Sending a message to governors and premiers

Nolan Rampy and Jim Ramey report from Burlington, Vt., on a protest against a meeting of political representatives of the 1 percent.

Hundreds of activists descended on Burlington to protest a pro-corporate conference for governors (Nolan Rampy | SW)Hundreds of activists descended on Burlington to protest a pro-corporate conference for governors (Nolan Rampy | SW)

TOP OFFICEHOLDERS from the U.S. and Canada gathered in Burlington, Vt., at the end of July for the 36th annual Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers--but their business-oriented event was challenged by hundreds of activists who demonstrated against corporate greed and environmental destruction.

The governors and premiers were joined by corporate interest groups--primarily energy corporations responsible for funding the event--under the auspices of promoting greater regional cooperation.

Not surprisingly, the agenda for the conference wasn't made public. However, a press release said the political leaders would be taking up issues such as "managing the fiscal reality" and "maximizing the potential of each region's energy resources." Translation: Figure out how to ram austerity down the throats of the population and get the Canadian tar sands to oil refineries in the southern U.S., all while crushing the dissent that will inevitably result from these destructive policies.

In response to this gathering of representatives of the 1 percent, at least 500 people from Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Quebec gathered for a protest and rally to represent the interests of the 99 percent. Activist groups from all over the region came together to raise demands ranging from ecological issues, such as the Canadian tar sands project, to the fight for single-payer health care in Vermont.

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THE HOT button issue of the rally was opposition to the Canadian tar sands. Popular resistance has blocked the plans of oil companies and the U.S. government's to build a pipeline from Canada to the southern U.S. But were the oil companies deterred? Of course not.

They're pushing a new plan to take a 71-year-old pipeline that ships crude oil from Maine to Montreal and reverse its flow, so that it can deliver Canadian tar sands to the Atlantic Ocean harbor of Portland, Maine. Activists from across the region came out to let the governors know that the 99 percent in New England don't want tar sands coming through Maine.

In response to this threat to the planet, 350.org, the environmental organization founded by Bill McKibben, called for a human oil spill in front of the Hilton Hotel in downtown Burlington where the conference was being held.

The women's rights group Fed Up also had a strong presence at the rally. "We are here," said Jessie, a member of Fed Up, "because all of these issues are interconnected."

Importantly, the weekend's events brought in large numbers of activists from Quebec--including the indigenous Innu population and students from the radical student union CLASSE, the leading force behind this year's mass student strike--to raise their own demands and stand in solidarity with the New England activists. Dozens of protesters from Quebec's Innu First Nation spoke out against Plan Nord, a 25-year, $80 billion project that includes a hydroelectric dam which would destroy Innu lands.

At an evening panel discussion, Elyse Vollant of the Innu First Nation spoke about the clear threat that the energy companies present to the ecology in her hometown. "You look in one direction, and you see beautiful mountains and lakes, and in the other are the mines and dams that are destroying Mother Earth."

Vollant explained that Jean Charest, the Quebec premier leading the charge for austerity in Canada, has bought off the band councils that are meant to represent the Innu people. This has allowed him to sell the energy companies plans as having the approval of the First Nations despite two referenda in Vollant's hometown where a majority opposed the companies' plans.

Students from CLASSE also took part in the weekend's events to let Charest know that he can't hide from the Quebec students. A student wishing to be called Jean spoke at the rally and pointed out that the low tuition rates that students in Quebec enjoy were not gifts handed down by the government, but rather were the product of 40 years of student struggle.

Jean's emphasis on the importance of solidarity between all those struggling for a better future was met with huge cheers from the crowd. Making his point even more concrete, he declared his support for the Innu people--and joked that he had to come to the U.S. to link arms with fellow Quebecers.

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AFTER THE speak-out, protesters marched to the Hilton. Chants of "Hey governors, come on out, we've got something to talk about!" rang out in front of the hotel, which was surrounded by police cars and a green mesh fence.

Knowing that the conference had the potential to attract such resistance, organizers did all they could to intimidate anyone from turning out to protest. A week before the event, the FBI came to the home of several main organizers of the convergence to "ask questions." The organizers replied that any and all questions should go through their lawyer. It later turned out that one of the agents was part of the bureau's special Explosives Unit, which led activists to consider the connections to the frame-up of the NATO Five in Chicago.

Not to be denied their chance at intimidation, the Burlington Police Department took their own shot at nonviolent protesters who were linking their arms in an attempt to block a bus bringing executives and their staffs to their meals fit for the 1 percent at the upscale Shelburne Farms.

The police, dressed in armor from head to toe, shot several protesters at close range with rubber bullets laced with pepper spray, while the governors looked on from the buses. Many veteran activists were shocked and claimed to have never seen police in Burlington use this kind of force that could only have been intended to punish dissent.

Despite this violence and abuse, the protest convergence was successful in uniting many diverse groups fighting for a better world. The governors' conference has always existed to coordinate and advance the interests of the 1 percent at the expense of the 99 percent, as the Vermont Workers' Center explained in a statement:

In the 36 years since the first conference...wealth and prosperity have become increasingly concentrated into the coffers of a tiny minority. Here in Vermont, the richest 1 percent saw their incomes triple since 1970, while the vast majority of us have faced lower real income, joblessness, crippling poverty, rising household debt and an increasingly precarious future.

Governments and corporations are putting on international conferences to coordinate their attacks on the 99 percent. If their attacks are being organized internationally, that means resistance has to be organized internationally, too. The Burlington demonstration was an important step in that direction.