10 protesters face court date for refusing to leave Statehouse

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MONTPELIER — Ten anti-poverty protesters have been ordered into court following their arrests during a sit-in Tuesday evening at the Statehouse.

A group called the Vermont Poor People's Campaign held a rally earlier in the afternoon on the steps of the capitol building protesting what it said was increased militarism at home and abroad. Then, about 40 protesters marched into the Statehouse at 3 p.m. and began a sit-in.

They were asked to leave when the building closed at 6:15 p.m., but 10 of them refused and were arrested and charged with unlawful trespassing. Five of those individuals had been arrested at last week's protest and are cited to appear at the Washington County Superior Court Thursday. The other five are scheduled to appear in court June 28.

"Calling attention to these issues is going to take raising voices as loudly as we can," Earl Kooperkamp, a pastor in Barre who is one of the campaign leaders, said in an interview Wednesday.

"With the state Legislature coming back into session, we felt it was an opportune time to make this call (in the Statehouse)," Kooperkamp said following his arrest.

The Poor People's Campaign was started in 1968 by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in an effort to channel momentum from the civil rights movement into fighting poverty across the country. The Revs. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis decided in 2013 to renew the slain civil rights leader's campaign as a "national call for moral revival."

The Poor People's Campaign said Tuesday's protest is part of 40 days of action occurring nationwide to raise awareness about the four tenets of their effort: fighting systemic racism, poverty, the war economy and ecological destruction. Protests took place in 35 state capitals and in Washington. The 40 days of action will culminate in a rally June 23 in the nation's capital.

Avery Book, vice president of the Vermont Workers' Center, led the roughly 50 people gathered around the Statehouse steps in a singing of the anti-war ballad "Down by the Riverside."

White-clad artists from the Glover-based Bread and Puppet troupe performed a skit in which they shot each other with guns delivered by a cow that had been "impregnated" by the Second Amendment, all under the gaze of a larger-than-life James Madison, chief drafter of the U.S. Constitution.

Speakers, including non-profit leaders, activists and veterans, highlighted the disparity between the amount of money the federal government spends on the military rather than trying to alleviate poverty.

Nick Biddle of the Brattleboro branch of the Vermont Workers' Center said that 53 cents of every federal discretionary dollar spent in the U.S. goes to the military, while only 15 cents goes to anti-poverty measures. Biddle added that more than 20,000 active duty military families are on food stamps.

"Military resources are benefitting Wall Street, not the troops," said Biddle, citing the profits of military contractors like Blackwater.

Veteran David Przepioski, one of the rally's speakers who was later arrested, said he joined the Marines in 1977 along with other recruits who were "misled" into believing that joining the military would be a path to upward mobility.

"Needless to say, I have never been able to escape poverty," said Przepioski, who has been homeless for periods of his life following his military service.

Ellen Kaye, an organizer with the Poor People's Campaign, said in an interview Wednesday that Vermont is not "immune" to the nationwide challenge of poverty. United Way recently published the ALICE Project, which says that 40 percent of Vermonters are too poor to afford essentials including health care and housing.

"We tend to think in Vermont that we're pretty egalitarian but there's a lot of wealth disparity in the country and in Vermont as well," Kaye said.

Rachel Siegel, executive director of the Peace & Justice Center in Burlington, addressed the topic of increased militarization.

She said refugees who had came to Vermont to escape violence in their home countries would now hear the deafening roar of F-35s directly overhead flying to and from Burlington International Airport.

"We know the people most impacted by F-16s currently — and those who will be most impacted by F-35s — live in Winooski, which is the community in our state with the most refugees," said Siegel.

Leaders of the Poor People's Campaign issued a list of demands in conjunction with Tuesday's actions, including a ban on assault rifles, an end to military equipment being provided to local police forces, and a halt to the call for an expansion of the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Kaye said that at this stage of the campaign, organizers are focusing on building a broad coalition to unite poor people across the country rather than endorsing any particular candidates.

"Until the moral narrative is shifted, we are not working on a specific electoral policy," said Kaye. "Everyone can only get so far in a system that privileges wealth and corporate power over people's needs."

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