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North Adams City Councilor Calls Black Lives Matter A Terrorist Group, COVID-19 Pandemic “Minuscule”

A still from the Northern Berkshire Community Television "Let's Talk About It." Two men sit at a table in front of a green curtain.
Northern Berkshire Community Television
Robert Moulton (L) and Ed Morandi (R) on Tuesday night's episode of "Let's Talk About It" on Northern Berkshire Community Television.

A North Adams, Massachusetts city councilor claimed on a public access show Tuesday that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization intent on destroying the American family, and described the COVID-19 pandemic as minuscule.

Robert Moulton, in his sixth nonconsecutive term, is the co-host of the Northern Berkshire Community Television program “Let’s Talk About It.” On this week’s episode, he shared his views on two of the biggest topics of 2020: Black Lives Matter and COVID-19.

“The Black Life Matter – don’t agree with it," said Moulton. "I don’t think people know what it is. It seems like that’s this month’s flavor. It’s a terrorist organization. They want to get rid of the family.”

The Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of African American teen Trayvon Martin the year before, and has grown exponentially into a vast civil disobedience movement calling for an end to police brutality and racist violence. After George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody in May, protests and calls for systemic change spread across the country.

Moulton told co-host Ed Morandi that he had noticed Black Lives Matters signs in North Adams and in neighboring Williamstown, before misidentifying the pre-K through 9th grade Pine Cobble School.

“I wonder what they’re going to do when Pine Cobble University or Pine Cobble College becomes… because everybody knows Williams College was, the owner was a slave owner," he said. "So I’m wondering how many of these people are going to now say you’re right, Black Lives Matter. You know how they take down statues, Christopher Columbus and want to put Chef Boyardee up.”

Moulton – who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2013 and 2017 – also sits on the school committee. He runs his family’s business, Moulton's Spectacle Shoppe, in North Adams and Bennington, Vermont, and is the president of the Northern Berkshire EMS board of directors. Moulton said he was shocked at how much the country has changed over the course of 2020.

“Six months ago, the country was at its all-time high economy-wise, job-wise, even as far as Blacks," said the North Adams city councilor. "The most employed, the highest per-capita income, the highest home ownership, and now it’s all no good.”

He said he didn’t understand the concept of systemic racism, but that Black Lives Matter had hijacked the word.

“Because I don’t believe any of this is racism," said Moulton. "Prejudice, it is. But they’ve kind of used that word racism – that would be like, I guess, the vegetable growers of America saying everybody’s got to like all the vegetable. Well, I don’t like asparagus. Well, you’ve got to like it! Well, you can’t make a law to make me like it.”

Moulton went on to say that “we’re all the same race” before turning to his thoughts on COVID-19. He said he had done a web search on the unprecedented public health crisis in June before diving into the topic, admitting that he would have to adlib the actual numbers as he had no facts in front of him.

“So, the total number of cases back then was 2,580,880," said Moulton. "Now that’s an approximation, that’s very close to the numbers – 2.5 million. So I was shocked, because I was like, are you kidding me? That’s all the people who have it?”

He described the pandemic – which has killed at least 144,000 in the United States and 617,000 worldwide – as “miniscule.”

“So they shut down the country, they’ve destroyed our economy, they did that for less than 1% of the economy,” he said.

Moulton said he has diabetes, making him particularly susceptible – before sharing an anecdote about a recent interaction with a contractor doing work on his home.

“He actually called me and he said, I’ve got COVID," said Moulton. "I said, really! He said, I just found out, I’m 10 days into it and I can’t come over. I says, it’s OK with me if you come over. Honest to goodness. He says, I can’t, I’ve been tested and I’ve been told to quarantine for 14 days. He goes, I could get in trouble. I said, it’s up to you, but I’m OK with it.”

He went on to criticize people for wearing masks in public, rail against the loosely defined leftist group Antifa and decry the response of local and state leaders like Mayor Tom Bernard and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. He saved a particularly pointed barb for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“Cuomo is the biggest killer since the virus came out," said Moulton. "He’s killed more people, and you see him on TV – and I mean now, just his voice is starting to annoy me. And maybe I annoy people too, but that’s OK.”

Moulton seemed to be correct on that last point.

“For any civic leader in 2020 to minimize COVID and to rail against the leadership of the city, commonwealth in protecting its residents is just so irresponsible,” said North Adams city councilor and council vice president Jason LaForest. “To call Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization that wants to get rid of the family at such a critical juncture in the history of our country is just absurd and so irresponsible. I’m just extremely disappointed.”

LaForest said dismissing the danger of COVID-19 encouraged people to disregard social distance guidelines that have kept the community safe.

“As a nurse, I have been present for 24 deaths related to COVID," he told WAMC. "We lost an immediate family member in my household to the COVID virus. This is not the flu. People talk about the Spanish Flu of 1918, but forget that it wasn’t just 1918 – it went on for 2 and a half years. And this virus is going to continue to claim lives and wreak havoc on our communities and our economy both in the Northern Berkshires and North Adams and across the country and world.”

Speaking to WAMC Wednesday, Mayor Tom Bernard reaffirmed his support for both Black Lives Matter and the science behind public health reactions to COVID-19.

“There have been a number of marches and standouts in North Adams, and there were 100 plus people at the first one on city hall lawn, and I think that’s what speaks to community sentiment in North Adams more than a cable access program,” said Bernard.

He said Moulton’s views remained consistent from when the pair faced off in the 2017 North Adams mayoral election, describing his stances on public health and race as “not nuanced.”

“That being said, it was in the context of a public access show, and he has the same right to express his opinion as people who are standing in the street and marching and demonstrating in North Adams, in Pittsfield, in Great Barrington, in communities across Massachusetts and across the country,” said the mayor.

Bernard added people have the right to ignore Moulton’s show. The mayor also downplayed the significance of Moulton’s skepticism about COVID-19 as it pertains to his role on the city’s school committee.

“The role of the school committee is going to be to review and provide input into and ultimately to endorse a set of recommendations and guidelines and plans that have been developed with careful thoughtful public health and public safety forefronted guidance by the staff of the North Adams Public School District,” Bernard told WAMC.

The President of the Berkshire County Chapter of the NAACP, Dennis Powell, said Moulton’s comments were “too ignorant to dignify with a response.”

Moulton did not respond to requests for comment on this story before airtime.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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