It was a cold, blustery and damp day in Montpelier Vermont. It was a day to stay home by the fire or the woodstove if you are susceptible to the weather.
Not if you are Karl Berry of Burlington, Vermont. I met Karl as he was sitting near the back of the rally in a folding chair… this fine looking black man whose hands flashed with Native American silver as he talked. I learned that he is a published author of short stories and a poet, and he gifted us with a recitation of his poem “Motherly Love”… in his strong, musical voice overlaid with the cadences of good jazz. We found out that he’s an MS victim. He was sitting down because his hips hurt a bit.
As we wandered on, we looked back and his friend had joined him and he was doubled over with the pain… a few minutes later an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital.
Karl had come to the rally, driving down from Burlington, in that crappy weather, knowing that he would probably wind up in excruciating pain. Why had he done this? Why had several hundred people shown up for this event, toting their babies and oxygen tanks?
The rally was organized by the folks at the Vermont Workers Center, and featured our Senator Bernie Sanders and Bill McKibben , a leading author and activist on climate change issues, as the keynote speakers.
People started gathering at City Hall around 11:00 am. There were the marshals with their yellow armbands, simple pieces of yellow cotton with “Marshal” written on them with magic marker. There was a tent set up where people could pick up “Put People First” and “Healthcare is a Human Right” signs for the march to the State Capital. There were suits and dreadlocks, wheelchairs and dogs, white-hairs and babies. The drumming started off with a single drummer, Chimie Bangaura of Guinea, West Africa, setting up the rhythm on his djembe. Mac Cox of Ripton Vermont joined him, sliding into perfect syncopation on his djembe. A few moments later Dave Dunie of Bolton Vermont added his “voice”, bringing a brassier note with his snare drum. I’ve seen this sort of thing before, where drummers, who have never played together before, come together randomly at some outdoor event and just start to rock the house. It’s amazing.
At 11:30 the pre-march warm-up began, with an older gentleman and his guitar, singing his protests a la Woody Guthrie. The chorus went, “And the banks are made of marble; with a guard at every door; and the vaults are lined with silver; that Vermonters sweated for.” He was followed by Avery, Jeff and Larry, who provided beautiful three-part harmony on several renditions of Welsh protest songs. One of them had a chorus that went, “There’s honey in the rock for all God’s children; there’s honey in the rock, there’s honey in the rock; There’s honey in the rock for all God’s children; feed every child of God.”
There was a performance by the False Solutions Circus (I love Vermont street theatre), speakers leading chants, more singing. As I wound through the crowd I met James Dempsey from Johnson State College, wearing a t-shirt that detailed what his costs will be this coming year for tuition, dorm room, meal plan and so forth. The total was over $20,000, and that is for a single year at a state college. He was part of an organized group that later took position on the Capital steps with their banner “Break the Chains of Student Debt.”
As one would expect, Guy Fawkes manifested a couple of times in the crowd, most often standing aloof on the sidelines. I started checking out the other signs blossoming in the crowd. There was one gentleman with a large sign repeating the phrase “Put People First” in 34 of the approximately 60 languages and dialects spoken in his Winooski Vermont neighborhood.
There was a street performer and his faithful assistant with small, beautiful signs entitled “Bread and Roses”, which is a song from the garment worker unionizing protests in Lowell Massachusetts at the turn of the century. They were representing a recently formed artists’ bloc in Burlington advocating for the importance of the arts in our lives (“Hearts Starve as Well as Bodies”) and the need of artists and artisans to earn a living wage (“We artists want to work, and play, and love, and eat, like everybody else”).
I met another man, with long grey hair and a serious absent-minded-professor air as we waited on the sidelines as the march was forming up. He is Stephen Marshall of Occupy Burlington, who was giving out copies of the Occupy Solidarity News. Stephen is also the point person for the Occupy Vermont Communications Working Group, which is organized to facilitate communications and coordination between the different Occupy groups throughout the state. There were also representatives from most of those groups marching and being a presence for the 99%. There were a lot of “I’m part of the 99%” signs throughout the day.
