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March 23, 2012

Burlington State Senator Among 130 Arrested at Vermont Yankee Protest

Thursday was a big day for Burlington’s own Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden). He played hookie from the legislature, got himself arrested at a protest, spent a few hours in the Brattleboro clinker, and made it back to South Burlington for the premiere of The Hunger Games at the Palace 9.

All in a day’s work, I guess.

Marking the first day of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant’s operation after its 40-year federal license was set to expire, more than 1000 opponents of the Vernon plant marched Thursday afternoon from a Brattleboro park to the local headquarters of VY owner Entergy Corp. (Some estimates pegged the number of protestors closer to 1500.)

Baruth bookingAccording to Brattleboro Police Chief Gene Wrinn, more than 130 of them were arrested for unlawful trespass as they sought to approach Entergy’s corporate office building.

Among them: Sen. Baruth, who has advocated for years against the plant’s continued operation — first as an activist and blogger and now as a member of Chittenden County’s six-member senate delegation. (Pictured is the BPD's makeshift booking station, as captured by Baruth.)

Baruth says he first considered engaging in civil disobedience in January during a weekly appearance on WKVT’s “Live and Local” radio show with Steve West. The two — and Newfane activist Dan Dewalt — were discussing Federal District Court Judge Garvan Murtha’s decision to allow VY to continue operating despite Vermont lawmakers’ efforts to close down the plant.

“The more I thought about this particular moment with the 40-year anniversary and the closing date, I thought it was the thing to do,” Baruth says.

In preparation for the protest, the senator took part in a civil disobedience training last week in Montpelier led by the SAGE Alliance, an anti-VY advocacy group. On Thursday, he headed to Brattleboro.

“When we got there, the questions were: Would turnout be good, would the percentage of people willing to be arrested be high, and would the day go off smoothly and peacefully? All those turned out to be true,” he says.

Ever the social-media maven, Baruth chronicled the day’s events — from the march to his arrest — via Twitter.

“Civil disobedience commencing now,” he tweeted, “last transmission until it’s over/may the odds be ever in our favor.”

Baruth arrestShortly thereafter, he tweeted a photo of a Brattleboro police officer (shown at right), captioned, “My arresting officer.”

Those seeking arrest crossed the cordoned-off Entergy entrance in organized groups, after which they were escorted by police to a staging area, plastic-handcuffed and brought to the Brattleboro jail. Protest organizers assigned Baruth to a group of other elected officials — mostly Massachusetts selectboard members — for the coordinated arrests.

Baruth says the group was relegated to the protective custody cell — or, as he puts it, “the spitter cell.”

“There are five of us in a cell that was 5 by 7 by 6 [feet] with a toilet in the middle, so it got really hot in there. After about an hour and a half, finally, they moved us to another cell,” he says. “We got into this other cell and we thought, ‘This is really cushy. It’s sweet.’”

After five hours in custody, Baruth was charged with criminal trespass — he’ll have to appear in court next May or June — and released at around 9 p.m. Having promised his daughter that he would take her to the midnight premiere of The Hunger Games, Baruth jetted up the interstate to Burlington and made it to the theater with 15 minutes to spare.

The Hunger Games is about these people fighting against an oppressive regime, so it all seemed to tie in,” he jokes.

Baruth says he’s proud to have taken part in what he maintains was one of the biggest protests in Vermont in decades — and that activists and police alike remained peaceful and respectful of one another.

“As far as I know, there was not one hint of aggression or an unkind word spoken on either side," he says.

Though Baruth says he doesn’t always believe civil disobedience is the appropriate course of action, he found it necessary Thursday. As a state senator, he says he was particularly galled by the federal court’s reliance upon testimony given by legislators to show that the state acted outside its purview in attempting to shutter the plant.

“All of us in the legislature took an oath of office that we would, above all things, protect the health and safety of our constituents and our state,” he says. “And so it struck me as patently absurd to say that the federal government would say ‘sit down and shut up’ when it comes to safety. I, speaking for myself as one senator, I don’t hold with that.”

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