More than 250 people Zoomed into the Burlington Board of Finance meeting Monday night to demand that the city remove police officers from schools and cut the force's ranks by nearly a third.
The public comments lasted nearly six hours.
"Our people have been struggling to be heard for hundreds of years, and tonight we're going to take our goddamn time," said Emiliano Void, who introduced himself as a black Burlington resident whose great-grandparents were slaves. "Please help us," he said.
The board, which is composed of Mayor Miro Weinberger and four city councilors, is in the midst of crafting the budget for next fiscal year. One after another, the activists stated their case.
"The times are changing, and these demands will not go away; they will only get louder," Holly Greenleaf said. "If you truly want to be leaders in this, we need to act now."
Though many speakers added personal touches, most quoted a list of demands published by the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, a group led by people of color that advocates for policies to dismantle systemic racism. The group is also asking that the city stop using police on truancy calls and that the department fire Sgt. Jason Bellavance and officers Joseph Corrow and Cory Campbell, all of whom had violent interactions in 2018 and 2019.
In the cases involving Bellavance and Corrow, the citizens involved were black men. Those two officers' actions are now subject of two excessive force lawsuits pending in federal court.
The alliance is also asking the city to invest in communities of color by creating an office of equal opportunity to bolster minority-owned businesses.
The proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 includes $17.4 million for police — 22 percent of the general fund.
"Those dollars compound and disproportionately exacerbate the violence, generational poverty and suffering of our citizens," Catarina Campbell said. "Imagine what becomes possible with your vote to reallocate these funds and empower their efficacy in our communities. Not knowing what to do next is an invalid excuse."
The rally cries mark the second time in recent days that activists dialed into the Board of Finance to call for change. Last Thursday, about 16 people Zoomed in to demand that the city abolish its police department and reallocate funds to other services.
The concept has picked up steam across the nation, including in Minneapolis, where George Floyd, a black man, died after a white cop knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Former sergeant Derek Chauvin has been charged with murder. Floyd's death has sparked protests and demonstrations against police violence across the country, including ones in Burlington's Battery Park and in Montpelier.
Even Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George, the top prosecutor, has spoken out about police reform. "Dont [sic] get outraged by the call to 'defund police' if you sat by & said nothing when decisions were made to defund education, mental health services, substance use services, healthcare, and affordable housing," George tweeted on Monday. "Sufficiently funding all of the latter = defunding police."
Last week, interim Burlington Police Chief Jennifer Morrison said the department was already facing a 3 percent budget cut and warned that further staffing reductions could put Burlingtonians in danger. Monday night, the city's police union issued a statement on Twitter that labeled the calls for cuts "radical and dangerous."
"The conversation around police reform is one worth having, but 84 percent of Americans do NOT agree that cutting the number of police officers or reducing the size of police departments is the way we achieve that goal," the statement said, without citing the statistic's source.
The union's statement notes that Burlington police use force in only a fraction of calls each year. Police data show, however, that Queen City cops use force on black people at a disproportionate rate. Black people make up just 5 percent of Burlington’s population, but are involved in 20 percent of incidents that result in the use of force, according to a 2019 report.
Monday night, board members let commenters continue mostly uninterrupted, save for when Weinberger noted that Burlington police don't respond to truancy calls. Later, City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) jumped in to say he'd just received word that a uniformed officer had visited a Burlington home about school attendance in April.
"I think we need to look more into that issue and see what has been actually happening," Tracy said.
Tuesday morning, Morrison wrote in an email to Seven Days that Burlington cops don't investigate truancy but do "conduct welfare checks at the request of the Schools or others." She said she wasn't aware of the incident Tracy mentioned but "would be happy to look into it if we could have more information."
The Board of Finance will meet again Wednesday night. As long as the proposed budget gets voted out of the committee, Weinberger plans to present it to the full council on June 15.
Watch Monday's meeting here: