'This cannot happen in our country anymore'

Crowds gather in Bennington to call for change after the death of George Floyd

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Editor's note: This story was updated at 6:30 p.m on May 31, 2020.

BENNINGTON — Adding their voices to those of tens of thousands of Americans, about 50 people gathered at the Four Corners in the rain on Saturday night to protest the death of George Floyd, and the mistreatment of African Americans at the hands of police.

A second vigil took place around 3 p.m. on Sunday at the Four Corners and drew more than 50 people, who chanted and called for racial justice in law enforcement. After about a half hour, many in the crowd moved along South Street to stand on both sides of the street in front of the Bennington Police Department building, where they stayed for more than an hour, with others joining the vigil as it continued.

Saturday's 90-minute vigil was peaceful, with protesters holding signs and candles at the intersection of Main, South and North streets. Many passing motorists honked their horns in support, while a handful shouted from open windows as they drove past.

There were no speeches, and the crowd was largely quiet, but for an occasional chant of "I can't breathe." But the anger was palpable.

"I'm horrified at what happened," said Mary Lee-Clark, who held a sign reading, "I can't breathe." "White people have got to stand up and be allies. This cannot happen in our country anymore.

"I just wanted to not let this be business as usual," she said.

"These kinds of issues have been going on as long as I've been in high school," said Ellis Glazer, "so getting involved and actually trying to make a difference in local communities is a really important thing to do."

His brother, Miles Glazer, is a college student who returned to Bennington because of the coronavirus. "Back in D.C., where I go to school, it's a lot easier to get involved with protesting," he said. "But here it's been a completely different challenge, and so it's really good today to be able to get out and participate actively in politics that are going on.

"It's very different seeing things in the news online and actually participating," he said.

The vigil was called by Lianne Levin Rush, after a conversation with her husband, Jason, at 2:30 Saturday morning.

"He works at the hospital, and he got home at about 12:30, and we were home just sitting around kind of talking about it," she said. 

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She suggested, "maybe we should just go down to the Four Corners of Main Street and have a candlelight vigil. People are talking about protests. He said we might be the only two down there. I said, that's okay, she said. 

"And so I just said to him I was going to throw it on Facebook, and we'll see what happens."

There was no visible police presence at the vigil. At one point, a Bennington police cruiser drove past, drawing no response from the crowd. 

The Bennington Police Department on Saturday issued a statement condemning the killing, and calling for the prosecution of Chauvin, as well as three Minneapolis officers who stood by and watched as Floyd died.

Russ Wilber said he attended to protest the long history of racism in America.

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"I came out with the injustices that have been going on for 240 years, from the slaves to Rosa Parks, from Martin Luther King to the water fountains. And we need to change. This is ridiculous," he said.

"We are shooting black people that are unarmed not causing any trouble at all. They're not felons, they haven't committed any serious crimes, running down the street, and getting shot," he said. 

He noted that Floyd, who was suspected of forgery, died after Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder. "At one point, Colin Kaepernick, they ripped him apart for taking a knee for this exact same thing, this injustice," he said.

"Being here in in the rain is nothing," Wilber said. "I'm a senior citizen. I'm probably never going to see it, but I sure would hope that at some point, we won't see any more racists ... We've got to change it."

"Last evening was an opportunity to come together to mourn George Floyd, share our sadness and anger for his death and our hope for a better America," state Sen. Brian Campion said Sunday morning in an email. "But hope alone isn’t going to make the change that we must make.

"Change is long overdue in the United States and as Americans we must work together to root out racial discrimination and make the criminal justice systems in every state fair and equitable," said Campion, who attended the vigil. "We have started this work locally and statewide, but there is still much to do and it will take all of us — working together — to achieve these goals."

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Ally White said she and four friends decided to take part "after the murder of George Floyd, and to show our support for the Black Lives Matter movement. We thought coming out and protesting and holding signs would be a good way to show our support."

"We were hoping there was something we could do instead of just, you know, posting on social media," White said. "I think this is something that everybody should do if they feel strongly about it.

"We're all from Bennington, and we're proud of our town for showing up like this."

In front of BPD

During Sunday's vigil, rights advocate Shawn Pratt, who had urged the group to move to the police station a half-block away on South Street, stood on a picnic table across the street and spoke to the crowd. Bennington hasn’t experienced the same level of police violence against minority people as occurred in Minneapolis and other cities, Pratt said, but “there is racism” within the department, and he said aggressive police tactics are used, which could lead to a tragic incident.

“And not only are they doing this to black people,” he said, “but they are doing it to poor whites, and we all need to stand together and not fight amongst ourselves.”

Pratt also urged those present to sign an online petition posted by Rights and Democracy-Vermont that calls for the resignations of Police Chief Paul Doucette and Town Manager Stuart Hurd, saying that an ongoing review of the department’s policies and procedures won’t be effective without a change in leadership at the top.

Doucette should be replaced because he is responsible for the department, Pratt said, and Hurd “doesn’t listen” when told of problems within the BPD.

Mia Schultz, who has pushed for a police department oversight commission in Bennington, said during the vigil that she thinks a group with subpoena powers and with strong representation from marginalized citizens is the only format that will get to the root of existing problems.

She added that she doubts real change will happen unless there is new leadership in town government as well.

There was no visible police presence during the vigil, except for officers occasionally exiting or entering the department from a rear entrance on the Union Street side of the building.


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