Almost a hundred gathered at a vigil in front of Burlington City Hall late afternoon on Friday, November 24th to commemorate the lives lost in Israel’s wave of military and settler violence brought on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Speakers and attendees called for a true ceasefire, not a humanitarian pause, as the first step to ending decades of bloodshed and apartheid.
Friday also happened to be Black Friday, the start of the holiday shopping season, and vendors up and down Church Street did not hesitate to remind Burlingtonians. The culmination of the Church Street Marketplace’s day of events, which included a Santa riding a fire engine and an appearance by one of S.D. Ireland’s twinkle light cement trucks, was the annual tree lighting ceremony. A thirty-foot tall tree at the top of Church Street was lit with 100,000 lights at 6:00, after an hour of singing and storytelling on a nearby stage, accompanied by waving Palestinian flags among the crowd, which The Rake believes to be a first in Burlington’s tree lighting history.
While some attendees remarked on the thematic appropriateness of Palestinian flags at a Christmas celebration — Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which now is part of the West Bank under Israeli occupation, and he lived a life preaching peace and justice in the face of a violent empire — the Burlington Police Department did its best to separate the two.
Gaza vigil attendees were among the first to arrive at the tree-lighting ceremony venue. As other members of the public joined, those standing with signs were threatened with arrest for disorderly conduct and pushed to the sides of the audience area, up against steel barriers erected for the event.
Video received by The Rake shows BPD Chief Murad taking point in separating vigil-goers from other lighting ceremony attendees, at one point telling someone that simply talking with him was disturbing the event, which Murad at several points that evening said was a form of disorderly conduct, an arrestable offense.
Church Street Marketplace Director Kara Alnasrawi, Commission Vice Chair Mark Bouchett (co-owner of the Church Street store Homeport), and presenters on stage all told the public and press a unified slogan that evening: shopping, preferably done on Church Street.
At the event’s conclusion, the tree was lit to a roar of applause by the crowd. With the event completed, some attendees began chanting “ceasefire now,” and activists paired the twinkle of tree lights with a projection on a wall above the audience: “14,000+ dead,” “Ceasefire Now,” and a scrolling list of all the Palestinians who lost their lives over the past two months of near-constant bombardment by the IDF.
The tree lighting ceremony was, in Chief Murad’s own words to WCAX, an important event for his department and the city, one that featured additional officers paid overtime. The widespread media depiction of downtown Burlington as unsafe has local business owners worried about revenue, though the narrative is in significant part their own making. In the wake of 2020’s George Floyd uprising and Burlington’s own Battery Park protest encampment, as well as the city council’s ill-fated attempt at a minor police staffing reform, local businesses, often led by Bouchett, demanded more police, more law enforcement funding, and the drafting of new criminal penalties, pointedly and frequently telling the press how unsafe they felt.
Whether the sight of BPD officers roaming the crowd and making demands of individuals carrying signs or flags made revelers feel safer that evening is an open question.
Friday was the coldest tree lighting ceremony in years, but the People’s Kitchen was on hand, first at the vigil, then at the lighting, with free coffee and cocoa to keep people’s hands warm. (Xfinity was on hand as well, with free felt reindeer antler decorations to keep people informed about the existence of Xfinity.)
Patrick is a writer and organizer based in northern Vermont. He is on the editorial collective for The Rake Vermont.