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August 01, 2012

After Sunday's Tumult, Activists and Authorities Agree on Need for 'Conversation'

Jonathan LeavittThe confrontation that occurred on Sunday between some protesters and authorities is now giving way to expressions of cooperation by both sides.

Jonathan Leavitt (pictured at left in photo), who says he received 19 bruises from police pellets fired during Sunday's demonstration on College Street, called for a public dialogue with police and city officials. Reading a prepared statement at a City Hall Park press conference on Wednesday, Leavitt said, "Hopefully today will mark the beginning of an important conversation."

In an interview a half-hour later, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said he welcomes a meeting with the activists and their representatives. He agreed there should be a "community conversation" about Sunday's events and about the general topic of policing at protests. An internal police investigation of officers' actions is getting underway, with results expected to be made available in about a month, the mayor added. A public meeting on the same concerns will be held sooner than that — in two or three weeks, Weinberger indicated.

Asked whether there could be a problem with the police investigating themselves, the mayor said "That thought has crossed my mind." But he expressed confidence in the integrity of such an inquiry and noted that there is considerable videotape evidence of what occurred when some demonstrators sought to block a bus carrying governors and Canadian provincial premiers who were taking part in a conference at the Burlington Hilton.

Weinberger said he had closely monitored developments on Sunday, starting with his attendance at a morning briefing at police headquarters. "The consistent message then was one of patience and articulating Burlington to be a place where people feel safe to demonstrate," the mayor said. He added that he remained in contact throughout the day with Police Chief Michael Schirling. Weinberger said he returned to the department's headquarters on Sunday evening following the violence, remaining there until 11 p.m.

In the Wednesday interview in his office, the mayor also echoed remarks by Leavitt about Burlington as a city with a tradition of respecting dissent and First Amendment rights. "There are reasons why Burlington feels good about its police. They are in many ways an expression of our city's values," Weinberger said.

At the news conference earlier, attorney Jared Carter (pictured at center in photo) said he is filing a freedom of information request with the Burlington Police Department seeking information on its policy governing use of nonlethal force. The police are also being asked to detail department policy concerning officers' removing their name tags and badges — as some demonstrators say occurred during the Sunday clash. Carter, who represents the nonprofit Vermont Community Law Center, also wants a listing and description of the weapons used by police at the protest, along with information on how officers are trained to interact with demonstrators.

Carter said it has not been decided whether a lawsuit will be filed in regard to the three protesters he said were injured by police projectiles. "We need to get to the bottom of what happened before we make a decision like that," he told reporters.

"The social fabric of Burlington was frayed" as a result of police actions on Sunday, Carter added. "We won't repair the social fabric with press releases or platitudes.

"They were us," Carter said in regard to the protesters. "They were Vermonters with rights and privileges under the laws of the state of Vermont and the constitution of the United States."

Photo credit: Kevin J. Kelley

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