Crowd Confronts Burlington Police During Protest For George Floyd

May 31, 2020

Updated 5:38 p.m. 5/31/2020 to reflect added information from Burlington Police Chief Jennifer Morrison.

Hundreds of protesters pressed into the parking lot of the Burlington Police Department Saturday evening, chanting through cloth face masks as black Vermonters confronted Burlingon’s police leadership.

In the police department parking lot

It was one of numerous protests across the country in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died on Monday after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and pinned to the ground. Floyd told the officer "I can't breathe," and the incident, which was recorded on video by a bystander, has reignited concerns about police violence towards minorities.

Standing on the bed of a blue pickup truck with a megaphone, organizer and UVM student Harmony Edosomwan read the names of five black men who she said had been beaten or killed by Burlington Police officers over the last decade. 

At the protest, police were hard to spot until Edosomwan called out to the department’s interim police chief, Jennifer Morrison. Morrison, a retired Colchester police chief, became interim chief of the Burlington Police Department in December after former chief Brandon del Pozo resigned.

The crowd chanted “come outside” until Morrison and deputy chief Jon Murad appeared and made their way through a parted crowd. They stood at the feet of Edosomwan.

Burlington Interim Police Chief Jennifer Morrison and Deputy Chief Jon Murad respond to Black Lives Matter protesters after the crowd asked the top officers to come out Saturday.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

“How do you expect black and brown people and just people in general to feel safe on the streets if you’re letting people like Jason Bellavance and Corey Campbell still patrol?” she asked the city’s top officers.

Video footage made public last year showed Bellavance pushing a black graduate student involved in a verbal altercation outside a bar against a brick wall, injuring him. Cambell, who was present during that incident, was also involved in the death of Douglas Kilburn.

Morrison told Edosomwan, "It’s not something that we’re going to solve tonight."

The day before the protest, Morrison released a statement condemning the actions of Minnesota police, saying, "the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers is an atrocity."

Hundreds marched to the Burlington Police Department parking lot Saturday:

The Vermont State Police made a similar statement on Friday. Col. Matt Birmingham, head of the state police, said video of the Floyd encounter was "beyond disturbing."

"This kind of conduct has no place in policing," Birmingham said.

After confronting Morrison, Edosomwan then passed the megaphone to a handful of black men and women who confronted the chief and deputy with their own allegations of police misconduct.

“Six years ago I was held at gunpoint from your officers, trying to say that I stole my own vehicle, right on Monroe Street right around the corner,” said Randy Wade, who stood directly in front of Morrison and Murad. “And none of you motherf------ ever apologized to me.” 

Wade said he had been a volunteer at the food shelf and worked with Bernie Sanders. 

“You guys made me hate everything I love about this state and I moved to Houston, because I was tired of the bulls--- and all the racist bigotry.” 

When the officers offered Wade a business card, he rejected it. “Apologize, apologize,” the crowd chanted.

Names of unarmed black people killed by police are written on the cement steps just outside Battery Park Saturday.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

After pouring a gallon jug of red liquid symbolizing blood shed by black people in the city, Edosomwan addressed Morrison and Murad once more. 

“If another black person dies ...” she started, 

“Or assault!” a man shouted.  

“Or harassment!” a woman yelled, 

“Trust me, we are all going to be here, and this building is going down,” Edosomwan finished, gesturing toward the police department.

Morrison responds

In a phone call Sunday morning, Morrison called the experience “uncomfortable” and said it wasn’t a position law enforcement “normally would allow themselves to be in.” But, she said, it was the right thing to do. 

“I think it's OK for me to be uncomfortable for a while, because I'm very confident that people of color experience discomfort at the hands of police,” she said.

Morrison also said she thought her department’s strategy for the evening had proven successful. She said she had staffed the protest with only a few officers in polo shirts rather than full uniforms.

“I think that what we've seen in other cities is that when you put out long skirmish lines, just waiting for something to happen, then something's going to happen.”

Morrison said the department was prepared in case of violence.

