Cops over a barrel
We'll get it out of the way right now. The actions of the Brattleboro Police on Tuesday morning were excessive and totally out of line. There is no excuse to use that amount of force against nonviolent protesters.
By using Tasers against Jonathan Crowell and Samantha Kilmurray, the Brattleboro Police managed to take a small, innocuous protest against what Crowell and Kilmurray rather dramatically called "a savage and unimaginative culture of oil-dependent, industrial development," and turn it into something that threatens to harm Brattleboro's reputation even more than a few naked guys prancing down Main Street.
What's more of a threat to public order? Nudity or a police department that has no sense of what constitutes an appropriate use of force? If the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce thought nudity on Main Street was a threat to business, what about the fallout from having Amnesty International call what happened Tuesday "an outrageous use of force."
So much for the image of the quirky little town where protests and vigils are a routine occurrence. So much for live and let live and tolerance of dissent. So much for putting the trauma of the Woodward shooting behind us.
The protesters who occupied the former site of King's Bowling Center on Putney Road had a legitimate gripe. There are better uses for the last developable piece of property between the West River and the roundabout than a possible truck stop (or "travel center," in the preferred euphemism of the property's owner, Cheshire Oil Co.).
One may question why these people weren't at the Development Review Board or the Planning Commission when the first discussions about possible uses of the Putney Road were raised. But there are times when the regular pathways for change can turn into dead ends. That's where protest and civil disobedience comes in.
Protests are a way of attracting attention and rallying public opinion on important issues. They are not meant to be a substitute for working within the system to get things done, but as an adjunct.
There's not much left anymore on Putney Road to preserve. Three decades worth of development transformed farmland into a commercial strip.
Something will likely be built on the Cheshire Oil site, and it won't be a community garden or a ball field. This is still a capitalist society, and the commercial value of the property trumps whatever social value the land might have.
There still might be an opportunity for a compromise, but it just got more difficult. Through their ill-advised actions, the Brattleboro Police have conferred martyr status on Crowell and Kilmurray. And Jim Robinson, the owner of Cheshire Oil, is not likely to feel generous in the face of a threatened boycott of his gas stations and convenience stores.
One good thing may come out of this, though. The now-moribund Citizen Police Communication Committee might see a influx of volunteers to serve, and the CPCC might turn into a real watchdog for police misconduct instead of the toothless panel it is now.
We do know this: What happened Tuesday morning didn't have to happen. "All they had to do was take our water away from us and we would have been gone in 48 hours," Kilmurray told the Selectboard Tuesday night.
Instead, the Brattleboro Police turned a peaceful protest into an embarrassment for the town and a rallying point for the activists in this community. Again, it didn't need to happen and steps must be taken so it doesn't happen again.
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