Thousands of Vermonters assembled in Burlington on the evening of Saturday, May 30, as a part of nationwide protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Protesters, many wearing masks and carrying signs, first gathered in Battery Park to hear from Harmony Edosomwan, a University of Vermont student and one of the event’s organizers. Other opening speakers included Vermont poet Rajnii Eddins, who read a piece commemorating Black and Brown victims of police brutality and racial violence, and Kahlia Livingston from the Vermont Peace & Justice Center, an activist organization that helped coordinate the event.
“I haven’t been able to sleep well all week,” Edosomwan said in her opening speech. “My heart aches for George Floyd. My brother’s name is George. What if that was my brother? He was my brother. Burlington, y’all have to do better. White liberals, you have to do better. It’s not enough to come to protests like this.”
After the opening words, protesters marched to the Burlington Police Department and replaced the American flag with a Black Lives Matter flag. Edosomwan, who stood elevated on the bed of a truck in front of the building, confronted Interim Police Chief Jen Morrison and Deputy Police Chief Jon Murad, an event that was captured and posted on the Vermont Peace and Justice Center’s Facebook page. The surrounding crowd echoed her calls for officers with histories of abusing their power and using disproportionate force against Black people to be held accountable.
Edosomwan called specifically for the removal of Jason Bellavance and Cory Campbell, two Burlington police officers with records of using excessive force. In May 2019, the officers attacked two Black men, brothers Jérémie and Albin Meli, while investigating reports of fights outside of a Burlington bar, causing Jérémie a lasting head injury.
At the time, the Vermont State Police were also investigating Campbell for the March 2019 death of Douglas Kilburn. Three days before his death, Campbell had punched Kilburn repeatedly outside of the UVM Medical Center, fracturing his skull in multiple places. In April 2019, Vermont Chief Medical Examiner Steven Shapiro officially ruled Kilburn’s cause of death a homicide. Still, in November 2019, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan announced that Campbell would not face charges for Kilburn’s death.
“How do you expect Black and Brown people, or just people in general, to feel safe on the streets if you’re letting like Jason Bellavance or Cory Campbell still patrol?” Edosomwan asked Morrison and Murad. The protesters echoed her question and called for the officers to “do their job” of protecting all members of the community.
Protesters also called for Morrison and Murad to apologize after one protester told his story of being held at gunpoint by Burlington officers who accused him of “stealing his own vehicle” and falsely claimed that they had a warrant for his arrest. The protester, who moved away from Burlington due to this incident, refused Morrison’s offer of her card as he and the surrounding crowd called repeatedly for an apology. No apology appeared to be issued.
This exchange culminated in Edosomwan pouring red liquid from a jug at the feet of the police officers standing below her. “Their blood is on your hands if you don’t do anything to fix this motherf*cking department,” she said into a bullhorn. Edosomwan explained that the red liquid symbolized the blood shed by Black individuals in the city of Burlington, the state of Vermont, the country and in the world.
“You said that you’re going to listen. If you do not listen … if another black person dies … trust me, we’re all going to be here, and this building is going down,” Edosomwan said. The statement was met with loud cheers from the protesters. “Their blood is on your hands,” she repeated to the officers.
“I will give y’all grace today, but I am angry as f*ck, we could easily turn this sh*t up right now.” she said. “We could be Minneapolis in this place right now if we wanted to.”
“I believe that you [Jen Morrison] are a nice person and I believe that you will take heed to what I am saying,” Edosomwan continued, before being cut off by fellow protesters who shouted at the officers, asking what concrete steps they would take.
“I appreciate your remarks, I really do. I’m listening — I’m trying to be respectful and listen,” Morrison responded, before her remarks were drowned out by the cries of protesters. “If you turn this into Minneapolis, guess what? That’s going to set us back five more years,” Morrison added. The crowd expressed their disagreement with yells of disapproval.
Morrison announced to Edosomwan and the crowd that the officers would return to the building. Protesters responded by questioning her if they would get an apology. “I’d be happy to chat with you anytime. Would you like an apology?” Morrison says as she attempts to hand her card to Edosomwan. Several protesters demanded an immediate and public apology, shouting, “We’re here right now!”
Morrison and Murad left the scene as protesters screamed “coward” and booed the officers. Edosomwan told the protesters not to touch the officers and to make way for their exit.
The group then made their way to Battery Park, where organizers held an open mic that featured Black performers, a handful of them high school students. A small group of White protesters stayed behind and vandalized the police department, which sustained minor damages, including a shattered window and graffiti, according to Rachel Fridal Siegel, executive director of the Peace & Justice Center and co-organizer of Saturday’s protest.
“It was White people, and they were called to task that doing that puts black people at risk, not them as much,” she said.
Siegel said that the center is committed to uplifting the voice of and following the leadership of Black and Indigenous activists. “As an organization, it’s just critical to us to be following and centering Black and Indigenous people of color,” Siegel said in an interview with The Campus. “So, [Edosomwan] made the final call on some things that I honestly felt really conflicted about — the one significant thing being having an in-person protest at all.”
Siegel cited concern over new outbreaks of Covid-19 following large, unregulated in-person gatherings. Organizers encouraged protesters to wear masks and practice social distancing at the park, and the center arranged a caravan for those who felt unsafe physically attending. But once the march to the police department began, interpersonal distance became impossible to maintain.
But in the end, Siegel said that the Peace & Justice Center made the right choice in supporting Edosomwan, explaining that the mission of the center is to offer the infrastructure of the organization to activists who drive social change.
Leah Salzman ’21, who attended the Burlington protest, also noted how the pandemic and worries about new outbreaks complicate protests. “There’s so much going on on social media right now because people are supposed to be social distancing and at home,” she said. “There’s this conflict of ‘What’s enough? You’re sitting on your phone and posting things, but is that really enough?’”
Kevin Santoro ’21, another Middlebury student who attended the protest, said that “there was a large emphasis in the rhetoric of being the Whitest state, and how that exacerbates a lot of these issues, and there was also this narrative of breaking the idea that Vermont is this idyllic place separate from all of this.”
Siegel also noted this issue, explaining that White Vermonters get “tremendously activated” when racial injustice reaches the national media but do not react to local occurrences of police brutality with the same outrage.
“We want simple answers as humans, and especially as White people, I think. I just want to fix it,” Siegel said. “And there’s no ‘fix it.’ There’s just ‘do more.’”