VIDEO: Protesters stage a sit-in inside the House chamber

MONTPELIER — About 100 single payer advocates, gathered in the State House Thursday afternoon to demand forward movement on a universal, publicly financed health care system, disrupted some ceremonial proceedings before a smaller group staging a State House sit-in were removed by police at 8 p.m.

The Vermont Workers Center organized demonstrations Thursday afternoon that took place in the House chamber, outside the entrance to the chamber and in hallways throughout the State House while Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin was being sworn in and delivering his inaugural address.

“Ain’t no way we’re backing down, we’re rising up, the time is now,” they chanted at one point.

The protesters who staged the sit-in in the well of the House into the evening said their intention was to extract a commitment from Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith for a public hearing on a public financing plan and report prepared by the Shumlin administration.

No such commitment was made.

Smith said Thursday afternoon that hearings will take place in the House Health Care and House Ways and Means Committees, but did not promise a public hearing.

“I think this was an incredible example of the openness of our democracy. In the people’s house people are allowed to petition and I would expect that over the coming weeks we’ll talk with people about setting up hearings,” he said.

The Vermont State Police, along with Capitol Police began arresting protesters one-by-one shortly after 8 p.m. A Vermont State Trooper asked them several times to leave before the arrests began. Most walked out escorted by officers. At least one was dragged.

Montpelier Police were staged outside the State House to assist if needed.

Vermont State Police Col. Thomas L’Esperance, who stayed at the State House all day as the sit-in continued, said troopers began communicating with a spokesperson for the group to explain “the rules of engagement.”

“It’s been a peaceful protest, so no headaches there,” L’Esperance said. “Some chose to leave and others chose to be arrested.”

One woman refused to standup and was dragged out of the House chamber by police. The woman screamed that she was being hurt as police applied “control and restraint techniques.” L’Esperance said officers were using as little force as necessary to remove people.

There were no disruptions while the governor was delivering his address, but immediately following his address a group of protesters blocked the entryway to the House chamber while others attempted to enter the gallery. Protesters unfurled banners at least twice that were quickly pulled down by State House staff.

As the Rev. Robert Potter was delivering the benediction protesters began to sing. Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon, a Republican, attempted to remove one man who was singing from the gallery, but eventually relented. The man continued to sing while Potter spoke. Lauzon and Rutland Mayor Chris Louras, who once served in the Legislature as a Republican, blocked the doorway preventing others from entering the chamber.

Single payer advocates have been demanding the state move forward with public financing of a state-run health insurance program since Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin decided to abandon his own long quest for such a system last month. Shumlin, in a surprise announcement, declared the cost too high for the state at this time.

The protests, especially the disruption of the benediction by a popular reverend, did not sit well with many lawmakers.

“I think they should get a job,” Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, after leaving the House chamber.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, said he was disappointed with the actions of the Workers Center and told Executive James Haslam that in a brief exchange Thursday evening. He said Vermonters have a long tradition of disagreeing respectfully.

The speaker declined on Thursday to say if the protesters went too far.

“I love the fact that we live in a society where we have the opportunity to freely express ourselves. There’s always a balance between free expression and decorum in ceremony. We air on the side of openness,” Smith said. “What I would do and what they would do are probably different things, but you know what, I’m just a guy from Wolcott, Vermont.”

Haslam, meanwhile, said his organization made a strong show of support for a single payer health care system.

“We, I think, have seen people in Vermont rejecting business as usual, that we’re not going to let a system … put this Green Mountain Care financing report on a shelf and just continuing with the current system, which is very good for the health care industry but is not good for people who need health care.

The disruption of Potter’s benediction was not planned and not condoned by the Workers Center, according to Haslam.

“I think that there was some confusion and definitely some people that were acting spontaneously. There were other people saying that’s not a good idea. I think people thought after the governor ended his speech that it was over and didn’t realize who was speaking,” Haslam said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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