Three climate activists were arrested in the Vermont House chamber Thursday morning after they interrupted legislative proceedings. Capitol Police also appeared to threaten members of the media with arrest when they refused a request to vacate the public space.
About a dozen protesters initiated the demonstration by unfurling banners from a second-floor gallery and delivering a series of speeches about the urgent threat of climate change and what they called a failure by the legislature to address it.
At first, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) tried to restore order from the podium with forceful strikes of her gavel. After Capitol Police led a woman out of the chamber, protesters threw hundreds of slips of paper off the balcony, showering legislators seated below. Johnson declared a recess and ordered representatives to clear the room.
After most lawmakers had departed, a man approached the vacant speaker’s podium, pounded the gavel and declared his fellow activists “in order” and “truthful” before Capitol Police removed him from the chamber.
Several protesters left after they were threatened with arrest, but three were apprehended. Carmen Richardson-Skinder, 15, and her brother, Asa Skinder, 18, of Montpelier, were arrested along with Alec Fleischer, 21, of Middlebury. (Jennifer Skinder, the siblings' mother, was the first demonstrator to be escorted from the building.)
Before they were led away in handcuffs, the trio held a banner that said "see you in January," a pledge that they would return to seek climate action in the 2020 legislative session.
The three later said they’d each been charged with unlawful trespassing and disorderly conduct and released with court dates for next week.
During the standoff, Capitol Police repeatedly threatened to arrest those who remained in the chamber — apparently including a group of reporters documenting the event. At first, Chief Matthew Romei requested that the journalists leave voluntarily.
“I’m asking you to cooperate with us,” he told reporters after VTDigger.org editor Colin Meyn objected to the directive.
Romei then clarified the request: “Not really cooperate with us, but to cooperate with the speaker’s instructions. She owns this chamber. You don’t.”
“Don’t we own the chamber?” a Seven Days reporter asked.
Romei did not respond, instead reiterating his request that reporters leave.
A few minutes later, Romei stood in the well of the House, reading from a clipboard, and announced that those gathered in the chamber were part of an “unlawful assembly” and would be arrested if they didn’t leave.
Romei said Sergeant-at-Arms Janet Miller and Vermont state law “demand all those assembled up there—.” The chief paused and looked directly at the protesters before training his eyes on those in the press gallery, “—to immediately disperse” or they “may be arrested or subject to other police actions ... regardless of their purpose” in the chamber.
Johnson intervened after a Seven Days editor called her office to object to demands that reporters leave the chamber. She directed Romei not to arrest any members of the media.
“I was not aware of that [at the time],” the speaker said later Thursday. “I am not supportive of that. Press absolutely has every right to be there, and we’ll be doing a debrief with the chief of police so that he knows his focus needs to be on the people causing the disruption.”
Romei later denied threatening journalists with arrest.
“As we did today, we’ll always ask members of the media to leave the area,” he said, explaining that it's "a pretty standard mitigation strategy" to remove protesters' audience. "We don’t want to arrest anyone. We want them to clear out of the area and let business continue. It’ll always be an ask. I’m probably more media-friendly than a lot of police. I don’t mind you guys at all. We just try to get our business done so we can let the legislature get theirs.”
The chief added, "I’m not picking a fight with the media. That’s never what is on my mind at all.”
Johnson said that, though she had engaged in acts of civil disobedience herself, Thursday's demonstration had been counterproductive. “They were unfortunately not following the rules of the House that allowed reasonable debate to continue within the way we work," she said.
The speaker said she was not pleased that two lawmakers, Rep. Brian Cina (P/D-Burlington) and Rep. Zach Ralph (P-Hartland), remained in their seats during the protest and verbally encouraged the demonstrators.
“I need to see that everybody in this House wants to be productive and move us forward towards adjournment,” she said. “I was very clear with the representatives that I was disappointed in them, that I thought they were being counterproductive, that they weren’t being cooperative members of the House to get us to the debate that does need to happen.”