On Monday night, Burlington City Council voted on whether to allow the Apartheid Free Burlington ballot question to appear on March’s Town Meeting Day ballot. This question, a non-binding advisory measure, was initiated by Burlington residents and received the necessary signatures from over 5% of registered voters in the city. Such approval votes are usually understood as simply procedural and not a reflection of councilors’ opinion on the issue.
Last night’s vote was different.
In a 7-5 vote, Democratic city councilors united to block the measure, preventing Burlingtonians from registering their opinion on the issue. It is only the second instance in the last decade that The Rake Vermont could find of councilors rejecting an advisory ballot question after it had received a sufficient number of signatures from voters (in 2019, the council blocked a question that asked if voters wanted to cancel the $4 million City Hall Park renovation).
Councilors Mark Barlow, Sarah Carpenter, Tim Doherty, Hannah King, Karen Paul, Ben Traverse, and Democratic Party mayoral candidate Joan Shannon voted to deny the measure’s inclusion on the ballot. Councilors Gene Bergman, Melo Grant, Ali Dieng, Joe Magee, and Zoraya Hightower voted in support.
In a packed Contois Auditorium, more than 100 people spoke during a public comment period that stretched for hours. A majority of those testified in support of the measure. They pressed councilors that blocking something that was the result of months of organizing and the collection of more than 1,600 signatures would deny the community the right to weigh in. “You have an obligation to allow us as a community to vote on this referendum, to address this crisis. It would be a moral failing to take that away from us,” said Burlington resident Maggie Chadwell in support of the ballot item.
Despite claims by its opponents that Burlington should not weigh in on non-local or international matters, there has been plenty of precedent.
- In 1981, Burlington, along with 12 other Vermont towns, put a nuclear freeze ballot measure on the ballot, which passed in Burlington.
- In 2005, a Town Meeting Day referendum to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq was placed on the ballot, and passed 4,700 to 2,510, stating: “Shall the voters of the City of Burlington advise the President and Congress that Burlington and its citizens strongly support the men and women serving in the United States Armed Forces in Iraq and believe that the best way to support them is to bring them home now?”
- A year later, in 2006, a ballot measure received the necessary signatures to stop the Pentagon from using the Vermont Air National Guard to fight the war in Iraq, stating: “Shall the City Council be advised to use all lawful means to keep the men and women of the Vermont Air National Guard at home to provide air defense for the state and nation, and to prevent their overseas deployment to drop bombs in wars of aggression against other nations?” The council unanimously voted to encourage residents to vote against the measure, but still allowed it to appear on the ballot. It failed by a vote of 5,447 to 4,147.
- In 2007, a ballot item came before Burlington voters that asked, “Shall Vermont’s Congressional Delegation be advised to demand a new, thorough, and truly independent forensic investigation that fully addresses the many questions surrounding the tragic events of September 11, 2001?” The resolution did not pass by a vote of 3,150 to 1,817.
- In 2012, voters approved an advisory referendum placed on the Town Meeting Day ballot to urge the state’s congressional delegation to propose a constitutional amendment “providing that corporations are not persons,” which passed with 79 percent of the vote.
Wafic Faour of Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, one of the lead organizers of the ballot measure, told the city council during public comment that the issue is pertinent for Burlington voters as they and their tax dollars have a direct connection to the conflict. “It is a local issue as long as the United States supports Israel, sends it weapons, and [is] part of the war room in Israel,” he said.
Councilor Hannah King, who voted in favor of a ceasefire resolution that did not pass in December, in explaining her vote to block the measure, quoted an unnamed constituent of hers, who told her “The proper response to inhumanity is to call out all inhumanity.” Racial justice advocates have long criticized such sentiments as being in the vein of the “all lives matter” refutation of the Black Lives Matter statements, protests, and uprisings across the country since 2013.
Councilor Sarah Carpenter, another no vote, said, “the Vermont tradition that allows advisory non-binding referendums were structured for a common good, and what I have heard and felt and seen from people this ballot item will not serve the common good of the citizens of Vermont.” Carpenter added that she had learned “a lot about [the] Middle East in this conversation, and I want to learn more about that, but I am not ready to pick sides,” with her vote suggesting she does not believe her constituents are ready either. She continued that were the city to vote on this particular issue, they would be obliged to vote on every human rights issue.
