MONTPELIER - A small group of war protesters briefly stole center stage at Gov. James Douglas' State of the State address Thursday afternoon. Minutes into the governor's speech, the protesters, who included high school students, unfurled banners bearing anti-war slogans.The contingent of about 10 was escorted without incident by Capitol Police from the House chambers where Douglas spoke, but not before winning the attention of the overflow audience.
Matt Howard, a 26-year-old Burlington resident and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, spoke with reporters in the Statehouse lobby after participating in the demonstration.
"(Douglas) is a legitimate target, as are all other agents of this occupation," Howard said of the decision to protest during the governor's keynote address to the Legislature. "He's absolutely supported the president every step of the way."
The brief spectacle ended when Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie intervened and instructed the Sergeant at Arms staff to remove the protesters, who were led willingly away by Statehouse authorities. No one was arrested, according to Capitol Police Chief Dave Janawicz, and the group was allowed to remain unattended in the Statehouse lobby following their protest.
Emily Coon, a 17-year-old senior at Mount Mansfield Union High School in Jericho, had weeks earlier staged a demonstration outside a military recruiting office in Williston. Thursday's State of the State address, she said, marked an opportunity to insinuate the anti-war platform into Vermont's political dialogue.
"We felt that the governor was addressing a lot of issues that are really important to Vermonters, but that in his speech he was not planning to talk about the war and its effect on Vermont," Coon said. Coon and her sister Lauren, a freshman at Mount Mansfield, held a banner reading "What About the War?"
"We felt that it was necessary to bring this issue to the governor's attention," Emily Coon said.
Michael Colby and Boots Wardinsky, two local war protesters who have been arrested for trespass in previous anti-war demonstrations in Vermont, also were among the protesters escorted from the chambers. Colby declined to comment following the incident.
In an interview after his speech, Douglas said he supported an "exit strategy" in Iraq, but suggested that protesters had directed their frustration toward the wrong body. "This is the State of the State, not the State of the Union," Douglas said. "My responsibility today is to talk about the State of the State."
Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, a Putney Democrat, said he empathized with the protesters' frustration, though he questioned their choice of venues in which to air them.
"It's the people's house," Shumlin said. "There's an appropriate way to vent your frustrations, and I don't think interrupting the governor's speech is one of them, but I understand their frustration."
At least one protester's banner decried a provision in the federal No Child Left Behind Act that grants military recruiters access not only to public schools but also to the contact information of students.
Asked about her feelings on the federal policy, House Speaker Gaye Symington, a Jericho Democrat, said she has discussed the issue of military recruitment in high schools with her daughter but was unaware of the federal policy.
Janawicz said the disruption on the House floor won't necessarily prompt a security review. "It's kind of hard. You can do all the screening you want but if someone wants to act out, it's not something you're going to pick up going through a screening," Janawicz said.
Banners up to a certain size are allowed in the Statehouse, Janawicz said, but prohibited in the House and Senate chambers.
© 2008 Times Argus