Saturday, August 4, 2012

Burlington Gets Militarized

On Sunday, I joined many other activists from all over New England and Quebec at a massive demonstration in Burlington against Northern Pass, Tar Sands, and other corporate energy schemes in the region. The governors of all the New England states were holding their conference that day in the city, and we had planned our demonstration accordingly. I ended up staying in Burlington until Tuesday.

When I first arrived in Burlington early Sunday morning, I met up with my friend Michelle from Occupy NH. She had started a full-fledged campaign against Northern Pass, as the project would be devastating for her town in particular (she lives in a small town in northern NH, too far to have the "NH advantage" that NH's southeastern towns have). She told me how a four-story tower would be erected right next to her yard, for one thing. We ate lunch and then walked across the street to City Hall Park where people were already gathering.

Michelle left to hand out anti-Northern Pass flyers, and I met up with some anarchist comrades whom I had met back in June during our get-together (the region has a large anarchist presence, as I found out before). They were all carrying home-made black flags. Soon enough, we were joined by Earth Firsters, socialist party members, and community groups from all over the northeast. The people who spoke were mostly environmentalist-types who warned about the effects these Big Energy schemes would have. They reminded us how the oil spill in the Kalamazoo River a few years ago was one of the worst environmental disasters in North American history, and yet was covered up by the mainstream media. Michelle spoke about the effects Northern Pass would have on her and many other New Hampshire residents. A First Nations woman who only spoke French told us how First Nations in Quebec would face being uprooted from their homes if these projects were to continue. I was very pleased to hear a First Nations voice - albeit, through a young dude who translated for us - amidst our crowd.

We marched out of the park a short time later, zig-zagging through downtown Burlington. We marched right through the Church St. marketplace (a modern-day αγορά) screaming: "Class warfare!" and "Smash capitalism!". Even though it was supposed to be an environmental protest, there is no divorcing the mass environmental destruction and the capitalist system. Looking back at the photos of our demonstration, it looked much more like an anti-capitalist march - with anarchists (including myself and my comrades) in the front with our black flags and banners, and the band and all the other organizations following closely behind - than a march against corporate-provided fake "green energy".

No surprises, the Burlington police were one step ahead of us the whole way. As we were approaching the Hilton Hotel where the governors were holding their conference, our entire march was blocked. I went over to my friend Emily and suggested we break out into a little dance party now that the march had stopped.  So we danced around and had the band play as the rest of the demonstrators behind us caught up and the cops slowly pulled back.

Sure enough, the Hilton was entirely blocked off. A mesh-net had been planted next to the sidewalk, and about ten cops patrolled the road around the hotel entrance. The media (both independent and mainstream/corporate) was there as well, shoving their cameras in our faces. Those of us with black flags and banners were front and center during this time. A friend of mine tried to sneak past the cops to get right at the hotel, but as soon as he passed the fence three cops came right on over to keep him out. That was expected.

Finally, all of us headed to Battery Park. Emily and I took a break and had a little pool party in a nearby fountain to cool off from the heat. When I did enter the park the first people whom I bumped into were activists from Occupy NH. I sat down on the grass and chatted with them. They gave me a clearer version as to why the events from the other week happened the way they did. It turns out, plans to co-opt ONH into a means of promoting the Free State Project had been laid out on their blogs as far back as October of 2011. There was one free stater, a state representative with a notorious anti-union voting record of all things, who was particularly known for trying to steer ONH away from addressing and taking action against any issue that was even the slightest bit anti-capitalist or pro-labor. Obviously, this was incredibly problematic when such a large portion of ONH's activists were heavily devoted to the labor cause that exists in today's NH, where unions and non-unionized workers alike face an increasing amount of attacks by the state's bureaucrats.

As we sat in our corner talking, the majority of the activists from the march were doing a circle dance in preparation for the "human oil spill" (like a die-in but to represent an environmental disaster) in front of the Hilton for all the governors to see. By this time, I was too hot, tired, and blistered to participate in anything more for the day, so I decided to leave the demonstration just as everyone was pouring back out into the street. I made it to my brother's apartment where I passed out on his couch for about an hour.

