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Protesters Shout For Climate Change Action At Scott's State Of The State Speech

State troopers and protesters in the Vermont Statehouse
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
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Times Argus
Gov. Phil Scott's State of the State address was halted Thursday afternoon by a demonstration of climate change activists who ultimately had to be escorted from the House chamber.

Gov. Phil Scott delivered his State of the State address Thursday afternoon, but climate change activists made sure it did not go as planned. Officials had to temporarily halt the speech while police escorted 16 demonstrators from the House chamber.

Scott had just gotten to the part of his speech where he called on people to work together to find solutions to common problems. That's when more than a dozen protesters – many wearing red – rose and started chanting.

The governor let the demonstration continue for several minutes, and then calmly said they had made their point and asked them to listen to him. When the protesters continued, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman halted the proceedings while police and sergeant-at-arms staff moved in to remove the protesters and take down their banners.

The action followed a noontime rally outside the Statehouse. Organizer Dan Batten said their message both inside and outside was simple: The climate is in crisis.

"We wanted to tell him to his face on a day where it's kind of a feel good, completely unnecessary type of event that we are in an emergency," Batten said. "And this was led by youth who are very terrified, absolutely terrified. They wanted to be the ones standing up, making the noise first."

Protestors in Montpelier dressed in all red
Credit John Dillon / VPR
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VPR
Silent members of the 'Red Rebel Brigade' make their way toward the Vermont Statehouse for the 'People's State of the State Rally' held at noon Thursday. They wore red, according to a flyer, as a nod to mass extinction and 'to represent the common blood we share with all animals that unifies us and makes us one.'

As Scott left the House chamber following the speech, VPR asked the governor how a disruption like this one informs his approach to the issue of climate change.

"Well I just think we just need to listen to each other," Scott said. "Just like I said in the speech — it's about listening and learning and being respectful. And, you know, I'm taking it seriously. Climate change is real and we need to act."

More from VPR — Full Audio & Text Of Scott's 2020 State Of The State Address

To those who protested Thursday in the Statehouse, Scott had this message:

"Well, we listen, and we'll continue to listen ... but they need to work with us to work together, so that we can pull in the same direction rather than be at odds all the time," he said.

But it's unclear if there's any common ground to find. The most aggressive proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would likely cause an increase in the price of fossil fuels.

But Scott made clear during his address Thursday that's a non-starter for him; he said many Vermonters are already struggling to make ends meet.

"I simply cannot support proposals that will make things more expensive for them," Scott said during his speech.

More from Vermont Edition — How Should Vermont Lawmakers Address Climate Change?

Capitol Police Chief Matthew Romei said police escorted 16 protesters from the House Chamber Thursday. He said police issued no trespassing orders to all of them. According to Romei, one person was arrested for disorderly conduct.

"Really when you get down to it, we want everyone to be heard," Romei said. "We absolutely — that is a foundational principle of the Capitol Police, is to provide an environment for people to be heard in by their elected representatives. But at the same time, they can't disrupt what's going on."

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, who spoke with reporters after the governor's speech, said acts of civil disobedience won't influence the legislative agenda in 2020.

"It doesn't change my approach one way or the other," Johnson said. "The issue is too important to let a distraction like that derail the important conversations we're having on climate change."

Gov. Phil Scott standing at a podium
Credit Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Times Argus
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Times Argus File
Gov. Phil Scott issued his 2020 State of the State speech in Montpelier Thursday afternoon. In his address, Scott talked about the state's demographics, plans for afterschool care and more.

Despite the protest early on, Scott eventually had a chance to resume his address. When he did, the second-term Republican said Vermont has a demographic crisis.

"For years, we had more deaths than births," Scott said, "and have seen more people move out of Vermont than in."

He said his budget proposal later this month will include a series of proposals to lure young people into the state. Scott said that proposal will include tax cuts, though he didn’t specify where he plans to target them.

More from VPR — Census Report Numbers Highlight Vermont's Population Decline

The governor added that he'll also unveil a universal afterschool care program for Vermont students based on a model from Iceland, so parents don't have to pay so much for childcare.

But the raucous start to the 2020 legislative session may continue. Protest organizer Geoffrey Gardner said demonstrators may be back if they are unsatisfied with lawmakers' progress on climate change.

"It's all plan, no action. And even more than that, it's wrong plan, no action," Gardner said. "So if that's the way things are going, we will be back. And I think we will be escalating as time goes on."

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