About 30 demonstrators rallied this morning outside criminal court in Burlington to denounce racism and voice support for an African American family involved in a July 1 fracas with Burlington police. The demonstrators held placards and chanted slogans such as "BPD — Stop police brutality!"
Susalyn Kirkland, 56 (pictured below), greeted the protesters following a brief appearance in court on charges of impeding a public officer, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. A hearing on her case was set for August 14.
"I didn't do any of that," Kirkland declared outside the courthouse on Cherry Street. "I don't know why they're lying," she said in regard to Burlington police. "They should be telling the truth."
Two of Kirkland's sons — Hassan Williams, 16, and a 15-year-old whose name is not being disclosed — are said by police to have attacked Sgt. Brad Trombley. The officer was responding to a complaint of BB guns being fired at a Spring Street home in the Old North End.
Trombley was punched and bitten by the boys, police say. He pepper-sprayed them and drew his firearm while radioing for reinforcements, according to police. Kirkland allegedly tried to stop officers from arresting her sons.
Asked why Burlington cops are believed to have engaged in brutality, protest spokeswoman Helen Scott cited a two-minute video shot by a neighbor of Kirkland's the evening of the incident. "It shows a large white cop straddling and punching a small black teen," she said.
Burlington police say the video does not show the prior attack on Trombley.
While the demonstration was specifically organized in support of the Kirkland/Williams family, many of those taking part spoke generally about what they say is the prevalence of racism in Vermont.
"I've seen demographic face of Burlington change, but I haven't seen equity for people of color," said Vicki Garrison who was holding a sign reading, "Eradicate the invisible chains of racism."
Jeanine Bunvigi, who was standing beside Garrison, added, "Discrimination is real, in housing, education, employment."
Scott, an English literature professor at the University of Vermont, situated the Burlington protest in the context of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. The group sponsoring the action — the Vermont Change Committee — was formed in the wake of the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman on charges of murdering Martin, a 17-year-old African American.
"We do live in a state that prides itself on its progressive values," Scott said. "But systemic racism exists at every level."
Burlington police did not respond to a message seeking comment on the claim that they engage in brutality.
“We are not aware of any facts or other basis for any allegation that the incident was handled with anything other than professionalism in the face of very challenging circumstances and in compliance with all department rules and policy,” police chief Mike Schirling wrote in an email on Wednesday afternoon in response to the charges of brutality.
“In terms of the department's efforts to mitigate bias in law enforcement and the criminal justice system - we have a history spanning the last decade in which this has been a priority and has been woven into recruitment, policy development, training, supervision, and data analysis - all been done in close partnership with our increasingly diverse community,” Schirling added. “We are very cognizant that this remains an important issue for our community and for law enforcement agencies nationwide. This is an issue that we take very seriously. “