copyright the Chronicle July 18, 2012
by Chris Braithwaite
LOWELL — Though it was billed as just a “rally” and an opportunity for opponents of the Lowell Mountain wind project to “greet the turbines” as they arrived, Monday’s confrontation here turned into a brief but intense exercise in civil disobedience.
Gathering across Route 100 from the gate to the 21-turbine wind project at 9 a.m., protesters seemed content to wave signs and sing songs that condemned the project.
But when a truck hauling a long section of turbine tower finally appeared, a handful of protesters rushed into the road and stopped it. The quick arrest of two of them seemed only to draw others onto the highway in front of the idling truck.
Two Lamoille County deputies who had been hired by the project’s owner, Green Mountain Power, tried to “walk” the truck through the protesters, pushing them aside as they encountered them. But that proved to be a futile exercise that one demonstrator described later as “herding an amoeba.” Demonstrators flowed around the deputies to post themselves in front of the truck and bring it, once again, to a halt.
A group of Bread and Puppet performers had come to the scene in the Glover theater company’s distinctly painted bus, and their banners and fiercely beating drums brought fresh resolve to the protesters. As the two deputies and uniformed security guards at the site stood by in frustration, the crowd chanted “Shame on you!” and “Turn it back!” at the bright red truck and its hapless driver.
It took some time for the first State Police officer to arrive. And when Corporal Dan Kerin stepped out of his cruiser he encountered the same tactic that had confounded the deputies. Each protester in turn yielded to the corporal’s direct order to clear the road, then stepped back onto the pavement when he moved on to the next protester.
But State Police officers started to arrive in force, backed up by Orleans County deputies and officers with the U.S. Border Patrol, Fish and Wildlife and VTrans. Sets of hand restraints were brandished, and police dogs were sighted. An onlooker who scouted the area on his bicycle reported counting 22 law enforcement vehicles at the scene.
Lieutenant Kirk Cooper, commander of the State Police Derby barracks, stepped into the middle of the crowd of demonstrators and appealed for a peaceful conclusion.
“You’re perfectly entitled to voice your non-support,” he told the demonstrators. “But other people have to use this road. That’s where we get in the middle.
“I’m not gong to give you a lot a crap,” the lieutenant continued. If they didn’t move, he told the demonstrators, “we’re going to be forced to move you. I honestly don’t want to do that.”
The officer’s plea was seconded by one of the Lowell project’s most determined opponents, Don Nelson.
“We’ve made our point, boys,” Mr. Nelson said. “It’s time to back off.”
Some protesters heeded that advice, but some did not. Police, gathered in a clump just beside the idling truck, seemed ready to move. But leaders of the group were clearly anxious to avoid the confrontation that seemed moments away.
Pat Sagui, Steve Wright and Stephanie Kaplan, a lawyer who worked with opponents of the Sheffield wind project, talked to Lieutenant Cooper and Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux.
The deal they struck was that protesters would clear the highway if the sheriff released his two captives. They were a key leader of the opposition, Ira Powsner, and his younger brother, Jacob.
After they were issued citations to appear in court on September 11 to answer charges of disorderly conduct, the brothers stepped out of the sheriff’s vehicle to the cheers of protesters. They sang “Happy Birthday” to Ira Powsner on the occasion of his twenty-sixth birthday.
The protesters returned to the side of the highway, the officers lined up to keep them there, and the truck finally hauled its long, white load through the gates and onto the construction site.
Watching from just inside that site, Lowell Selectman Richard Pion was less than pleased by the compromise.
“They ought to take half those people to jail,” he said. If police lacked the vehicles to get them there, he added, “they should go get a school bus.”
“They can demonstrate, but there’s no need of blocking traffic,” Mr. Pion said. “I thought this was the land of democracy,” he added, noting that a solid majority of Lowell citizens voted for the wind project.
Like most who tried to count the protesters, Mr. Pion estimated that there were about 100 of them. “That shows there’s only a handful that’s opposed to this,” he said.
When traffic finally started to move past the Green Mountain Power gate, it consisted only of a handful of heavy trucks that had been held up in both directions, and one Army truck driven by what appeared to be a National Guardsman. Most traffic was apparently able to drive around the obstruction on Mink Farm Road, which loops to the west of Route 100.
While Green Mountain Power’s chief executive, Mary Powell, was not visible at the scene, Vermont Electric Cooperative’s CEO, David Hallquist, was on hand. His utility has agreed to buy a small share of the project’s power, at cost.
Asked by a reporter if he was upset by the demonstration, Mr. Hallquist replied that he would have been disappointed if no one had shown up. Some of Mr. Hallquist’s remarks were recorded on film by his son, Derek Hallquist. The younger Hallquist is working with the documentary filmmaker Aaron Woolf of New York State, whose best-known work is King Corn.
In the hard hat and safety vest provided by Green Mountain Power, Mr. Woolf and his crew were easy to mistake for employees of the utility.
Standing just inside the work site, facing the demonstrators across the road, Mr. Woolf noted that if people stood on his side of the road, they were pro-wind. People on the other side of the road were anti-wind, he continued.
“And if you stand in the middle of the road, you get run over.”
The section of turbine tower had been held up on the highway for about two hours. And as demonstrators headed north on Route 100 after the rally, they quickly encountered a second section of tower on its way to the site, closely followed by a long, slender turbine blade.
contact Chris Braithwaite at [email protected]