Councilor Joan Shannon, the city’s Democratic mayoral candidate, did not speak during the councilor’s comment period.
One of the Burlington residents who spoke during public comment, Ze’eva Chasan, linked the city council’s impending block with a larger critique of the state of democracy in the U.S., saying, “I’d like to thank the council for attempting to stifle democracy, for making my job as a radical so much easier. I don’t even have to open my mouth for people to see what a joke America’s ‘democracy’ is. You’re the fig leaf for Burlington’s absolutism, barely covering the undemocratic nature of this part of the empire in decay.”
Left unsaid among opponents of the measure — many of whom claimed it would exacerbate division in the community — was what would happen to that division should the council block a public-backed ballot question that 1,600 Burlingtonians signed and expected to see on Town Meeting Day. Council Ali Dieng addressed the question directly. “We are opening the door for more controversy if we do not allow this on the ballot,” said Councilor Ali Dieng. “This will come back over, and over, and over again until Burlington says, ‘enough.’”
Councilor Gene Bergman extended Dieng’s point, prefacing that in his own experience and that of his family, anti-semitism is nothing new in Burlington. “I really believe, though, that quashing the vote on this question is not going to end or lessen anti-semitism. I dare say that Netanyahu’s continuing offensive in Gaza and the rejection of a Palestinian state will spark an awful lot of anti-Jewish feelings.”
Indeed, instances of antisemitism routinely spike after Israeli attacks and bombing campaigns against Palestinians, as happened in 2021 after Israeli evictions of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem drew protests that resulted in injuries to an estimated one thousand Palestinians at the hands of Israeli security. Such evictions, given that East Jerusalem is considered occupied territory, were understood by the UN as potential war crimes. Protests and crackdowns spiraled into armed conflict that cost the lives of more than a dozen Israelis and more than two hundred Palestinians, with tens of thousands of Palestinians displaced after 11 days of near-constant aerial bombardment of Gaza by the Israeli military.
For ballot measure proponents, many of whom are anti-Zionist Jews, it was important for them once more to express that their efforts are not antisemitic. “To be clear, opposing genocide and apartheid is not antisemitic. Anti-Zionism, and the levying of criticism against the state of Israel is not antisemitic. It is antisemitic to treat Jews and Jewish communities as a monolith, to claim the self-appointed authority to decide who is and isn’t a Jew,” said Mallory Seegal of Jewish Voice for Peace Vermont/New Hampshire. “It is antisemitic to center Judaism on Zionism’s terms in response to this most recent escalation of systematic and extra-legal violence and oppression against our Palestinian siblings on their own land, around the world, and right here in Burlington, Vermont.”
After the meeting adjourned, The Rake reached out to Wafic Faour for comment. He began by putting the council vote in a larger perspective of his decades of advocacy, back some “forty years ago in Harvard Square, when I was leafleting and telling the story of Palestinians.” In Vermont, too, public pressure campaigns have been lengthy ones, and whether they fail or succeed, Faour says that the benefits of educating the public made their efforts worth it. “With every campaign we organize, including thirteen years on Ben & Jerry’s [which ended in a victory], we felt good about it, because it was a tool for the local public to understand the Palestinian question better,” he said.
The council’s blocking of the ballot measure was, for Faour, itself a sign of defeat for the measure’s opponents, as he is confident that the measure would have passed, but that “the bigger loser tonight was democracy in the city of Burlington,” he said. The councilors “were saying ‘no, we don’t trust you to decide about this issue. We are your representatives, we know how to decide instead of you.’ What an insult to the voters.” Faour suggested that voters should and will remember this when several of those councilors are up for election in March.
A statement released by the Vermont Coalition for Palestinian Liberation shortly after the council meeting confirmed that pro-Palestinian groups will continue their work locally and across the state.
Matt Moore is a writer from Vermont. He is on the editorial collective of The Rake Vermont.