All of a sudden, I received a text message from a friend back in NH. He asked me if I was okay. I received another text message from another friend asking the same thing. I texted both of them and told them I was at my brother's place and fine. One of them - Nick from NH - told me he heard that the Burlington Police had used rubber bullets and pepper spray on the activists. I didn't believe it at first. I asked my brother's partner, Alaina, who was sitting next to me with her laptop, if she could check the Burlington News to see what was going on. Sure enough, there was already coverage: video of police in full-blown riot gear (similar to the ones the pigs in Anaheim are wearing) beating and firing rubber bullets at activists.

Here is a video:

Alaina didn't believe it was the Burlington police at first; after all, the cops there usually have very little to do and are usually quite docile. When Matt (who was out-of-town at the moment and coming back to Burlington the next day) gave me a call, he told me those police were probably shipped in from somewhere else specifically to guard the conference.

The next day I went back over to Battery for another assembly. Most of it consisted of a run-down of all the actions planned for the weeks ahead, with a little performance by Bread and Puppets at the end. I asked a few people there about what exactly happened during the protest. They told me that activists had tried to block the buses carrying the governors and their affiliates out of the hotel by linking hands. The cops (who were, in fact, the Burlington police joined with state troopers) then preceded to fire off rubber bullets and beat and pepper spray them. One of the people there showed off the rubber bullet that had been fired at him (for the record, those things are not harmless; they can put out an eye and cause serious damage to the body if fired a certain way). No one had been arrested, but quite a few people had been hurt. To make things worse, the way in which the mainstream Burlington media handled the events from the previous day were very one-sided and inaccurate, namely that it made it seem as though the protesters were the ones who used violent force first, and that the cops were merely reacting to it. I wasn't surprised.

Later that day I joined the almost-daily picket of the Citizens Bank downtown. Before things got started, I bumped into John, a fellow Burlington wobbly who also took part in the demonstrations the day before. We talked about the police brutality, and how it's hard to think that such a thing could happen in Burlington, Vermont of all places. The fact is, this kind of violence is happening everywhere. As John pointed out, the number of raids on neighborhoods by police has drastically increased over the years. I told him, I truly believe that the so-called "War on Terrorism" will become far too expensive to carry out against innocent people overseas, and will instead bring the repression over here. Heck, it's not even "Islamic terrorism" that's the big one propagated all over the mainstream media, but rather "eco terrorism" and now "radical leftist terrorism". I didn't stay at the bank picket for very long though. Some comrades were going down to the Lake in order to confront the governors as they took a trip on a yacht. Only a handful of us were there when the boat took off, but later we were joined by others from the day before.

Matt returned back from Kansas that evening. He came over to John's place where I was going to be couchsurfing. He told us how the ongoing drought had turned the prairie into a desert, how the dead soil becomes the dust that becomes the dust storm. John related it to a book he was reading on the topic of new agriculture, pointing out how big industrial agriculture has destroyed the soil and the only way to save it would be to put organic matter back in. Crazy how it always takes a natural disaster to see a human-made one.

Matt and I ended up going to a get-toegether at some comrades' house in Winooski, which just so happened to have been the same house that was given a visit by the FBI a few days before. They had made a list of things to do and not do if the FBI ever visit you, and had saved the business card of the agent on their fridge. Many of the people at the get-together had been brutalized by the police during the protests, and told us exactly what had happened. For one thing, the cops had told everyone that they were arrested, but instead of arresting anyone they chose instead to beat and pepper spray them. It's so obvious: give people riot gear and tell them to use it "if necessary" and they will choose to do so.

Before I took the bus back to Boston the next day, I hung out with John at City Market (a food cooperative in the middle of downtown). One thing about him is that he reads and reviews books like mad. This other book he was reading at the moment was about the 1927 mine strike in Colorado - the first "Columbine massacre" where  striking workers were gunned down by police. You learn about the histories, and you make the connection to the modern day where the repression continues. We live in a system that's built on violence and requires violence to sustain itself. It's cliche by now but it's entirely true.

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