20211011-NWS-bow power plant

Police in riot gear surround seated protestors outside the Merrimack Station power plant in Bow on Oct. 3.

Last weekend, more than 1,000 protesters swarmed city streets around the N.H. Statehouse calling for medical freedom and an end to any federal vaccine mandate. Main Street was clogged for a time, and someone reported a man armed with an assault rifle.

No arrests were made.

At the end of September, angry demonstrators opposing the federal testing mandate shut down an Executive Council meeting set to vote on vaccine outreach funding. State officials said they feared for their safety. No arrests were made, but the Attorney General’s office is investigating.

On Oct. 3, outside Merrimack Station in Bow, state police showed up in riot gear, wearing helmets and body armor to deal with peaceful protestors who want to see the last remaining coal plant in New England shut down to make for a cleaner environment. Bow Police and State Police arrested 18 protestors for criminal trespass and criminal mischief. All were booked and released, according to Bow Interim Police Chief Mike French.

The three recent protests illustrate different police responses, prompting some to question the vast variations in tactics.

“It was just unbelievable to me,” said Chris Balch, a former state representative from Wilton, who was among the protestors in Bow. “Why is it that a property owner receives this protection? The executive council receives little protection.”

Balch said he attempted to speak with the officers who detained him to reconsider their actions.

“When they stood us up one by one, when they stood me up, I informed them that I was a former state representative,” said Balch. “I invited them to think about what they were doing and to think about how history will remember this.”

Paul Raymond, the N.H. Department of Safety’s Public Information Officer, declined to comment on whether or not there is a standard or “litmus test” as to when police in riot gear are sent to a protest.

“The New Hampshire Department of Safety does not publicly disclose operation details or tactics,” wrote Raymond.

Arnie Arnesen, former N.H. State Representative and host of the liberal talk show The Attitude, was taken aback by the different law enforcement responses at the rally in downtown Concord and the one in Bow.

“It’s frustrating and frightening,” said Arnesen. “When you think about officers of the peace, what you saw at the rally on Saturday were officers of the peace. What you saw Sunday at the power plant was … I don’t know what they were thinking.”

At the Executive Council meeting, the council was set to accept $27 million in federal vaccine aid. Gov. Chris Sununu said the council will revisit the proposed contracts at their next meeting in a location that “ensures safety and security.”

After the meeting was canceled, Sununu said state employees were escorted to their vehicles by State Police due to “unruly and aggressive” behavior by the protestors.

Attorney General John Formella recently began a review “of the facts and circumstances” surrounding the conduct of those at the meeting.

Arnesen is upset with the lack of consistency in the state police’s response between the two groups of demonstrators.

“I’m more than willing to say you can be consistent,” said Arnesen.

Neil Levesque, Executive Director of the N.H Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College which attempted to host the Executive Council meeting, said police are in a tough spot, especially when dealing with those who are trying to be antagonistic. He said he doesn’t see any partisan enforcement.

“The police are trying to do what’s right,” said Levesque. “Most of the law enforcement do not really care whether or not they’re [the protestors] on the left or right.”

Following the Executive Council meeting, St. Anselm College decided it would stop holding public events in the near future.

“I’ve dealt with protestors for thirty years. They are not protestors, they are disruptors or worse,” said Levesque, commenting on those at the meeting. “They believe that politics is something that should be combined with violence.”

Balch said he hopes police take a closer look at their responses and reconsider their actions.

“My feeling is the great majority of them are happy to be there and be playing soldier,” Balch said. “They’re not thinking, ‘we’re here to protect and serve the people’.”

This article is being shared by a partner in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.