BURLINGTON - Non-violent civil disobedience can produce stiff penalties. But in recent weeks, at least four local activists scored one cushy, and ironic, plea bargain. Rather than serve hard time for a slew of trespassing violations, they did antiwar activism as state-sanctioned penance - for violations incurred during an antiwar protest.
On November 30, the activists were among at least 50 demonstrators who stormed a Williston Army National Guard recruiting office in protest of U.S. military policy. After a tense standoff, law-enforcement officials asked the gang to leave. But 13 refused, and 10 were charged with "unlawful trespass."
The 13 protestors have since navigated one of three paths. Under-agers were referred to juvenile court; two others were dismissed outright for "lack of probable cause"; and the remaining "seven or eight" were promised exoneration in exchange for 15 hours of community service. Reached by phone Monday, State's Attorney T.J. Donovan tells Seven Days that "most" of the members of that third group have met their service requirements.
"Anything, as long as it's legal, I was fine with," says Donovan, referring to those who did counter-recruitment activism with the Burlington Peace & Justice Center (PJC). "I think it's a fair resolution. They gave something back to the community that they believed in."
But arrestee Jonathan Leavitt still has a bone to pick with the authorities: He claims he was "thrown and kicked" by Williston Police Detective Michael Lavoie while inside the recruitment office. Leavitt, 28, logged his hours via counter-recruitment paperwork for PJC's "Recruiting for Peace" campaign. Jennifer Berger, who runs that pacifist juggernaut, attended the protest and corroborates Leavitt's claim - minus the "throw" part.
Days after the November 30 protest, Williston police opened an internal investigation of Lavoie. Leavitt's claim was determined to be "unfounded," reports Chief James Dimmick, adding that the protestor hasn't filed a formal complaint. "If he has a complaint, he certainly can file it," the chief notes wryly. "I'd be interested to see what he puts on his sworn statement to us."
Praising the Williston PD's handling of the November event, Donovan says he didn't witness the alleged throw or kick. He also notes that freedoms of speech and assembly aren't "absolute rights."
Leavitt, a social worker, plans to file his complaint this week - he would have filed it earlier, he says, had he not been sidetracked by Vermont's legal process. Leavitt also claims the Williston PD singled him out with a "disorderly conduct" violation in addition to a "no trespass" one, to dissuade him from taking further action against the department.
"I'm not sure what 'disorderly conduct' looks like in a protest of 80 to 100 people . . . that has bull horns and [is] chanting," Leavitt quips.
Last weekend, a counter-recruitment training in Montpelier was cancelled due to inclement weather. But PJC's Berger assures it will be rescheduled.