Public comment speakers at Burlington City Council meeting, December 13, 2021

Civility Defeated, Sears Lane Defended

Though weeks have passed since the City of Burlington’s removal of the Sears Lane community, its impact remains fresh, as those displaced continue to seek out stable shelter, all the while city officials wipe their hands clean of the situation and transition toward election mode. In the multiple public comment periods, including the last one on December 13, it’s been made clear: despite many unhoused people laying out their tumultuous pasts and chronic pains in front of the council, it could only elicit a glance from behind laptop screens or a quip of “no swearing” from the council. 

In turn, it has allowed the council to make this forced eviction about themselves, creating a frame around their personal feelings throughout this violent process: the growing “incivility” of council meetings, policing residents’ language and emotions, and the silencing of activists to reinforce decorum, which of course suits those in power. 

Nevertheless, the activists played the same song and dance in this archaic display of displeasure, this time more emboldened to stand their ground. The city council’s actions on Friday, December 10 left little room for acquiescence to a half-hearted chiding from Burlington council president Max Tracy, who still cannot seem to modulate his voice when asking speakers to adhere to the child-proofed speaking guidelines. (One has to wonder how many times he must say it in his sleep, since no matter how often he says it, he is left corralling every speaker back into the limited confines of “free speech.”)

It is worth noting, too, that two days prior, someone had gotten more creative in displaying their views of the city’s handling of Sears Lane, a political action that did not make waves outside of a single Facebook post: decorating Mayor Miro Weinberger’s lawn with 1,000 plastic knives.

Arguably, this was a much-needed improvement to the $800k+ house’s expansive lawn, though maybe a little too on-the-nose, with the hilts of those disposable knives reminiscent of gravestones.

Plastic knives placed on Mayor Miro Weinberger’s lawn. Photo courtesy BTV Cop Watch.

If the knives were gravestones the day after the mass eviction, then the words of the public speakers at the council meeting were their epitaphs.

“You’ve sentenced people to die,” said one speaker, before making the council sit in silence with their thoughts during her remaining time.

Another speaker revealed their past struggles with addiction, explaining why a place like Sears Lane means so much to those who feel like they have nowhere to turn and how important it is to have an understanding community when going through such an experience.

“This perception of people choosing to be homeless and not accepting help is a false narrative,” they said.

Another speaker read out remarks from an evicted resident. Her comment went over the time limit and council president Max Tracy cut her off. She retorted that she should be given 5 minutes to read the remarks of evicted residents, especially if they were given only 5 minutes to leave. She was still not given an extra few minutes to speak for the evicted resident. This was perhaps the most telling part of the night, showing exactly where the city’s loyalties are in contrast to the citizens they claim to serve.

A physically disabled speaker took off his shoes to show the council his feet, telling them he was lucky to walk. He connected his own story with why he did mutual aid and with what makes him stand for the community and against the violent eviction of Sears Lane. 

“It’s hard when I come into Burlington and there’s no peace and justice from [most] of you,” he said. He challenged the city council to stop using violence if he was going to be prevented from using profanity to express how devastating the eviction was.

It is only somewhat ironic that Seven Days published an article regarding the growing “incivility” at city council meetings. The inability to yell and use profanity to express a point, much in the way one would express displeasure at a stubbed toe or a finger touching a still-hot pan, reveals just how removed the council is from the people hurting. The current rules reinforce the oft used phrase in activist circles that “silence is violence.”

The last speaker put a “curse” on the entire council, telling them they would remember the pleas from this meeting when residents discover the next frozen unhoused body. They added that none of us owns this land anyway, even the “public” land – Turtle Island belongs to the indigenous people that cared for this land before colonial settlers violently took it over and committed genocide in the process.

If you would like to see the entire meeting, you can view it here. Unfortunately it may take another tragedy, such as someone being found dead in a Church Street shop’s doorway, before this council will lift their eyes from their laptop screens. Even then, the council’s demands for civility will take precedence over the violence they presided over.

Top photo: CCTV Center for Media & Democracy Programming, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

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