an advocacy group. Police officers deserve the same protection against capricious discipline as any other workers. But not more.

But if processes prescribed by law are not perfect, neither are they inconsequential. They are vital to a free and equitable society, and especially vital for the powerless. The truly privileged (which requires far more than merely being white) can buy or bully their way out of difficulties. The not-so-privileged need due process.

The protesters seem unaware of this, perhaps because, as mentioned, they ignore the specifics of the cases against the officers, who are both their targets and irrelevant. To the protesters, these cops have become a device for the purpose of making a statement.

The statement – that too many Black people are killed by police – is true. The proposed remedy – to dismiss three middle-class workers who killed no Black people – seems dubious.

It is also very much not left-wing, as is another slogan displayed by many of the protesters: “Abolish police.”

A police department is a socialist institution, an agency of government control and regulation like OSHA and the EPA. Abolishing a police department would merely abolish the socialist department, theoretically accountable to the public. Its abolition would instantly inspire creation of private (often for-profit) police departments as neighborhoods, business organizations and civic groups formed their own security forces.

A right-wing libertarian’s dream.

The protests seem doomed to failure. By all indications, the law forbids firing the officers. Councilor Dieng, who is Black and progressive (with a lower-case ‘p’; he runs as an independent) said it was “too late in the game.” His colleague Max Tracy disagreed, saying he would “try to find a way.”

If he and his colleagues have not found a way, there is no way.

Except, of course, a bribe. A legal bribe, also known as a negotiated settlement. This is America. Everything is for sale. Perhaps city officials could persuade the cops to quit. It would only take money. But it might entail a political cost.

Absent such an agreement, expect the protests to continue, at least until it gets too cold. Dieng, Mayor Miro Weinberger and others worry about the safety of the protestors. Others find them annoying, with a few customers sitting outdoors at Church Street restaurants griping that their meals were disrupted by the chanting marchers.

Oh, relax. I was one of those customers the other night. It took perhaps a minute for the few hundred protestors to march past. It is not an intimidating assemblage. Overwhelmingly white and young, mostly women, apparently middle- (if not upper-middle)-class, they walked by chanting (so far as I could figure) “No KKK, co-pop, in the USA, co-pop.”


Whatever. Not intimidating, but not particularly impressive, either.

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Jon Margolis

About Jon

Jon Margolis is the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964." Margolis left the Chicago Tribune early in 1995 after 23 years as Washington correspondent, sports writer, correspondent-at-large and general columnist. He was previously the Albany Bureau Chief for Newsday and has also been a reporter for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J.; the Miami Herald and the Concord Monitor (N.H.). A native of New Jersey, Margolis graduated from Oberlin College in 1962. He served in the U.S. Army.

Email: [email protected]

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