A weekend protest in Burlington turned violent when police shot protesters with pepper spray and rubber bullets. Hundreds of activists demonstrating against a proposed tar sands oil pipeline that would extend across northern New England gathered in front of a Hilton housing attendees for the thirty-sixth annual New England Governors conference. Just before 5 pm, the demonstrators attempted to block buses transporting the conference attendees to dinner, prompting police dressed in riot gear to fire on the crowd.
“The police and Burlington PD responded forcefully, kinda got the butt end of that,” said Marnie Salerno, a recent college graduate who works in a coffee shop and sustained minor injuries during the clash. “Shot with pepper spray coated rubber bullets—then some other people were shot with just rubber bullets and other people were pepper-sprayed. I was pushed into the middle of college street and I had officers pushing me back and one with a gun on me most of the time that had these bullets, yeah.”
In a press release, the Burlington police department said the maneuver was defensive after officers were “physically confronted by the crowd.” Additionally, the department claims that while police did fire pepper balls and stingball pellets at activists, they did not fire or carry rubber bullets.
The difference between “stingball pellets” and rubber bullets appears to be largely semantic, since both are weaponry consisting of small rubber projectiles fired at individuals with the intent to suppress crowds.
Despite claiming protesters physically confronted officers, no activists were arrested, and police report two officers sustained minor injuries, while claiming no protesters were injured, a report that contradicts statements from activists like Salerno and tweets from other observers:
“Burlington police confront protesters on College St. Rubber bullets fired. Injuries,” tweeted @vtnewscheck.
“Activists attending con. in burlington, vt attacked by riot police & rubber bullets. 6 injured,” @nugrooven tweeted.
Meanwhile, an activist named Ben claims the FBI visited his home, wanting to talk about the planned protests. At the time, Ben was not home, but the agents allegedly spoke to his housemate, Jo Robin.
Jo, who prefers to use an assumed name, considered the visit a form of intimidation aimed at chilling political speech. In a story posted at privacysos.org, she wrote, “It isn’t appropriate, and I want the federal government to know that we are not intimidated.”