What does this feel like?

Saturday evening began more quietly, with an estimated 1,000 people trickling into Burlington’s Battery Park. Most stood or sat in clusters apart from one another. Social distancing became difficult, however, as more arrived and the green filled up. 

In the Facebook event for the protest, organizers encouraged those with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home, and those uncomfortable with being around others to participate via car. At 6 p.m. on the dot, a long line of drivers passed by on Park Street, honking and holding signs.

Car protesters pass Battery Park in Burlington.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

But in a series of short interviews with in-park protestors, in which VPR asked the question, “What does it feel like to be you right now?” none mentioned concerns about COVID-19. 

Essex resident Ike Deboulet said he “woke up this morning, was hurt. Like this whole entire week was hard, from what happened in Central Park to Minneapolis.”

Looking around at the growing crowd, he added: “But today seemed like everybody in unity here. It feels good, knowing that we're not alone.”

Left: Ike Deboulet and Jessica Wolfe. Right: Dylan Kunkel.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Nearby, Burlington resident Dylan Kunkel waved a long pole bearing two flags: one black with a fist, for Black Lives Matter, and then the rainbow Pride flag.

“I'm a queer man, and our rights came with a riot,” Kunkel said. “And they're still coming with riots. And I think if we're not here pushing and, you know, fighting with an uprising to say that we deserve these rights, then we're not doing our part.”

Myla Jacobs and Phinnize Brown both identified as biracial and said they were at Saturday’s protest in support of those they cared for. 

“As somebody who doesn’t look African American, I feel like this is me contributing to the black community and to my fellow brothers and sisters,” Jacobs said. 

From left to right, Myla Jacobs, Phinnize Brown and Yasmine Nsame.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Brown said he mostly grew up with white family members, and didn’t experience a lot of black culture.

“I didn’t realize what it was like to actually be a black person in today’s society until about a year ago, when I had an incident where I was stopped and frisked,” Brown said. “And it made me realize that Vermont isn’t a safe place for people of color either, and that it's hard to really be who you are in today's world.”

That today’s world still required protests for racial justice made Underhill resident Janice Solek-Tefft feel “raw.”

“We’re old,” she said, motioning to her husband, Kenneth Tefft. “I’ve been an activist since I went to Kent State. I graduated the year of the Kent State shootings. I've been fighting for justice for people of color all my life. And I'm just I've had enough. I'm tired.”

Left: Janice Sokel-Tefft and Kenneth Tefft. Right: Riley Brown.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

And yet, as Burlington resident Riley Brown noted, not everyone in his life feels the same sense of urgency.

“As I'm looking around and having groups of friends, especially being in Vermont, who are still just sharing memes and talking about plans to play video games, it's hard to understand how everything hasn't stopped for them,” Brown said. “We have a tendency to look at these issues as if they're far away, and we're in our safe little bubble where these issues don't exist.”

"You will give them a reason to hit us"

Following the first portion of Saturday’s protest – remarks, a song and poetry at Battery Park’s bandshell – protesters made their way across the street to Burlington’s police station chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, racist cops have got to go.” 

As hundreds passed by, two young white men could be seen with spray cans. One, with a black can, wrote the letters “BLM,” an acronym for Black Lives Matter, on the wall of the police station. Another was just pulling a red spray can out of his backpack when an organizer wearing a "Black Lives Matter" t-shirt, Zanevia Wilcox, intervened. 

Organizer Zanevia Wilcox intervenes and asks a young white man, who refused to share his name with VPR, to not tag the Burlington Police Department.
Credit Emily Corwin / VPR

“Do not touch this building!” she yelled. “You will give them a reason to hit us black people. They will not see you.” 

The man put his red spray can back into his backpack, and continued on with the crowd.

Correction: An earlier version of the story indicated Harmony Edosomwan was an organizer for Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington, but she is not. It also misspelled Phinnize Brown's name, and indicated Zanevia Wilcox was an organizer specifically for Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington, which she did not confirm.