Crowd fills State House lawn to protest police brutality

Police defunding discussed, social distancing not observed

By Guy Page

June 7, 2020 – Hundreds of people protested police brutality against black people at the Honour Their Names rally Sunday afternoon on the lawn of the Vermont State House Sunday afternoon.

“Together we want to raise awareness about what is going on in our country regarding  police brutality against black people, while also holding a safe space to grieve the lives that have been lost and continue to be lost to this day,” event organizers said on their Facebook page. 

The event was billed by organizers as a peaceful, socially-distanced event in which all participants were asked to wear masks. It remained calm and peaceful throughout. Virtually everyone wore masks. But attempts to keep social distancing failed as the crowd swelled to fill the State House lawn. Black Lives Matter events held in Burlington last weekend have been criticized for failing to keep social distance. Gov. Scott said at his press conference Friday he encouraged masks and socially distancing at this weekend’s rallies, but would not seek to enforce SD measures due to concern for protesters’ constitutional rights. 

Crowd at Honour Their Names event Sunday. Page photo

The crowd started gathering around noon. Early attendees were clearly trying to maintain social distancing. However, as the crowd grew to fill almost the entire lawn, six-feet SD became impossible. Despite crowd overflow on the steps of the Department of Motor Vehicles building across State Street, by the time the speaking began at 1 pm the crowd was mostly massed together in pre-Covid 19 fashion. 

The event was organized by UVM student and Montpelier Union High school graduate Noel Riby-Williams. She opened by asking the crowd to give thanks to the earth on which they were standing, which she said had been robbed from Abenakis. After these and other opening remarks, Riby-Williams asked other organizers to list their policy demands. These include a civilian review board to review every report of police violence against black people, and immediate, permanent law enforcement unemployment everywhere for police officers guilty of committing police brutality.

Riby-Williams then asked the crowd to take a knee and observe 8 minutes and 42 seconds of silence – the length of time it took George Floyd to die while Minneapolis police officer and alleged murderer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck. Most knelt. Silence was total. 

At the conclusion of the minutes of silence, Riby-Williams said “At this time I would like to invite any black person who wants to be heard to come up and express themselves.” Moments later Vermont Daily asked Riby-Williams one-on-one if white people were welcome to speak, too. She shook her head. We asked why. “I think we’re silenced,” she explained. This is an opportunity for white people to hear the perspectives of black people, she said.

Many black people responded to the open mic. Moms spoke of concern for their children. An Islamic black man said that when Islamic people of color kill white people, it’s terrorism; when, white people kill Islamic black people, the cause is described as mental illness. Another person called for “defunding the police,” earning loud applause from the crowd. 

Circulating in the crowd as it gathered, Vermont Daily found that “Defund the police” means different things to different people. Julia Davis of Montpelier said police as organized today “are militarized and they are killing people.” She recommends reallocating police funding (about 20% of municipal budget in both Burlington and Montpelier) to more restorative justice and mental health interventions. However direct intervention to protect people from personal harm is still a legitimate police function, she said. 

Nearby, a young white couple with a baby in a stroller insist police should be abolished. They disagreed that police intervention against violence would ever be necessary. The father said he couldn’t imagine a situation in which others might seek to enter their home and cause his family harm. Citing hypothetical examples of such crimes “isn’t helpful,” he said. The mother said of home break-ins, etc. that “you see on Law and Order….,those things aren’t really happening.”

These comments drew questions on social media. “Can you ask these folks who will address crime if we defund the police?,” said a Facebook commenter. “Are insurance companies on board with this plan, so will no longer require police reports in the case of a motor vehicle crash, theft, break-in/vandalism, etc? Are the district attorneys on board with the stoppage of all prosecutions, since there would never be any police reports/testimony or appropriately-collected evidence to present? Are construction companies on board, given the fact that there will be no one to enforce speed limits, including in construction zones?”

The blacks-only speaker policy and the inability to abide by social distancing guidelines – and the State of Vermont’s unwillingness to enforce them – also generated criticism on social media. “Where’s the free speech here?,” Michelle G. said. “If a group of people gathered in large numbers to rally for feminism but specified that only men were allowed to speak, women would be outraged. Looking at the number of people in that group who are not social distancing, please tell me again why our children are banned from playgrounds and why we can’t have our restaurants and churches open to full capacity? The hypocrisy in Montpelier is staggering.”

A Barre woman said, “Hmmmm…and why is it ok to gather for this but not Independence Day!?”

After the open mic, the crowd marched through the streets in Montpelier. Police visibility was minimal and no incidents were observed.