ST. JOHNSBURY — A protest began peacefully with hundreds of Black Lives Matter supporters on Main Street sidewalks on Wednesday, but when a number of people drifted into the middle of Main Street, police responded and that’s when things turned ugly.
Four people were arrested for disorderly conduct and one woman crashed violently down the concrete steps of the police department after a police officer pulled her from standing in front of the door. Law enforcers from multiple police agencies, including Vermont State Police, Caledonia County Sheriff’s Dept. and the Lyndonville Police Dept., responded to the area in front of the police station to provide assistance if the crowd turned to an unruly mob. They were not required to actively engage.
The idea for the protest started with three 2017 St. Johnsbury Academy grads, Kristen Seadale, of Barton, Hannah Cartwright, of Landaff, N.H., and Jaine Dekett, of Wheelock. They shared on social media they would be at the Post Office on Main Street at noon. The news spread and the response was big. Local people were spurred to action by the killing of George Floyd. A white Minneapolis police officer is accused of the crime.
“I think we’re all trying to recognize that just because we’re in a rural, mostly safe and predominantly white area, we’re not excluded from the responsibility to protest police brutality and stand for black lives,” said Seadale.
“It’s really easy in a predominantly white area to not do anything because people think it’s not an issue that affects us,” said Dekett. “I think it’s really important even in this area to show it’s something we care about and want to see changed.”
The protest start was set at noon and people, mostly wearing masks were gathering in the area of the post office. Most carried signs with various messages of support for black lives, memorial for Floyd and condemnation for police brutality.
The numbers grew and stretched along the sidewalk beyond the Athenaeum moving north on Main Street and south to an office building across the street from the courthouse driveway. Both sides of the road were covered with protesters.
Various chants were yelled from the crowd. Among them: “Silence equals violence,” “Say His Name” followed by the shouting of “George Floyd,” “Two, four, six, eight, end the violence, end the hate,” “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” They laid face down on the ground chanting “I can’t breathe” for about nine minutes, which is the amount of time Floyd was kept pinned to the ground by the police officer’s knee.
One chant that didn’t gain as much traction with the crowd was yelled when a town police cruiser drove by. ‘F—- the police!” was shouted out but not many people echoed back. There were more voices added to the chant ‘F—- Trump’ when a truck drove past carrying and American flag and Trump/Pence 2020 flag.
About 1 p.m. the protest turned into a parade of people as they marched with signs and chants down Eastern Avenue, onto Railroad Street, Maple Street and back to Main Street.
Gerda Blaszczyk, a resident of the St. Johnsbury House, watched the protesters parade past the apartment house from the outdoor porch. She reflected on how she never would have seen such a gathering in her native communist East Germany. She watched the oppression of dissident voices as a girl until she escaped when she was 14 years old.
She said it’s good people can protest, but she said it appeared to her that the people gathered to protest on Wednesday “need to appreciate a little more the United States.”
Many of the protesters dispersed after the march, but a large group of well over 100 remained and gathered on the sidewalk in front of the police station. They continued chanting and seemed pleased when Chief Tim Page came outside.
They became upset that more officers didn’t come outside to engage. Page spoke to them from the top of the steps and offered to kneel for a moment of silence.
“I’m trying to give you guys your say and I agree with what you’re saying but I’m telling you we’re busy,” said Page. “I’ll kneel with guys for a moment of silence and then if you guys could move along I would appreciate it because it’s been a long day.”
Several of the protesters responded with what they’d appreciate. “And we’d appreciate it if you’d stop shooting unarmed people,” yelled one of them. “I won’t listen to that, OK,” Page remarked.
Page kneeled for 22 seconds and then stood and walked back inside the police station. The moment didn’t satisfy many of the protesters who said he didn’t kneel long enough.
More protesters left after the police chief addressed the crowd, but many stayed and marched north on Main Street only to return to the area in front of the police station and decided to move onto Main Street.
“We wanted to get people’s attention and start getting out there,” said Britnee Lemmer, 21, of St. Johnsbury.
Their movement into the street where cars were trying to pass got the chief’s attention. He went back outside to try to get them back onto the sidewalk. “Now it’s a public safety issue,” he said.
Will Dimas, 20, of Littleton, N.H., was standing in the northbound lane of Main Street, Chief Page said, and traffic was being impeded in all directions. Page put him in handcuffs when he refused to move.
“He said ‘move,’ and I said, ‘you’ll have to move me’ and he moved me,” said Dimas.
Det. Danielle Kostruba stood with Page and as they escorted Dimas toward the police station, protesters got close and forced the officers to push past people. Other officers joined in as the crowd stirred. As they got closer to the door, protesters blocked the entrance.
Lemmer, who was arrested for disorderly conduct, said she stood in front of the door because she didn’t think Dimas was being treated fairly.
“He was aggressively being moved,” she said. “They (police) just kept pushing.”
In the effort of trying to get Dimas through the door, a police officer grabbed Carmen Turnbaugh, 21, of Lyndonville, who was blocking the way, and pulled her from the door, which sent her tumbling down the stairs. Things escalated further when the protesters saw that.
Police and protesters engaged over control of the door and more people were taken into custody. Lemmer, Marion Ely, 20, of St. Johnsbury, and Robert McCann, 58, of St. Johnsbury.
“Some cop was getting a little agitated and he gave me, admittedly, a warning and I was just holding the door,” said Ely. She said she was handcuffed by an ankle and a wrist to a wall and then released on a criminal citation for disorderly conduct. She said it was worth it.
“I’m happy it was me instead one of the black people here,” said Ely. “If it was a black person I’m sure it would have been a much different experience.”
Protesters screamed loudly that Turnbaugh was thrown down the steps by the officer. Turnbaugh herself, after being taken briefly to a nearby home to be checked for injury, returned to the scene and said what she remembered.
“My friends were being arrested and I had blocked the door only to ask the police why he was being arrested because all he was doing was peacefully protesting,” said Turnbaugh. “He wasn’t disturbing anybody. And then a female detective had grabbed me by my arm and pulled me forward and then one of the male police officers had pushed me down the stairs. I hit my head on the rail and had scuffed up my elbow on the steps and some of my friends and my brother as well came over and took care of me.”
The chief said he didn’t know which officer grabbed Turnbaugh but said no one threw her down the stairs.
“There was not intent to throw anybody down the stairs,” he said.
The scene began to de-escalate shortly after the arrests were made and officers kneeled outside the police station and engaged with the protesters. Capt. Jason Gray handed out police complaint forms for people to fill out because they were upset that the chief was not wearing a body camera.
Lt. Mark Bickford and Officer Gerald Schartner handed out business cards with their contact information, and Bickford promised the crowd he would research the issue of “systemic racism.”
Despite her crash down the stairs, Turnbaugh said much was gained by the protest, but more work is needed.
“The town heard our message,’ she said. “The town heard us for sure and that’s wonderful, that’s great, but the police need to hear us as well. They clearly don’t care. They arrest people who were peacefully protesting. They toss me down the stairs like I am trash.”
Chief Page said he agrees with the message of the protesters as it relates to what happened to George Floyd.
“I don’t agree with what happened to Floyd so I sympathize with what they were protesting,” he said.
But, he said, the protest started as one thing and became something else.
“It evolved from a protest for Black Lives Matter to a protest against police,” he said.