Police crackdown out of line
I participated in the rally in Burlington on Sunday to oppose destructive industrial-scale energy development in the Northeast. Prior to the altercation, I had actually thanked the Burlington Police Department for their mellow behavior earlier in the day. I’m afraid I must rescind that thank-you.
Whether you agree with the tactics of some protesters or not — some of whom likely felt standing in the driveway was their last resort for communicating to elected officials who would otherwise have continued to ignore them — but in my mind, this incident is largely about how police choose to respond to the time-honored practice of Gandhian, nonviolent civil disobedience.
We have an entire day in this country commemorating Martin Luther King, yet this is how we respond to his tactics? Temporary loitering in front of a driveway is perhaps deserving of a citation — at the very worst, maybe disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor. But there are ways for police to deal with minor, nonviolent situations such as these without inflicting physical harm on people — though it may take a bit of patient discussion for that to happen.
Instead, it seems that the Burlington Police Department — along with many other police departments across the United States — feels its role is to respond swiftly to any form of passive, civil disobedience with overwhelming physical force.
BPD had many alternatives for dealing with the situation on Sunday, rather than responding with physical violence. It was only a matter of a several-minute inconvenience for people on a bus going to dinner. Why the rush to immediately assault peaceful citizens?
Police have a duty to ensure people in buses can make their dinner reservations. But police also have a duty to protect people standing up for what they believe in, who are not physically harming anyone. It speaks volumes that police will act so swiftly and with such violence in response to people standing in a driveway.
Protests are going to happen. As our economic and ecological systems continue to unravel, people will become more and more upset and will be taking action for change.
Count on it. As elected officials continue to ignore public opinion, as media continue to disregard and distort the issues of importance to citizens, more and more folks are likely going to attempt other strategies to enact positive change.
Are police going to respond to every sit-in with brute force? If so, the results will be predictable.
I worked as a special educator in public schools in rural Vermont for years. I learned that there are many tools in the toolbox for dealing with “disorderly” people that don’t include physical violence. Surely, Burlington police have access to the same training as special education paraprofessionals.
What are you going to do about this, Gov. Shumlin? Mayor Weinberger? Burlington city councilors? Or maybe I’m wrong in assuming that our elected officials actually want their police force — whose role, after all, is to enforce their policies — to be reasonable and serve the public good. Maybe they want our police to behave unpredictably and ruthlessly in response to nothing more than people hanging out in a driveway. Perhaps our elected officials understand that this way the majority of people will be too frightened to exercise their First Amendment rights and challenge the status quo they are seeking to uphold.
There’s a name for this tactic. It’s called “chilling dissent.” And it’s being used by governments all around the world. And now, I’m ashamed to say, even here in Vermont.
Josh Schlossberg lives in Waitsfield.