At 12:30 pm, the march to the State Capital got under way (on time, which amazed me). A pair of fife and drum players led off, setting the cadence, followed by the young ladies of the Golden Bucket Brigade from the Workers Center. Fortunately their 5-gallon pail “drums” couldn’t really be heard, because those girls do not have rhythm.
That was the point in time where I, like my sister Linda, flashed on the protests of my teen years. I graduated high school in 1973, three years after Kent State. I lost classmates in Viet Nam. As I watched the protesters gathering, singing, laughing, I saw an enchanting naiveté. Vermont being basically a polite and rational state, the worst these people risked was a cold from the weather. They were secure in the knowledge that the police, instead of lobbing tear gas, would be halting traffic at the intersections for them. They were perfectly willing (except for Guy Fawkes) to be seen and identified, without worrying about repercussions. They were safe. I was glad for them, but a little sad too. There’s a big, nasty world out there.
One of the interesting stops along the march was in front of the Post Office, where AFL-CIO union members were holding their May Day protest against the proposed closures of rural post offices. Interesting note on this one: according to my sister (the family font for obscure Federal government trivia), several years ago Congress passed a law mandating that the Postal Service make an annual payment of some billions of dollars into their pension fund to keep it fully funded. The pension fund is now fully funded through 2075, but Congress will not ameliorate the pension payment requirement. Those funds, if retained in the Postal Service’s general funds, would negate the need to close any post offices. Instead of giving the Postal Service the leeway to act like grown-ups and manage their own money, Congress treats the Service like a child, when Congress doesn’t really know anything about it.
Unions were a definite presence on the Capital’s steps once the march arrived and groups started to stake out their patches of granite and grass. There was the AFL-CIO, the United Professionals of AFT (the American Federation of Teachers) for Healthcare, the Vermont State Employees Association, and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers. They were joined by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the Peace and Justice Center, Veterans for Peace (loved their signs reading “How’s the War Economy Working for You?”), Migrant Justice (over 1500 of our farm workers are migrants), The Abenaki-Sierra Club Forests, Rural Vermont and Jobs with Justice for Health Care for All. There were so many, and I apologize to any I missed. The brass band and the Bread and Puppet’s giant puppets brought up the rear.
As we listened to the warm up speakers at the Capital, I made the rounds of the tents set up around the central plaza. In addition to the organizations above, there were groups advocating against mandatory vaccinations, for alternative herbal medicine, for Waldorf and Montessori schools, for home schooling, for free clinics, for the training of “street medics”, for organic farming, for local food networks. There was a tent set up with free food. The Progressive Party and the Socialists were there.
Most people manning the tents were engaged, excited about their cause and for the opportunity to get the word out. There was the farmer with her baby in a front pack, the older woman with her knitting, the earnest young people with their poster board and markers. I only ran into one group whose representative actually turned his back on me.
Out near the street there was a young lady with art prints set up in a suitcase; she is Zelde Grimm of Poppets and Lace, and her work was lovely (look for her on Facebook). Ben & Jerry’s showed up to give out free ice cream.
Around 2:00 pm Bernie (yes, we are so familiar with our Senator that we call him by his first name) took the stage and spoke about the importance of our May Day rally, falling on the International Workers Day. How inspiring it was that so many Vermonters from so many different perspectives were all, in their own way, trying to put people first. How Vermont has historically been a leader in social change, and has done it again with the law mandating a single payer health insurance plan.
By the time Bernie finished, this old hippy had had enough time on her poor feet and retired to the Corner Café Diner for coffee, food, and (thank god) a bathroom. Events at the rally were scheduled to continue to 6:00 pm.
So why did Karl Berry brave the cold and the damp and the pain to be there? Because for any Vermonter with one iota of passion for a society of equality, opportunity, sustainability and justice, Montpelier on May Day was the only place to be.