Gov. Phil Scott on Monday condemned the killing of George Floyd and called for the prosecution of the Minnesota police officers involved in his death. He also sympathized with demonstrators around the country, saying their outage was "justifiable."
"My heart goes out to all people of color across the nation who, even though they live in different communities, carry this trauma every time something like this happens," Scott said in his first public remarks following a weekend of civil unrest in response to Floyd's death.
Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died May 25 after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, pinned him face down on pavement and knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Video of the encounter shows Floyd pleading for his life.
"I can't breathe," he said.
Four officers have been fired, and Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Scott and Vermont State Police leaders condemned the act in a statement last week. The governor doubled down on Monday, using the opening remarks of his press briefing to call for murder charges to be filed against every officer involved in the "barbaric and totally inexcusable" killing.
"Both the three officers who used force, and the officers who stood by and allowed it to occur," Scott said. "In the greatest country in the world, no one should stand for this. No one should make excuses for this. And no one should ignore this. We must all make clear: Enough is enough."
Protests erupted in more than 100 American cities over the weekend. In Burlington, hundreds gathered in Battery Park on Saturday before marching to the nearby police department. There, an activist with a megaphone grilled the city's police brass about past allegations of officer misconduct before emtying a jug of red liquid at their feet.
"Their blood is on your hands," said Harmony Edosomwan, the protest's leader, referring to people killed by cops.
Scott said he remained in close contact with the city's mayor and state police throughout the weekend and was pleased to see the "tense" demonstration end peacefully.
"Obviously, there were a lot of people, for Vermont, in one location," Scott said. "But I think everyone conducted themselves well on both sides."
Violence has broken out in other cities, and more than half of the nation's governors have called in the National Guard. On a private call with governors Monday morning, President Donald Trump described the protesters as "terrorists" and urged governors to start arresting them, according to the New York Times.
"You have to dominate," the president told governors on the private call, which occurred at the same time as Scott's briefing. "If you don't dominate, you're wasting your time — they're going to run over you, you're going to look like a bunch of jerks."
After a reporter summarized the message, Scott said he believed the president's "unfortunate choice of words" are not "reflected by reality."
Scott said he would only call in the Guard if a protest overwhelmed local law enforcement and put public safety at risk. Activating the Guard "creates a lot of unrest," Scott said, and may "provoke more violence."
Earlier in the briefing, Scott asked observers of the clashes to keep in mind a message from Martin Luther King Jr. "A riot is the language of the unheard," Scott said, quoting the civil rights icon. "They simply don't know what else to do.'"
"For those who see the national protests and feel disdain instead of sympathy, just know the reactions we're seeing in cities around the country are the results of decades — actually centuries — of calls for help that went unheard," the Republican governor said.
Scott said Vermont is not exempt from the systemic racism built into the nation's social and economic systems. To that end, he said he was forming a racial equity task force in Vermont that will begin by looking at death rate disparities between white and nonwhite COVID-19 victims.
The task force will also evaluate how well the state supports its racially diverse population, review hate speech laws and encourage nonwhite Vermonters to seek public office, Scott said. He expected to announce appointments to the body next week.
As demonstrations continued in some cities on Monday, Scott asked Vermonters who plan to gather again to remain peaceful and keep in mind the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis. Though many protesters in Burlington wore masks, the sheer mass of the crowd made it impossible for many to adhere to social distancing guidelines, Health Commissioner Mark Levine noted.
Still, Scott fell short of asking Vermonters to avoid demonstrations altogether, and seemed to signal that he has no intention of trying to enforce the part of his executive order that currently bans gatherings of more than 25 people.
"The fact is, hate, ignorance and the inequality we've seen is a far greater risk to the long-term health of our nation than even COVID-19," he said.
He ended his remarks by striking an optimistic tone.
"The good news is, we can fix this without waiting for a vaccine or other solutions out of our control," Scott said. "It just takes us, uniting, to make this a better country for everyone. Just like the coronavirus, this is literally in our hands."