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Putting the ‘civil’ in civil disobedience

Cooperation between police and activists helped make VY protests peaceful

VERNON—It’s just before 2 o’clock on a cloudy Saturday afternoon, and the first of what ultimately would be around 80 anti-nuclear protesters are taking their positions on the sidewalk on Governor Hunt Road near the front gate of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

Waiting for them is Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark.

With hat in hand, Clark explains to the early arrivals what constitutes trespassing on the plant’s property and where the protesters should stand so they stay out of harm’s way. But soon, he is bantering with the protesters and putting them at ease.

While this protest was smaller and much more low-key than last Thursday’s massive action at Entergy Vermont Yankee headquarters in Brattleboro, the same principles were in play, according to Clark.

“There has been great coordination between everyone,” said Clark. “The groups have been in contact with us for months, and were always willing to talk. Everything went well on Thursday, and that’s what happens when you plan and prepare. Everyone understands their role.”

Balancing the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly with public safety concerns was paramount on everyone’s mind — protester and police officer alike — at both protests.

“The idea is to keep people safe, let them exercise their rights, and have everyone come away feeling like they’ve won,” said Brattleboro Police Chief Eugene Wrinn of Thursday’s protest. “It was a very orderly walk, very coordinated, no incidents at all.”

“It was very important that the organizers talk with the local and state police and get everyone involved early on,” he continued, saying that the effort “kept disruption to the public and the town to a minimum.”

According to Wrinn, 137 people were arrested for unlawful trespass at the corporate offices on Thursday.

Of that number, he said 69 were from Massachusetts, 59 were from Vermont, five were from New Hampshire, and one each was from Maryland and West Virginia. There were also two juveniles arrested, Wrinn said. All were processed and released.

One of the first to be arrested was Randy Kehler of Colrain, Mass., one of the organizers of Thursday’s event. He said he was quite impressed with how well everything had gone.

“We bent over backwards to accommodate the law enforcement people, and they bent over backwards to accommodate us,” Kehler said on Monday. “We know not everyone is on our side, but the police made it clear that the only thing they were concerned with was keeping people safe while we made our statement.”

The overall choreography of Thursday’s event involved the Brattleboro Police, who, assisted by the Sheriff’s Department, handled crowd control on Old Ferry Road as well as the Common. Rescue Inc. and the Brattleboro Fire Department handled emergency services.

Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) from Windham and Windsor counties, as well as Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) personnel from Vermont Emergency Management, assisted with traffic control on Putney Road.

The American Red Cross set up a food and medical tent at Old Ferry Road and provided relief for emergency personnel on the scene. Finally, the Brattleboro Department of Public Works helped put up barricades and signs along the route.

There were some glitches. The biggest surprise for both sides was how many people turned out on Thursday — estimates ran as high as 1,500 — and how many people were willing to commit civil disobedience and submit themselves to police for arrest.

“It took a long time to process people,” Clark said. “By the end of the protest, the last guys getting arrested had no one cheering for them, so we did.”

Kehler said Brattleboro Police were quickly swamped by the number of protesters to be processed, and he said that even though he was one of the first to arrive, it still took time for his group to be booked and fingerprinted.

“By the end of the night, they booked the final busload in the parking lot,” Kehler said.

In the end, Kehler said, he was pleasantly surprised by how well everything went Thursday.

“The numbers exceeded all expectations,” he said. “People were in such good spirits. They were making a strong statement about nuclear power, but they were doing it in a creative and well-spirited way.”

“And it was very exciting to see a lot of people I’d never seen before at protests, particularly young people,” he added.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #145 (Wednesday, March 28, 2012).

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