SPRINGFIELD, Vt. – “We are ready, we are moving, peace will set us free. We are waking from this dream. We are dangerous.” This was the music heard on Friday at the Black Lives Matter protest held on Main Street in Springfield. These were the voices of about 70 people – all wearing masks in compliance with COVID-19 recommendations – who gathered to peacefully protest in support of the movement and to celebrate Juneteenth, a word coined to identify June 19 as the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States and now recognized in 47 states.
The event that received the support of the Springfield Police and the town manager was organized by Miriam Jones and Anna Boarini. Pattrice Jones, a supporter, explained that the two women put this together on their own and not as part of an organization. She said, “It is different this time. There has been a real shift in white folks empowering people of color.” She said up until now, people maybe could not imagine or had any idea how bad it has been – what people of color have gone through. “We are committed to standing in solidarity…finally. And we will be here every Friday.”
Raphael Sacks, who helped publicize Friday’s event, moved to Springfield to run a nonprofit arts organization out of what was his grandparents’ farm. Sacks said, “This is Abenaki land. Vermont has a role to play in America’s reckoning with our own history of genocide and slavery.” He said he wishes to make Springfield a safe place for people of color and was at the protest to stand in solidarity with the movement for Black Lives and their three Juneteenth demands: defund the police, invest in black communities, and resign Donald Trump.
There were earlier reports that Main Street would be closed during the protest, but it remained open to traffic and as sign-wielding protestors lined Main Street chanting, “No Justice. No Peace. Defund the Police.” They received honks and waves in support from passing motorists.
This reporter spoke to several protestors and asked what they hoped would happen as a result of this and similar events. Norman, a self-proclaimed member of the socialist party, a nonracist anti-war protestor, held a sign with George Floyd’s name, a black man killed during an arrest May 25 in Minneapolis, Minn., that was taped over the name of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man who was fatally shot by a Ferguson, Mo. police officer in 2014.
Joe held a cardboard sign with the words “His name was George” that was covered with the names of other victims like Floyd. He said he does not know why people have power over other people and felt he needed to be in the street to support and protect them. Jackie said she sees injustice in the world and is fed up with systemic issues – they need to be addressed. Sarah said she felt as a person of privilege, she needed to say something and added, “Silence is compliance.”
On both sides of the street and the other side of the issue were the Springfield police officers and Chief Mark Fountain. Fountain said, “Vermont law enforcement professionals were angered and horrified to learn of the circumstances surrounding George Floyd’s death. These are difficult times for good police officers because many in society have painted us with the same brush.”
Fountain said his officers were there to make sure the protest was a peaceful event because sometimes these things can become completely unraveled. He said he believes in openness and transparency and said long before these recent events, he fostered key public outreach programs to build positive relationships with community members.
Five months ago, Fountain said he initiated a Big Brother/Big Sister program in the schools to enable police officers to mentor students in positive ways. He said the program just got off the ground before the pandemic closed down the classrooms. He practices and promotes tolerance but said his people have to be conscious of their surroundings because right now there is a lot of anger out there.
Town Manager Steve Neratko stated in an email following the event, “The town and I are very supportive of the rights of the protesters on both sides. I commend the protesters on staying peaceful and respectful of each other and the community.”
He added that it is important that everyone realizes town officials are willing to discuss issues. He said he understands the need to protest – to stand up for what you believe in – but we now need to take the next steps and lead by example as a community. Suggestions are welcome and Neratko said he is willing to meet with people. He explained, “Government should represent the wishes of the community” and added that people need to be involved and attend public meetings, offer comments during budget season, and participate.
Neratko went on to say he thinks the Police Department has done a great job to ensure protestors’ rights and safety. He said he is not sure defunding the Police Department in Springfield is the answer because “… the department is already operating at less than ideal numbers.”
The town is beginning a capital and operating planning process that will look into all departments and identify, prioritize, and recommend programs and changes to facilitate efficient and effective government. One of ten working groups will focus on the police. Those meetings and hearings will be public and will be taped and streamed. Neratko said, “This is a chance for the public to have a real say in how things are done in Springfield. If there is a program, project, or reallocation of budgeted funds that you would like to see, this would be an excellent time to discuss that.” He said he looks forward to working with the community to make Springfield the best place it can be for all of us.