I left Burlington, Vermont last June. After twelve years there, leaving was bittersweet at best. Having grown up as a military brat, twelve years was the longest that I had ever lived in one town consecutive years, plus Vermont is an incredibly tolerant place. In fact, with the exception of its bitterly cold winters, it would be ideal. Politically, it tends towards a libertarian communitarianism–a combination of New England independence/live-and-let-live philosophy born in the muskets of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys and their fight for independence and against monied land speculators from New York and Britain. This belief is complemented by a general assumption that every resident deserves a decent shelter and food on the table. This combination of independence and social welfare is part of the reason that Bernie Sanders gets reelected every two years as the state’s congressperson.
I always thought that part of the reason for Vermont’s generally progressive social and economic policies stemmed from its small size. As of 2000, there were only around 500,000 residents. Now, that’s less than one-third the number of people who live in Manhattan spread out over almost 300 times the area. Even in Burlington–the state’s largest and most densely populated city–this means that there is a lot of room to move around. In addition, the small population breeds a familiarity. One can walk down Burlington’s Church Street pedestrian mall and get into an argument with Bernie Sanders or the mayor if they so desire. In addition, the relative amount of room each individual has tends to make people feel quite comfortable and even relaxed. Manhattan seems to do the opposite to most folks.
The progressive politics of modern Vermont stem from a combination of factors. Foremost among them would be the influx of counterculture and new leftist types during the late 1960s and the 1970s–refugees from the Nixonian reality of the Northeast cities in the era of Kent State and Watergate. Additional elements are the numbers of liberal thinking young professionals who moved to the area in the 1980s and 1990s, along with the ever expanding lesbian and gay population. The latter population enjoys the relative tolerance and acceptance that they find in the state, especially after Vermont became the first state to recognize civil unions between same sex couples. Of course, one must still have a desire to live in a basically rural environment [i.e., live five months , January to May, marinating in freezing mud, ACC] to move to Vermont, but that too contributes to Vermonters’ sense of community-based politics.
During my twelve years in Burlington, I went to dozens of protests and demonstrations. Some, like the People’s Economic Summit in 1995 during the National Governors’ Conference or the convergence against the FTAA meetings taking place in Quebec City in 2000–were events that took months to plan and involved people from around the country. Others, like the protest against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the takeover of Bernie Sanders’ office during the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999–were spontaneous and primarily involved Vermonters and college students attending college in the area. Almost all of them came off peacefully and were occasionally attended by various local politicians. Suffice it to say that Burlington is the only place that I have protested our government’s actions where I never worried about getting arrested or beaten without warning. Although I always had the thought in my mind that protest in that situation was exactly what Herbert Marcuse was talking about when he wrote of repressive tolerance, I enjoyed the freedom from fear I grew to expect in Burlington.
So, imagine my surprise when I received an email from a friend still living and working in Vermont that described a new ordinance that the Burlington City Council wants to turn into law. In essence, the proposed law is an attempt to create so-called free speech zones in Burlington. Although the law doesn’t state this explicitly, it does explicitly state where residents can not hold a protest: in front of the City Hall Building and in front of the office building where Bernie Sanders maintains his Burlington offices. So, by default, the ordinance does create “zones” of free speech. Furthermore, the ordinance would require 100 days advance notice for marches of 100 people or more and seven days advance notice for those of less than 100. On top of that, it would require a so-called administrative fee of fifty dollars and require groups to pay for any police protection, even if the marchers do not request such protection. Now, I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that this law would not only restrict people’s right to peaceably assemble and speak, it pretty much forbids that right to those unable or unwilling to pay the required fees. On top of that, the restrictions against groups gathering in front of the City Hall or the Congressperson’s office contradict the very essence of a government of the people. After all, who the hell do they think built City Hall and who the hell do they think the Congressperson is working for?
Both of the aforementioned buildings are on the aforementioned Church Street. For those who have never been to Burlington, this street is essentially an open air shopping mall. Knowing the arguments of those who want to restrict the rights of those on the street who do not shop–be they politicos, street performers, teenagers looking for their friends, or homeless people–this ordinance is not a surprise. Indeed, the city attorney who drew up the measure (a so-called progressive), insists that the law is “content neutral” and just designed to permit equal access to all, shoppers and non-shoppers. The reality is the opposite. Since political protests are the primary large gatherings on the streets, it is clear to most everyone that this ordinance is intended to restrict such events. Of course, most of the folks who have lobbied the hardest for the restrictions are some of the merchants with shops on the street. The first amendment guarantees the right to peaceably assemble. It does not say we can only do this in certain areas and only after notifying the authorities. Nor does it say we should have to pay for this right. (Besides, isn’t that what taxes are supposed to pay for?).
Indeed, a recent, magnificently written decision by U.S. District Court Judge John A. Woodcock, Jr in Bangor, Maine says as much. Judge Woodcock determined that an Augusta, Maine parade statue that required marchers to obtain insurance and pay other fees to the city before they could get a permit was unconstitutional. Not only did he find the ordinance unconstitutional, the judge defended the right adamantly in his 51-page opinion. He quoted previous cases that said that public streets are traditional public fora and that “the government must bear an extraordinarily heavy burden to regulate speech in such locales.” (City of Richmond, 743 F.2d at 1355.32) Furthermore, wrote the judge, since “the streets are natural and proper places for the dissemination of information and opinionone is not to have the exercise of his liberty of expression in appropriate places abridged on the plea that it may be exercised in some other place”. (Schneider, 308 U.S. at 163.) Nor, he continued, should there be fees associated with the right to march in city streets.
Let Representative Sanders denounce the proposed regulation in Vermont. Or does Sanders now take the view that In the land where the dollar reigns supreme, free speech will have to pay.
A list of Burlington’s City Councilors appears on this page. Email them.
Judge Woodcock’s decision can be found here:
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org