By: Jasper Craven for VTDigger, Sept. 11, 2019
On Sept. 4, 1985, then-Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders held an impromptu press conference to announce that the city’s ambitious street and sidewalk upgrades were ahead of schedule.
After a few questions about Burlington street work, reporters turned to a more contentious topic: the recent arrest and imprisonment of Sanders’ former assistant city treasurer, Barr Swennerfelt.
Earlier that year, more than 100 Vermonters had gathered in front of Burlington’s Federal Building on Elmwood Avenue to protest President Ronald Reagan’s interventionist military policy in Nicaragua. As part of the peace effort, three protesters, including Swennerfelt, scaled a fence at the General Electric plant in Burlington, just off Pine Street. According to an account by the Burlington Free Press, the protesters then “climbed atop a tank with Vulcan rapid-fire guns, and placed flowers in the barrels.”
“Guns produced at GE right now are killing people,’ Swennerfelt told the Free Press.
Sanders agreed with the protesters in spirit. In an unusual step for a mayor, Sanders had visited Nicaragua that summer to attend ceremonies marking the sixth anniversary of the Sandinista revolution that put anti-imperialist President Daniel Ortega in power. In El Salvador, U.S.-backed forces reportedly used helicopters equipped with guns made at GE. Yet Sanders took a hard line against the local protesters, and declined to criticize GE, one of the city’s biggest employers with a strong union and good-paying jobs.
Burlington police were dispatched to break up the protests, and some, including Swennerfelt, were arrested. Now 72, Swennerfelt told VTDigger that, in the wake of the protest, Sanders had demanded she pledge to cease any activism if she wanted to remain in his administration.
“I’m a Quaker, and had been led to these actions, which were part of a spiritual peace group,” Swennerfelt explained. “I told Bernie I couldn’t promise that, so I left my job.”
Swennerfelt was behind bars for a month or so, and was released from prison shortly before the 1985 road-paving press conference, and reporters pressed Sanders on whether his actions towards her had betrayed his own deeply held political beliefs.