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.”
Occupy Boston posted the following update on Facebook:
FBI agents visited the apartment of an activist in Vermont today (7/26/12) in advance of the planned regional Occupy gathering in Vermont on the weekend—see the report, as well as advice for YOU should you receive such a visit, namely, take their card and say your lawyer will contact them. Never lie to a federal agent, that is a felony.
Mike Kanerick, an aide to Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, told VT Digger city officials were not aware of FBI activity related to the protests, and “therefore, cannot comment on it.” Kanerick said the mayor “welcomes peaceful protestors to the City and appreciates their efforts to bring attention to a range of important environmental and labor issues.”
Some on Twitter expressed surprise that police in Burlington would be equipped with high-tech riot gear, but the armed-to-the-teeth accessories make sense given the Burlington Join Terrorism Task Force operates as a satellite of the Albany JTTF, an entity that brings together local, state and federal resources for “special events” such as the gathering of New England governors, Canadian Premiers, ambassadors and, yes, business leaders. Hence, lots and lots of protest-crushing gear.
The VT Digger reminds its readers that since 2005, the FBI has listed “ecoterrorism” as the top domestic terror threat, and a 2009 FBI press released placed “highly destructive ecoterrorists” above “hate-filled white supremacists,” “violence-prone anti-government extremists” and “radical separatist groups.”
The FBI considers property damage “ecoterrorism,” which criminalizes otherwise nonviolent direct action, the overwhelmingly favorite tool of environmental activists.
In recent years environmental campaigns which have involved sabotage include the Newbury protests and the GM crops campaign. The Reclaim the Streets protests, where roads were dug up and trees planted could also qualify, as could the Greenpeace activists who climbed the chimneys at Kingsnorth and wrote Gordon on them. Are we seriously claiming that these people are ecoterrorists?
What about the courts that cleared them of criminal damage? Are they conspirators? It is vital to remember, as one activist points out to me, that the right to cause damage in order to prevent greater damage is enshrined in law, as the Greenpeace case has shown.
Activists have criticized the behind-closed-doors policy of the governors and premiers and their staffs when crafting environmental policies that will affect the citizens of Vermont.
“It’s clear the governors and premiers are meeting to talk about trade policy, energy and infrastructure,” said Avery Pittman, a spokeswoman for participating protest groups. “They’re definitely prioritizing profits and money-making over the needs of the people or the impact these proposals will have on us, the people who live on the land and are affected by the decisions.”