Last week Seven Days' Chelsea Edgar wrote just shy of 6,000 words about the Black Lives Matter activists who have spent the last month occupying Burlington's Battery Park. In her first-person piece, "Battery Power," she chronicled what she saw and heard over many days of reporting.
This week Seven Days is devoting almost as much space to reader reactions to the story, which was summarily condemned by the protest organizers. Letters to the editor occupy four full pages of the paper. Published critics, who objected to Edgar's tone and characterizations, outnumber proponents by roughly two to one.
What remain unseen are dozens of private emails of support that we've received from readers, fellow journalists, business owners and fans since the story's publication.
You won't read their words of encouragement, or be persuaded by their arguments, because many didn't want their names in print — a requirement for sharing feedback in Seven Days. Why? They're afraid that what's happening to us could happen to them.
The day after Seven Days hit the streets, a number of protesters removed hundreds of copies from our distribution racks in private businesses. They defaced them to use as protest signs. A few were shredded and set on fire. While they marched, protesters chanted "Fuck Seven Days" and "Chelsea 'bout to lose her job."
That was tame compared to the vitriol unleashed on social media. Our staffers endured personal attacks, graphic humiliations and bullying of every variety, including profanity and sexual harassment.
Nothing prepares you for the indictment of a mob in the digital era and the subsequent online public stoning.
Protecting free speech and the press from government interference was so important to the founders of this country, they codified it with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The law protects all speech, not just the speech we agree with. While the Burlington protesters exercised their rights — camping in a public park, assembling on a public street, protesting and posting on social media — we reassured jittery reporters, circulation drivers and other staffers who felt targeted by association.
My guess is that all of them applaud the passion and empathize with the outrage that's fueling the Battery Park encampment. Some are reporters who have worked hard to expose police misconduct and the actions of the officers the group is seeking to remove. There's so much to be angry about in this moment, from the coronavirus pandemic's outsize impact on communities of color to the lack of justice in the killing of Breonna Taylor, the Black woman shot by police in Louisville, Ky.
We at Seven Days expect — and appreciate — criticism of our work. It affirms that our readers care deeply about our community and results in constructive discussions about our editorial approach and decision making, as Chelsea's story has. But last week's backlash feels more ominous.
The protesters themselves have experienced extreme reactions from those who oppose them. We've seen vile racist comments directed against them on social media, often disturbingly personal, often anonymous. On September 1, Burlington police arrested a counterprotester who stood near the encampment for three days while openly carrying an AR-15 rifle — illegally, as it turned out.
These kinds of intimidation and the corresponding fear of retribution are threats to our democracy and to civil society — unacceptable, no matter the cause. If people don't feel they can speak freely — or have disagreements or ask questions or write a story — without being bullied and shamed, they'll hold their tongues. We'll all be the lesser for it.