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Dissent and Democracy

January 12, 2015


The State House was abuzz on Thursday past, what with the Legislature having to officially elect the Governor to serve this biennium, a homelessness vigil on the front steps at noon, and an inaugural speech interrupted by advocates and supporters of a universal health care plan that Governor Shumlin shelved in mid-December. We have an uneasy relationship with dissent — think of how we wanted people to be quiet during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and yet the ability to dissent (free speech) was one of the freedoms we fought for in these wars. Even in Vermont, our expectations are for a balance between having one’s voice heard in a place that is far more accessible than its counterparts in other states, and a certain politesse expected of the public, especially during moments of pomp and circumstance.

Thursday’s Gubernatorial Inauguration was interrupted by a contingent from the Vermont Workers Center and Health Care is a Human Right. The organizations, along with many Vermonters (myself included), were grossly disappointed with the decision by Governor Shumlin to postpone plans for the discussion and/or implementation of a universal health care system in Vermont. Commonly called “single payer,” this form of delivering and paying for health care for everyone in the state of Vermont was the crown jewel of Governor Shumlin’s agenda, and he expressed very clearly that it was the biggest disappointment of his political career. The decision was interpreted as a death knell for universal health care, and it is hard not to agree. Members of the Vermont Workers Center and Health Care is a Human Right had worked for years to see Act 48 passed (which directed the administration to do the studies and present payment schemes), and they had invested incredible amounts of time and energy to support the Governor in his effort. That they were an effective voice for “regular” Vermonters — workers, the aged, the poor, the young — was a victory for their increased maturity as an organization. They promised a large crowd for the inauguration, and they delivered.

What was different was that they chose to be loud, proud, rude, constant and, to a degree and very superficially, disrespectful. Their tactics were, in my experience, unique to the Vermont State House. Some memories recalled a similar protest…in 1991. But were their tactics, overall, disrespectful? They sang, they blocked passageways, they held up banners, they ignored the traditional decorum, they interrupted speakers, they engaged in a sit-in, they received press coverage and twenty-nine individuals were arrested, for which they received more press. To only say that they received press is shortchanging them — they received press because they were angry that they supported an issue that was, on one hand, going to need a Hail Mary pass to achieve and yet was, against many odds, within reach. Their expression in the “People’s House,” their First Amendment right, directly mirrored their feelings of how the decision to postpone universal care would affect their constituents. They felt betrayed, and this tool of dissent was chosen to make their voice heard to the widest possible audience in a way that made people uncomfortable. Which is, after all, the desired outcome of a protest.

I cannot say I was personally afraid of physical violence during the protests, but I was sitting about as far away as I could be from where they were. I was afraid for our doorkeepers — slightly more than middle-aged men trying to wrestle banners away from the protesters — and I was worried that our invited guests might feel afraid, given that they were sitting in the balcony, which is about 15 feet above the chamber floor. I was a bit scared that, given the numerous recent clashes between police forces and citizens, that one person — any person — might set off a reaction that we would all regret, and where people were injured. To their credit, our doorkeepers, Capitol Police and State Police operated with caution and professionalism, and no one was hurt. Near the end of the benediction, they made a decision to have the governor and other elected officials, as well as family members, leave through the Speaker of the House’s entry door to the chamber, rather than walk through an energetic and tense crowd, as they did at the beginning of the inauguration.

As the minister who was trying to deliver the benediction said, during one of the interruptions, “Isn’t it great we live in a place where we can exercise our right to free speech?” Given the massacre in Paris the previous day, it was important to acknowledge that, while not perfect, our constitution demands that we allow free speech. And a protest, tense but peaceful as it was, is a very small price to pay to have a day of pomp and circumstance stained. But our body and our government thrive with differences of opinion, and a human’s best work is done when there is conflict to resolve.

Do I support the protesters? In the sense that they expressed their right to free speech. They impressed upon us the importance of the issue to them, and to many Vermonters. But they may have lost some “credibility” with some legislators, credibility that is important to get things done in the State House. I would have chosen differently, perhaps, but I  acknowledge that many of the protesters were as nervous as we were, and it took a certain courage to make the statement they did. And, honestly, I’m sure they realize that their actions will have consequences, positive and negative.

Moments before, on the front stairs of the State House, I had been asked to say a few words to Vermonters who were dealing with and advocating for an end to homelessness. The wind chill was still well below zero, and we were all very cold. I was one of many speakers that reminded folks that money was once again tight, and getting any real relief was going to be a struggle. I also reminded them that it was their responsibility to stay right up in our faces and to keep reminding us that they are there, that their problems are real, and to tell us that they won’t leave until we help provide a solution.

Nothing has ever really been done in this country without it having started with protests. Nothing just happens just out of the goodness of our hearts. Those seeking help, redress or equality always have to be pushed to their own limits of where they must put aside everything to fight for their rights, or for equity. It’s never easy, for them or for legislators who support their causes. Eventually, their anger and frustration will seep through to us and we will achieve some version of what they seek.

The discomfort and unease we all felt in the State House last Thursday is a small price to pay for our democratic values, and rather than yelling “Get Off My Lawn,” we should acknowledge the courage of their convictions, even if we disagree with their methods. We should be proud that it happened, and that no one was hurt, and that we experienced an event that tested our own patience and expectations. It is an event like this that makes me love my country, my state and our people even more.

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