In Multi-Day Protest, Activists Demand Burlington Police Fire Three Officers
Updated 11:19 a.m. 9/3/2020
In Burlington, protesters calling for the firing of three Burlington Police Department officers involved in high-profile use of force cases have maintained a vigil outside the department for over a week.
The demonstration comes amid national outrage and protests over the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin a week ago. Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times in the back in front of his children.
The Burlington protest is being led by local racial justice organization The Black Perspective with support from Food Not Bombs Vermont and BTV CopWatch. Organizers have declined to speak with VPR, but have announced their demands over Instagram and at speaking events.
Among other demands, organizers are calling for police officers Joseph Corrow, Jason Bellavance and Cory Campbell to be fired and prevented from working in Chittenden County “in any police capacity.”
The three officers have each been involved in high profile use-of-force incidents involving Black Burlington residents.
Additionally, protestors call for body camera footage to be made more readily and publicly available, for all body cameras to be worn at all times by BPD officers, set to record, and for funding to be diverted from the police department and redirected towards health care and housing.
These echo similar demands made during earlier protests in response Minneapolis police killing George Floyd, another Black man, in May. In June, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger proposed cutting the city's police department budget by 10%.
In an interview Sept. 2, Acting Police Chief Jon Murad told VPR that the department cannot take action now to fire the officers. Murad said that two are named in active litigation, and he can't discuss them.
Murad said he's met with protesters on multiple occasions to discuss their demands. "We really want to work with these protesters," he said. "Many of the things that they are asking for, aside from the firing of these officers, are things that we are doing, that we are willing to do, that we want to work with our community to improve."
He pointed out that Burlington police officers do wear body cameras, and said the city and department are "working on" issues protesters raised about the availability of footage to the public.
In a statement issued Sept. 2, Richard Cassidy, the lawyer who represents the Burlington Police Officers' Association, said the cases involving the three officers are "closed as a matter of law."
Cassidy said terminating the officers now would be a violation of the city's collective bargaining agreement with the police union. "The union would grieve. If the employees were not reinstated during the grievance process, that [sic] the union would demand arbitration."
He argued that an arbitrator would find the matter had already been resolved through due process, and that under the union's contract, no new discipline could now be imposed by the city.
"The City would be ordered to reinstate the officers, or pay the equivalent of their salary and benefits for the rest of their careers," Cassidy said. "That would be a waste of millions of taxpayer dollars."
The protesters have said they will march daily from Battery Street Park to City Hall on Church Street, until their current demands are met by the Burlington mayor’s office and city council.
Hundreds march on Church Street on Aug. 25
The multi-day demonstration began last Tuesday evening, when about 300 people gathered at the bottom of Church Street to march to the police department.
Protestors held signs that called for defunding the police, prisons, and for criminal justice reform.
They walked up Pearl Street, calling, “This is what democracy looks like.” Meeting traffic at Battery Street, they walked between cars, calling, “Ain’t no power like the power of the people and the power of the people don’t stop,” and “No justice; no peace.”
Police appeared to form a barricade across North Avenue, north of the station, blocking traffic, while organizers formed a line across the road, by Beansie's Bus snack bar.
At the police station parking lot, one of The Black Perspective organizers, Zanevia Wilcox, stood atop a parked Subaru with a megaphone and addressed the crowd.
She spoke about disproportionate rates of incarceration of Black men in Vermont. According to a 2016 report from The Sentencing Project, 10.7% of Vermont’s prison population is Black, while Black Vermonters make up just 1.7% of the general population.
“I’m tired. Many of us have been doing this s--- since middle school,” she said. “I’m sad. And after the seventh shot rang into Jacob Blake’s back, I’m hopeless."
Wilcox added: “We demand the termination of officers Corey Campbell, Jason Bellavance and Joseph Corell from the Burlington Police Department. They are a threat to the community. They have displayed a pattern of violence without provocation or just cause, particularly targeted towards Black men.”
She continued: “We demand these officers not be rehired by another state or local department. Their abuse of power demonstrates that they are unsafe, and should not be in any position of government authority.”
University of Vermont student Harmony Edosomwan spoke too, calling attention to the death of Kenneth Johnson in Newport’s state prison in December. Johnson, a 60-year-old Black man, was awaiting trial. He repeatedly told staff and medical workers he couldn’t breathe, but was denied medical care.
