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Progressive City Councilor On Protests, Policing in Burlington

Burlington City Councilor Zoraya Hightower
Zoraya Hightower, courtesy

Protests in Vermont's largest city have continued all week, as demonstrators call for further police reforms. Specifically, demonstrators are calling for the firing of three Burlington officers who were involved in use-of-force incidents in 2018 and 2019, including using force against Black residents. City and police officials say those officers can't be fired without violating the current police union contract.

Last night, a member of the Burlington Police Commission resigned in protest, and a group of Progressive city councilors who hold a majority on the council put out a statement calling for the mayor and council to hold an emergency meeting with protest leaders. They also committed to pushing for a change to the city charter that would change who makes disciplinary decisions over officer conduct.

VPR's Henry Epp spoke with Progressive City Councilor Zoraya Hightower, who represents Burlington's Ward 1 and was one of the councilors who signed the statement. Their interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

More from VPR: In Multi-Day Protest, Activists Demand Burlington Police Fire Three Officers

Henry Epp: Protests around systemic racism have been going on all summer here in Vermont. Do you feel like the state and Burlington are making any progress on addressing systemic racism?

Zoraya Hightower: I think it's a mixed bag. I think in some extent we are making real progress. I think, both at the state level and at the local level, there've been changes that are meaningful and action that's been meaningful.

At the same time, I think Vermont - Burlington as a whole - are still plagued with this feeling of exceptionalism, that we don't have to change in the same way that other places do, which I don't completely understand and disagree with. I think that's also slowed down some of that progress.

Have you been participating in these most recent protests?

I have not as much as I would like, just because city council comes with other responsibilities as well. But yes, I've been there, down there, a few times.

More from Brave Little State: How To Support Vermonters Of Color: ‘Listen To Us’

Do you agree with protesters that these three officers should be fired, even if that violates the current union contract?

Yes and no, to some extent. I believe that the community has the right to have a say in who is policing them. And if it makes members of the community feel unsafe, then those police officers shouldn't be there.

To the extent of: Should they just be flat-out fired? I think that requires a little bit more legal review. I don't think that that's the same thing, though, as saying that the city shouldn't be acting to get the police officers out of active duty and to get them away from patrolling the community that doesn't feel safe being patrolled by them.

Let's talk a little bit more about the statement that you signed on to on Thursday, which, among other things, called for a meeting between city councilors and the mayor and protesters. What do you think a meeting like that would generate?

I think it's having a joint strategy. I mean, there are things that the city can do, in terms of ways that we can approach and talk to and negotiate with these officers and the union. And, having a better understanding of what the protesters would find an acceptable solution and then kind of strategizing with them on what that looks like, I think, is a good way to move forward.

In terms of moving forward, it would seem that the city and protesters are sort of at loggerheads right now, right? The city says they can't fire the officers. The protesters say, 'We're going to keep protesting until these officers are fired.'

So how would you see that working out, in terms of the officers being removed from the force, if the city is saying it would violate the union contract?

Well, I mean, there is firing. Then, there's asking to resign, and then, there is accepting resignations. There are issues around what severance looks like. There are issues around: Is that all three of the officers, versus some of the officers?

More from VPR: Protesters Want Burlington Police To Fire Three Officers. The Acting Chief Says He Can’t

I do think both sides are kind of presenting a black and white view, but I think there's a lot of gray area in the middle that won't leave anyone completely satisfied. But I think that can at least create a solution that the community feels comfortable with.

Your statement says that the Progressive Caucus, and I'm quoting here, "commits to proposing a charter change that would allow for a publicly accountable body, rather than the police chief, to have the authority to make final disciplinary decisions in use of force cases and other gross misconduct."

Do you have more specifics on what that publicly accountable body that you mentioned would look like?

I don't have specifics on what it would look like. I guess I have specifics on what I personally imagine it could look like.

We already have a police commission, which I think is one of the best-informed bodies in Burlington in terms of understanding policing and the current issues that we have in that. And I think that could be a good body.

More from VPR: Crowd Confronts Burlington Police During Protest For George Floyd

If we think about, specifically, these three officers, one of the problems with what we're doing is, the legal definition of excessive use of force just isn't aligned with the definition that the community holds. And so, when a police chief who is purely looking at that definition makes those decisions and doesn't accept other definitions, then it creates a situation where we have this use of force that the community doesn't feel comfortable with, and a punishment that isn't aligned with what the community sees as excessive. And so, I think it would introduce a little bit more variety into what we understand excessive to be and also give some outside accountability.

Protesters of color who've been speaking out against racial bias in policing have been subject to violence at the hands of white anti-protesters elsewhere in the country. And in Burlington this week, we saw a man arrested who was near the protest with an assault rifle. Protesters have also said that one organizer was shot with a BB gun.

Whose responsibility do you see it as being to keep Black Vermonters safe when they're exercising First Amendment rights in protest like this?

I think the protesters have done a really good job of taking that responsibility on themselves. It obviously hasn't come to a perfect conclusion.

When it comes to real violence? Clearly, I still expect the police department to take an active role. I think it's also just the city's responsibility to the city and the police departments to not use media and statements in a way that encourages counter protesters.

What exactly are you referring to there? Because the statement you put out also referred to this, that there have been statements by the police that you took issue with. What exactly is being said?

Yeah. There've been a few things, starting with when reform was first proposed in June. The Burlington Police Department had some problematic tweets, saying that this reform would erase progress and make Burlington, Vermont, less safe.

And I just don't think that those kinds of statements coming from the Burlington Police Department is going to create the kind of environment that de-escalates. I think it kind of is a rallying cry for counter-protesters and the kind of citizen led defense that we've seen both in Burlington and really, more tragically, in places like Kenosha.

More from VPR: Burlington, Bennington Officials Respond To Demand For Policing Reform

In terms of the tactics used by protesters in Burlington, some have been filmed standing in the middle of the road, blocking traffic and redirecting drivers. Some in the city have raised concerns about the safety of that. They're also camping in Battery Park. Do you approve of these these kinds of tactics that the protesters are using?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, this is this is nonviolent protest, like, by definition - just the most classic kind. You're supposed to make things a little bit inconvenient to get noticed. And I think they're doing the best that they can to keep themselves organized and peaceful, and then just react to some of the reactions in whatever way that they can.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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