BURLINGTON - Last Sunday afternoon, a perfect 80-degree day brought crowds to the Church Street Marketplace in search, perhaps, of sun, sustenance and sales. Some of those shoppers and cafe people-watchers were treated to an unexpected, confrontational bit of street theater. Nine men wearing black hoods and orange jumpsuits, meant to represent Guantanamo Bay prison detainees, made their way down Church Street, hands held - though not cuffed - behind them. Two in front carried an upside-down American flag; two at the rear carried a large white sign with the message: "Arrest the U.S. government - 9/11 was a U.S. military attack." These strong words met with derision and anger from some; others applauded. "Only in Burlington . . .," opined one onlooker.
The group stopped in each block for a protest/performance: The "prisoners" kneeled on the ground with heads bowed. An accompanying "narrator," wearing a striped shirt and cargo shorts, read brief biographical statements on their behalf, standing next to each in turn. "My name is Jamil al-Banna," the narrator declaimed. "I have been imprisoned for 4 1/2 years without being charged with a crime. I have not been allowed legal counsel. I have three sons ages 6, 8 and 9. My oldest prays every day that I am not being tortured . . ." At the end of each bio, the narrator shouted, "Only 9/11 truth can set me free."
The participants this street-theater protest are members of the Vermont 9/11 Truth Group. According to them, the human-rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons, secret "extraordinary renditions" (i.e., torture outsourcing), the U.S. Patriot Act and the military quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan all stem from the events of September 11, 2001. A volunteer manned a table set up on the Marketplace block between Bank and College streets offering books, pamphlets, buttons and other resources that question the identity of the perpetrator of those terrorist acts.
At an organizational meeting prior to their demonstration, Shelburne resident Pete Garritano, 50, explained that he and other members of the local Truth Group don't know whether any of the controversial 9/11 conspiracy theories are true, but they are certain the official 9/11 Commission Report doesn't add up.
Garritano pointed out that the Bush administration delayed the start of an investigation for 441 days after the attacks, and then created a commission composed of Bush loyalists. Burlington Truth Group member Frank Haddleton, 43, said their immediate goal is a city council resolution calling for a new 9/11 investigation. Thirty-seven-year-old Greg Nixon, also of Burlington, put it this way: "The burden of proof is on the government to tell us what really happened."
"We believe that the more people actually take the time to examine the facts," added Garritano, "the more people will realize that the government's story is like Swiss cheese."
The Vermont 9/11 Truth Group is not alone in its skepticism. There are corollary activists in New York, Chicago, Boston and many other cities. There is a British 9/11 Truth Group, and even a Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth. According to Garritano, these are not chapters of a national organization; rather, they are all grassroots groups that have cropped up independently and now exchange ideas and information - see www.vt911.org  for links. Nixon explained that the Vermont group launched after David Ray Griffin, author of The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11, came to speak at Burlington's Unitarian Church last fall. His book was one of the offerings at the information table during Sunday's demonstration.
Garritano believes the Guantanamo protest had, and will continue to have, an impact because of growing public awareness that the prison is a "horrible thing," he said. He further suggested that an increasing number of Americans are tired of the Bush administration using 9/11 to trump opposition to its policies and actions. "We all don't think this is what our country is supposed to be about," Garritano declared. "For many people it is a sensitive subject, but we feel that it is 'our duty as Americans to be vigilant to protect our liberty,' as Thomas Jefferson once said."