She asked the crowd to say his name.
“He died in prison here. He said, ‘I can’t breathe,’” Edosomwan said. “What does that remind you of? How many countless Black men have said, ‘I cannot breathe’ and they said, ‘Knock it off?’ Too many.”
Many protesters dispersed after poetry readings and more speakers, though many returned to camp overnight at Battery Park and to protest further next to the police station.
Marches, vigil continue
On Thursday night, demonstrators marched again from city hall to the police station. They have been camping at the park since Tuesday, Aug. 25, and organizers have said via social media they plan to march every evening. Demonstrations continued through the weekend.
Last night, more than 150 protesters marched down #BTV’s Church St. to city hall. The march was part of a multi-day protest (today is day 7) led by the racial justice group The Black Perspective, calling for three Burlington police officers to be fired. pic.twitter.com/4kG7fxhizQ— Abagael Giles (@AbagaelGiles) August 31, 2020
Protesters marched down Church Street for the fifth time on Sunday evening. That night, Edosomwan addressed the crowd alongside Black leaders from The Black Perspective, saying they had spoken with Weinberger about their demands.
In a statement, Weinberger said that he has met twice with organizers, and that he "shares their sense that we must dismantle systemic racism in this country and this community, and in policing." He said he intends to keep talking with organizers to "find areas of consensus and potential progress."
At city hall on Sunday, Edosomwan addressed the crowd of protesters, many of whom were white, and called on them to have conversations about race and racism outside of demonstrations, with their friends and families.
"I know having conversations with your friends, having conversations with your families may be extremely uncomfortable," she said. "Some of you may be risking your financial security by having these conversations with your families. But I want you to understand that these conversations need to be had."
Edosomwan said that racism and the work of dismantling racism is the work of white people in America:
"I'm not at your dinner table... you are. You have access to the silent majority this country keeps talking about. Talk to them, even if it costs you."
At dusk, protesters returned to their vigil at the police station, filling the parking lot until after 9:30 p.m.
Editor's Note: The following video contains profanity.
Marching up Pearl Street, they halted traffic and called, "Knock, knock! Who's there?" repeating the names of officers: Cory Campbell, Joseph Corrow and Jason Bellavance.
Armed men apprehended
Demonstrations continued Monday, when protesters marched again between Battery Park and city hall.
Social media accounts indicate that BIPOC protest leaders, marching at the front of the demonstration as it returned to Battery Park, were confronted by two white individuals. Demonstrators allege one of the individuals shouted "All Lives Matter" and shot an organizer with a BB gun and encouraged passing cars to drive into the crowd.
In a press release published Tuesday evening, Burlington Police Department reported that police attempted to respond to a call of a disturbance reportedly caused by bystanders clashing with demonstrators. One of the bystanders was reportedly carrying a rifle. The report indicated the rifle turned out to be a BB gun but did not indicate that a protester was shot by BBs. No arrests were made.
The report alleges that a rock was thrown at a police officer, and that police vehicles were prevented from moving through the street, forcing officers to move on foot.
Later that evening, the department reports it arrested 25-year-old Jordan Atwood of Winooski in the vicinity of Battery and Cherry Streets, across from the park. Police said they were made aware of his presence – armed with an assault-style rifle – at the protests on Aug. 29, and determined he was in possession of a firearm illegally. Upon arrest, he was found to be in possession of a pistol and AR-15. Police said he stood by protesters for three days.
The arrest comes days after a white teenager, Kyle Rittenhouse, was charged with shooting three protesters in Kenosha, Wis., during the third consecutive night of protests over the shooting of Jacob Blake.
Mayor Weinberger issued a statement that night, in which he expressed concern for protesters' safety and said he respects their First Amendment rights. "I am also concerned for the safety of the police and the general public," he said, urging protesters not to block the passage of emergency vehicles during their demonstrations.
On Tuesday night, more than 500 people turned out again to march in solidarity with protest leaders. Drums and calls of "Black Lives Matter" could be heard throughout the North End. Protesters marched in all black to the police station for "Blackout Tuesday". The line spanned nearly five blocks – marking the largest turnout so far.
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