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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Police Arrest 29 Protestors At Statehouse Sit-In

Angela Evancie
A protester and an officer shared a tense moment after law enforcement prevented the group from holding up a banner in the middle of the House floor after most lawmakers and observers had left.

Police arrested a group of 29 protesters who staged the sit-in in the well of the House chamber into Thursday evening.

The group said their intention was to extract a commitment from Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith for a public hearing on the single payer health care public financing plan and report presented by Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration last month.

No such commitment was made.

Smith said Thursday afternoon that hearings will take place in the House Health Care and House Ways and Means Committees, but did not promise a public hearing.

“I think this was an incredible example of the openness of our democracy. In the people’s house people are allowed to petition and I would expect that over the coming weeks we’ll talk with people about setting up hearings,” he said.

The Vermont State Police, along with Capitol Police began arresting protesters one-by-one shortly after 8 p.m. A Vermont State Trooper asked them several times to leave before the arrests began. Most walked out escorted by officers. At least one was dragged. Nine resisted, according to state police.

"I love the fact that we live in a society where we have the opportunity to freely express ourselves. There's always a balance between free expression and decorum in ceremony. We err on the side of openness." - House Speaker Shap Smith

Montpelier Police were staged outside the State House to assist if needed.

Vermont State Police Col. Thomas L’Esperance, who stayed at the State House all day as the sit-in continued, said troopers began communicating with a spokesperson for the group to explain “the rules of engagement.”

“It’s been a peaceful protest, so no headaches there,” L’Esperance said. “Some chose to leave and others chose to be arrested.”

One woman refused to stand up and was dragged out of the House chamber by police. The woman screamed that she was being hurt as police applied “control and restraint techniques.” L’Esperance said officers were using as little force as necessary to remove people.

There were no disruptions while the governor was delivering his address earlier in the afternoon, but immediately following the speech a group of protesters blocked the entryway to the House chamber while others attempted to enter the gallery. Protesters unfurled banners in the chamber at least twice, but the signs were quickly pulled down by State House staff.

As the Rev. Robert Potter was delivering the benediction protesters began to sing. Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon, a Republican, attempted to remove one man who was singing from the gallery, but eventually relented. The man continued to sing while Potter spoke. Lauzon and Democratic Rutland Mayor Chris Louras blocked the doorway preventing others from entering the chamber.

"I think they should get a job." - Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans

Single payer advocates have been demanding the state move forward with public financing of a state-run health insurance program since Shumlin decided to abandon his own long quest for such a system last month. Shumlin, in a surprise announcement, declared the cost too high for the state at this time.

The protests, especially the disruption of the benediction by a popular reverend, did not sit well with many lawmakers.

“I think they should get a job,” Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, after leaving the House chamber.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, said he was disappointed with the actions of the Workers Center and said as much to Executive Director James Haslam in a brief exchange Thursday evening. He said Vermonters have a long tradition of disagreeing respectfully.

House speaker Shap Smith declined on Thursday to say if the protesters went too far.

Credit Angela Evancie / VPR
A group of 29 of the protestors remaining in the statehouse Thursday evening were arrested.

“I love the fact that we live in a society where we have the opportunity to freely express ourselves. There’s always a balance between free expression and decorum in ceremony. We err on the side of openness,” Smith said. “What I would do and what they would do are probably different things, but you know what? I’m just a guy from Wolcott, Vermont.”

Haslam, meanwhile, said his organization made a strong show of support for a single payer health care system.

“We, I think, have seen people in Vermont rejecting business as usual, that we’re not going to let a system … put this Green Mountain Care financing report on a shelf and just continuing with the current system, which is very good for the health care industry but is not good for people who need health care,” Haslam said.

The disruption of Potter’s benediction was not planned and not condoned by the Workers Center, Haslam said.

“I think that there was some confusion and definitely some people that were acting spontaneously,” he said. “There were other people saying that’s not a good idea. I think people thought after the governor ended his speech that it was over and didn’t realize who was speaking.”

Update 10:37 p.m. Vermont State Police released updated numbers on those arrested Thursday. The number was 29, five higher than initially reported.

This story was originally published in the Barre Montpelier Times-Argus and reprinted under a partnership with the Vermont Press Bureau.

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