Local Activists Work To Hold No-Confidence Vote On Trump At Johnson Town Meeting

Jan 5, 2018

For the 60 weeks since Donald Trump was elected President, demonstrators have spent Tuesday evenings standing with signs in front of Johnson’s village green, even braving recent sub-zero temperatures to uphold the streak.

On some summer Tuesday evenings, the demonstrators have numbered in the double digits. On this bitterly cold night, there are four dedicated people holding signs and flags, and waving to rush hour drivers on Route 15.

Among them are Jackie Stanton and her husband Calvin, who organized the group they call "Be-Longing for Justice." The hyphenated "Be-Longing" seems to suggest that justice is something we all should "long for." Jackie says that the search for a sense of belonging is how the group formed:

"After the election we were just as … dumbstruck and astounded as everybody else and, you know, kind of grieving," she says. "And we were like, ‘What do we do now?’ You know? And so we just decided, let’s just stand out in the street and see if we can gather people together and try to figure that out together. And that’s what we started to do. And that’s what we’ve done."

She says many people have stood with them, from students to retirees, and some folks from outside of Johnson, including local politicians and Lt. Governor David Zuckerman.

"We’ve probably had about 100 people pass through," she says. "At any given time the most we’ve had was 35 in one night, and that was a fun night."

On weeks when there are more signs than demonstrators, snowbanks, a park bench and a lamppost help hold the messages.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

The group had a special gathering on the 45th week, in recognition of the 45th President. Stanton says they had an art show and sign-making event that week.

And there have been other highs:

"Another time we had an impromptu wedding down here, believe it or not," she says. "Somebody got married right underneath this maple tree."

And Stanton says there have been lows, too.

"A woman who demonstrated with us, Eileen O’Brien, was killed in a car accident," Stanton says while holding a sign on which O'Brien drew a beautiful rendition of the Statue of Liberty. "And we hold her sign, and she, her spirit, is with us here every week."

Jackie Stanton holds a sign created by Eileen O'Brien, who demonstrated with the group much of last year. She was killed in a car accident in November.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

When asked why he comes out every Tuesday, demonstrator Rick Aupperlee says change starts locally:

"This is my community and I’ve lived here for over 30 years," says Aupperlee. "And I think that things start on the local level and I think we’re prepared to look at what we need to do and to make the decisions necessary."

One decision the group made is to ask the town of Johnson to include a nonbinding resolution on the Town Meeting warning.

 

Jack Dennis lives in an apartment next to the village green. At 86, he's not one to stand out in the bitter cold holding a sign. Instead, he delivered hot mulled cider that his wife Melanie made for the demonstrators to warm up with.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Calvin Stanton explains, "Just to have a vote of no confidence against this administration – the Trump administration – and to go on record as a town, hopefully."

In a split decision, the select board declined to take that action. But the board said it will reconsider the matter if "Be-Longing for Justice" comes back with a petition signed by five percent of Johnson’s voters. The group is now working on gathering those signatures.

Eric Osgood is chairman of the select board. He says, typically, the select board is required include an item on the warning if a petition is filed. But that’s not the case with this type of nonbinding vote.

Johnson Select Board Chairman Eric Osgood says if Be-Longing for Justice turns in a completed petition, he will likely vote to include the nonbinding referendum on the Town Meeting ballot.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"In this situation, the select board is not required," says Osgood. "If it’s an item that is unlawful or beyond the authority of the select board or the town, the community … it’s the select board’s discretion whether to put it on or not."

Osgood voted against including the proposed resolution on the warning. But he says he will likely change his position if a petition does come in.

"I think if they come in with the required signatures, I will probably support putting it in," he says stipulating, "It would need to be clearly identified as a nonbinding resolution."

Retired public school teacher Diane Lehouiller says demonstrating in Johnson on Tuesday evenings gives her a sense of hope.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

What changed his mind?

Osgood says he would rather voters be aware of the discussion, than have it come up unannounced under ‘other business’ at the end of the meeting. However, he says, he still thinks the article is unjustified.

"It’s going to be very divisive," says Osgood. "It’s going to divide the town. And, in my mind, it’s for what? At the end of the day, we cannot affect anything. There’s not people in Washington waiting to see how Johnson votes on this resolution. I guarantee you that."

Be-Longing for Justice members say the vote would provide hope that they can affect change by starting locally. It's that same hope that brings retired school teacher Diane Lehouiller out on a frigid Tuesday evening.

"We're losing our democracy is what I feel like and that is mainly the reason why I'm here," she says. "Because I'm afraid. I'm afraid of what Trump is doing to our country. It's really scary and sad and maddening ... So, this gives me hope. That's why I'm here."