Two hours after the start of a statewide march and rally on a raw May Day in Montpelier, climate-change activist Bill McKibben began his speech to a dwindled crowd by asking, "Where's global warming when you really need it?"
The spirit of the event felt more like the tulips and apple blossoms on the Statehouse lawn than like the sullen sky above the golden dome. Several hundred Vermonters joined in a noisy, festive demonstration, waving red-and-white placards emblazoned with the slogan, "Put People First."
A panoply of causes was represented on an occasion that most of the world celebrates as the workers' holiday. Many of the grievances got at least a mention from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who earned the day's loudest cheers after being introduced as the one politician "who stands up for us in Washington and stands with us here today."
The Senate's sole socialist deplored income inequality, child poverty, climate change, the Citizens' United corporations-are-people decision, and "our dysfunctional health care system." Sanders also denounced three U.S. wars: in Iraq, in Afghanistan and "against women." He said, "It's terribly important at this key moment that men stand with women to make sure the gains of the past 50 years are not lost."
Some of the additional concerns represented at the rally included Abenaki rights, "vaccine choice," student indebtedness, postal workers' job security, child care workers' unionization efforts, Vermont Yankee's re-licensing, the impact of Tropical Storm Irene on mobile home dwellers, and the status of migrant farm workers. The ambitious aim of the May Day action was to unite these varied voices into a single chorus calling for progressive change in Vermont, the United States and the world.
Bernie Hernandez, a farm worker from Mexico, was ringed by a dozen of his compatriots (pictured), mostly women, as he told the crowd, "I am one of the invisibles who's becoming visible and being heard." Hernandez' speech, delivered in Spanish and translated into English, drew laughs and applause with the line, "Without us, there are no creemees!"
Many of the faces at the protest were as familiar — and as worn — as the rhetoric of many of the speakers. But a fair number of young activists turned out as well. Among them was Madison Smith (pictured), a 16-year-old Twinfield High School student who said this was the first political rally she had attended. "My biology teacher said I could either come to class today or come here, so I made my choice," Madison explained. "The nuclear industry is going to destroy Vermont," she added.
The day's entertainment was highlighted by a punk rendition of Bob Dylan's 50-year-old anthem, "The Times They Are A-changin'." It was performed under a tent at the Statehouse by Sam and Scout, a brother-and-sister duo from Fletcher. Scout Donohue is 13 and Sam is 15.
Meanwhile, in the Queen City, a handful of Occupy Burlington members celebrated May Day with scattered protests downtown. During the noon hour, two black-clad occupiers sat on the Democracy statue outside U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy's office. Holding signs and puffing cigarettes, the men criticized the senator for failing to ensure they had health insurance coverage.
"I'm on strike, man," said one of the two men, both of whom refused to give their names or discuss their occupations. "Just to protest general economic inequality."
Outside Citizens Bank on College and St. Paul streets, three more occupiers intercepted bank customers, claiming that as a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Citizens was "the most bailed-out bank," as their sign read.
"Being out on May Day protesting the bank bailouts is important," said Rob Skiff of South Burlington, who said he'd been told by 15 customers that they would take their business elsewhere.
"The only vote you have left is with your voice," he said.
Across College Street, several more occupiers manned a tent in City Hall Park, where the movement's encampment was located last fall. Alan Campbell, a city Parks and Recreation Department employee, dropped by on what he called a "reconnaissance" mission, questioning the protesters about the tent they set up. When the city worker asked for a cell phone number for the protest's leader, the occupiers explained that theirs was a leaderless movement.
There was no mic-check.
Photos by Kevin J. Kelley and Paul Heintz