BRATTLEBORO — More than 1,000 people - approximately 1,500, according to unofficial estimates - converged on Entergy's corporate headquarters at Old Ferry Road last Thursday in protest of the continued operation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
In all, 137 protestors were arrested for unlawful trespass on Entergy's property, according to Brattleboro Police Chief Eugene Wrinn.
One of the largest anti-nuclear protests in the area since the 1980s, the protestors had the support of Gov. Peter Shumlin, a bitter opponent of the plant, who in a statement released that night described the March 22 event as an expression of “their - and my - frustration that this aging plant remains open after its agreed-upon license has expired.”
In the crowd walked a number of people new to the anti-nuclear movement. The 2011 nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan and the court case logged against Vermont by Vermont Yankee's owner Entergy inspired new protesters to take to the road.
The rally kicked off from the Brattleboro Common at 11 a.m., with the insistence by organizers that participants take a pledge of nonviolence.
Wrinn filmed the beginning of the march, noting that the protest organizers had obtained the proper permits for the day.
Organizers counted 852 people, from children in strollers to elderly people walking with the aid of crutches, leaving the Common for the walk in the unseasonable heat up Putney Road to Old Ferry Road, off Route 5 north of Exit 3.
More joined the line of march as the throng left the Common for the 90-minute trek north. It took more than 20 minutes for the line of march to pass by Entergy's headquarters.
On the walk, a first-time protester, Rui Santos, pushed his bike up Putney Road. He said he had biked 20 miles from Greenfield, Mass. that morning to attend the rally.
“I had to walk [today],” said Santos, adding that he believes the present generation has a responsibility to pass on a “free and clean world” to future generations.
Santos said that in his native Republic of Cape Verde, people don't protest as they do in the United States, despite how the government takes resources for its own benefit.
He said he wasn't sure why people in Cape Verde didn't protest - lack of organization or wanting a quick result, he guessed - but he felt that change takes time. In the meantime, he wanted to see people standing up for a good cause, he said.
At 2:30 p.m., with music and puppetry from Bread and Puppet Theater in the background, rally participants began dividing themselves into affinity groups in preparation for crossing the line and stepping onto Entergy's property.
At the staging area, three men from New Hampshire looked on.
“Contract law takes it on the chin,” said George Corrette, co-host of radio show Empire Watch on WKNH 91.3 FM, the Keene State College radio station, about the recent Entergy ruling in Federal Court.
Co-host Mark Lathrop, a.k.a. “Pat Riot,” agreed.
“Nuclear power aside, the idea that Entergy can sign [memorandum of understanding] after [memorandum of understanding] and walk away is absurd,” he said, referring to agreements that the company signed with the state as conditions of the plant's purchase in 2002.
Lathrop felt that Entergy had violated Vermont law by operating past its state-issued Certificate of Public Good.
“The police should arrest them,” he said.
New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Steven W Lindsey took the corporation to task for what he perceived as arrogance.
“Entergy thinks it can walk in and buy good will,” he said. “Most streets are two-way. But with Vermont and Entergy, it's one way. It's Entergy's way.”
After 3 p.m., the crowd streamed up Old Ferry Road to the entrance leading to Entergy's Vermont Yankee corporate headquarters. Deputies from the Windham County Sheriff's Department and officers from the Brattleboro Police stood at the ready behind Jersey barriers, orange sawhorses and yellow police tape dotted with “No Trespassing” signs.
Protest organizers, including Deb Katz of Citizens Awareness Network (CAN), marched back and forth, calling instructions to the crowd gathered on the lawn across the road.
According to Katz, Entergy was permitting people to stand on the green space but if they crossed the road, participants risked arrest.
And those willing to risk arrest did just that.
Among the first to be arrested, Randy Kehler of Colrain, Mass., as Wrinn read Vermont's unlawful trespassing statute.
“If you trespass, you will be arrested,” he said over a loudspeaker.
A chant of “Shut it down!” drowned out the chief's warning.
Protesters crossing into Entergy's territory peacefully followed the orders of the law enforcement personnel. Some were cuffed with plastic ties. Most were calmly escorted away to a booking area behind the main building. Many protesters waved to their fellows across the road who shouted support.
A team of observers from the Vermont Law School, who declined to be interviewed, kept a close eye on the arrests and tracked the activity, as did other members of affinity groups from Vermont and Massachusetts.
The protesters crossed the road with their affinity groups in stages, allowing officers to escort away one group before another followed. With each wave, Wrinn read off the Vermont law.
Brattleboro police arrested 137 protestors without incident.
Both protest organizers and police said they had prepared for Thursday's protest for months in advance, and both credit the advance planning with keeping the day peaceful.
Rev. Jonathan Rehmus of the Colrain Affinity Group in Massachusetts observed the arrests from the road.
“We support Vermont,” Rehmus said.
Despite hailing from Massachusetts, Rehmus said the affinity group had trekked north because members sensed VY was a risk they could no longer take.
A tsunami won't hit the Connecticut River, but he said that the spent fuel rods, stored above ground inside the facility and entombed in dry casks on site, are “just waiting for a tornado.”
Rehmus said Entergy had an “atrocious” maintenance record and that the day's protest represented the thousands of people in the tri-state area who want the plant shut down.
Amanda Calder, 27, of Burlington, who is involved with Occupy Burlington, said an 80-year-old anti-nuclear activist inspired her to become active against VY.
The elder told her about how Entergy wanted to mothball the plant for 60 years.
“I'd be 87 by then,” said Calder.
According to Calder, the technology exists to move beyond nuclear power to renewables.
“It's a social problem, not a technological problem,” she said. “Because renewables eat into the 1 percent's profits.”
A school bus waited to shuttle arrestees to the Brattleboro Police Department for further processing, although some people “due to medical issues” were released immediately with written citations to appear in court at a future date, Wrinn said at a press conference.
Two on early release were “decades-long” protesters of the Shut It Down Affinity Group Paki Wieland, Northampton, Mass., and Jean Grossholtz, also of Massachusetts.
“I'm a local because I am downwind and downstream,” said Wieland.
Grossholtz said before becoming a willing arrestee, she started with writing letters. But nothing changed. So she decided to take to the courts.
Wrinn said that afternoon that those arrested would be taken for “fingerprints, mugshots, and hopefully released on citation” for unlawful trespassing.
After his release from processing at the Brattleboro Police Department, Stewart McDermet, of Dummerston, held like a badge of honor both his citation from the BPD and a yellow flyer from Entergy. warning him that he would risk arrest if he ever sets foot on company property again.
“It's something to be proud of: standing up for a cause,” he said.
In the Municipal Center, volunteer lawyers William E. Kraham, of Brattleboro and Virginia N. Lee, of Concord, Mass., took protesters' information and answered questions.
Kraham said the protesters had earned themselves a misdemeanor.
“It's a serious consequence to have a criminal record, especially with all the databases [the government] has,” he said.
Lee said she views the voluntary arrests as freedom of expression.
As a lawyer, she said, she can maneuver through the courts or legislatures to affect change. Citizens might not have that ability, but they should still have a way to take peaceful action and participate in democracy.
It was the first arrest for Gary Cheney, a Vietnam War veteran from Windham.
Although he didn't belong to an affinity group, he and a friend had decided to step in.
“They think they've won,” he said. “They've never won. The secret is to never give up. I refused to be ruled, and I'm never going to give up,” Cheney said. “The beauty of getting old is they can't do anything to you for too long.”
Ed Anthes of Nuclear Free Vermont, said that although Thursday marked his first arrest in Vermont, he had also been arrested at the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire.
“It's Entergy that's illegal today,” he said.
Anthes said that the people and government of Vermont had gone through all the legal steps from Town Meeting resolutions to the Legislature's 2010 vote that denied VY a Public Service Board hearing. He viewed his arrest as an example of citizens stepping in to prevent what they regard as Entergy's illegal activity.
Working in coordination
Wrinn said that “all the major police departments” - Windham County Sheriff's Department, Vermont State Police, and the town police forces of Vernon and Brattleboro - “worked in coordination with the organizers.”
“It seemed to be very well organized and controlled, and that was very much appreciated,” Wrinn said.
That sentiment wasn't unanimously reflected on social media.
In response to a post on WTSA's Facebook page at 1 p.m. that alerted motorists to traffic on Putney Road “moving very slowly right now,” one listener, John Therieau, of Brattleboro, objected to the march.
“[I'm] not sure how [participants'] need to exercise their right to protest and freedom of speech gives them the right to obstruct my day by fowling up traffic and making a complete mess of our town,” he wrote. “[T]hat in my eyes is a bigger kick in the face of the rest of the town's rights and freedom to go about our lives.”
“[If] you are trying to gain followers to the cause, stop ticking off those you are trying to gain,” he wrote.
Five people clicked “Like.”