MONTPELIER — Student activists disrupted a session at the State House Thursday to protest a lack of legislation to combat climate change in Vermont.
Members of the newly formed Extinction Rebellion in Vermont unfurled banners, shouted protests from the balcony of the House chamber and threw hundreds of leaflets onto legislators below, forcing House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-Grand Isle-Chittenden, to adjourn the session. Capitol Police officers asked protesters to leave and eventually arrested three students, who were charged with unlawful trespass and disorderly conduct.
The climate activists were part of a new U.S. movement, following in the footsteps of the Extinction Rebellion that began in Britain last year with protests that paralyzed central London with sit-ins on city streets by thousands of protesters. The socio-political movement uses non-violent resistance to protest climate change, biodiversity loss and ecological collapse that could lead to human extinction, hence the movement’s name.
Thursday’s protest followed last month’s five-day march from Middlebury to Montpelier by climate activist group 350VT, and this month’s Rally for the Planet by the Vermont Youth Lobby — both to lobby lawmakers do more to combat climate change.
A large banner unfurled over the balcony read, “See you in January,” as did the leaflets rained down on legislators, telling them that student activists would return for the next session in the State House and continue to press their cause.
Participants in the protest included Jennifer Skinder — her two children, Asa, and Carmen, were both arrested in the protest, along with Alec Fleisher.
Skinder was one of the protesters who heckled legislators from the balcony.
“I’m a single mother with three kids — two of them are here today,” she said. “I’m here interrupting your business today because I’m terrified about my children’s futures and because I’m angry that my government’s response has been so tepid.”
Skinder reeled off a list of major environmental disasters that included fires, floods, droughts and cyclones as a result of rising carbon in the atmosphere that was driving climate change.
“These are not unrelated events,” she said. “People are rising up in the streets around the world to demand action on this emergency.
“I implore you to make this your number-one priority,” she added, and was soon led out by a Capitol Police officer.
Karen Bixler, of Bethel, also shouted from the House chamber balcony.
“Renewable energy is one of the most effective tools we have to fight climate change,” Bixler said. “It will create new jobs and stimulate the economy. Vermont can easily take the lead in this industry.”
Rory Patch, of Ferrisburg, noted that the Intergovernmental Science-Policy on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services said the deteriorating health of ecosystems “are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
“The report also tells us that is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start at every level, from local to global,” he added.
The youngest protester arrested, Carmen Richardson-Skinder, aged 15, was cited to appear in Washington County family court in July.
“I think it was effective, towards media coverage, that we have young people here, willing to get arrested, because we’ve done a lot of youth protesting that has not really had a huge impact,” said Richardson-Skinder. “We were prepared to stay there for up to 40 minutes, and they (the police) really reacted quickly. My mom was the second speaker, and after two sentences, she was escorted out.”
Her brother, Asa Skinder, 18, an environmental studies freshman at Middlebury College, was also arrested and was cited to appear in Washington County criminal court on Thursday, May 23, together with fellow Middlebury College junior Alec Fleisher.
“I came in with the intention of being arrested,” Skinder said. “I’m tired of just non-disruptive protests and them not listening to us, so if we can make it a little rowdier, why not?”
“I didn’t just show up here for the first time,” Fleisher said. “I’ve walked here from Middlebury. I’ve been here with the Vermont Climate Lobby. I’ve probably done six or seven protests in this building. Sometimes you have to amplify your voice, so that’s what we did today.”
”It was a full chamber and I really do hope they remember our message,” he added.
Rep. Selene Colburn, a progressive from Burlington, was the only legislator to vote against the House budget because she said legislators had not done enough to address climate change.
“I appreciate that there are people in our community letting us know that business as usual is not going to be an effective strategy when it comes to responding to climate change,” Colburn said. “I can tell you that we’ve had hundreds, thousands of people streaming through this building on this issue, very politely, and I don’t feel like we’ve responded to them accordingly. So, I certainly understand the impulse to disrupt the way we’ve been doing things.”
“I welcome the feedback from Vermonters on how the Legislature is tackling climate change,” Johnson said in an email Thursday. “I believe we are in a climate crisis and action must be taken, but I also believe that action must be thoughtfully approached so that we take into account the full impact to Vermonters.”
She pointed to her own role as a young person standing by her principles as an example.
“My past includes participation in peaceful civil disobedience and I strongly believe it’s important for Vermonters to exercise their rights, and for elected representatives to hear from Vermonters,” Johnson wrote, “I recognize that it is their right to voice their opinions and concerns but I was disappointed that this group chose to disrupt the Legislature to the point we could not continue business and had to recess business in the middle of a critical environmental protection bill. I hope they bring this same energy to the ballot box, to conversations with their elected representatives, and to engaging and mobilizing their communities on the issue of climate change.”
To view video of the protest, visit www.facebook.com/xrebellionvt/.