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Looking Back At 2020: Black Lives Matter In Berkshire County

A person wearing a mask holds up a fist while speaking into a mic in front of a crowd of hundreds on a lawn below some steps
Josh Landes
Downtown Great Barrington, Massachusetts on June 6th 2020.

In a look back at the biggest stories of 2020, WAMC has this review of how the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement led to a historic outpouring of support in Western Massachusetts.

The shockwaves from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May were felt across the United States – and while in larger cities, protests led to protracted, violent police crackdowns and looting, demonstrations remained peaceful in the Berkshires. Berkshire County NAACP Chapter President Dennis Powell spoke to a crowd in downtown Pittsfield about Floyd’s killing as well as other Black Americans who died at the hands of police in 2020, like Breonna Taylor in March.

“We’re out here today in coalition with people from around the world who are tired – dead tired – of what has been going on in the world. Not just our community – in the world," said Powell. “We’re tired of justice creating murder. We’re tired of people who are supposed to be protecting us getting away with murder. It’s nothing less than murder.”

In early June, WAMC published leaked emails from Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer showing her uncritically sharing among city leaders debunked claims of the thinly-defined leftist group Antifa bringing violent protest to the city.

“There were a number of potential groups that have been identified as disruptors, so I can’t speak to Antifa as a group – but I do know that there is information about a number of groups who have been known to disrupt peaceful protests,” she said.

Neither the group nor violent protest manifested in the county.

On June 6th, hundreds took to the streets of Great Barrington for a Black Lives Matter rally organized by local teens along with the NAACP. Speeches on the steps of town hall led to marchers shutting down Route 7 for hours and at times tense confrontation between local youth of color and law enforcement in front of the police station. Community member Ari Zorn beseeched the assembled to use the momentum of the moment to create a lasting change.

“When you leave here, in two weeks, or when this stuff slowly fades and that little norm, the norm of racism – and you go back to your lives, are you going to join the NAACP and become a member? What are you going to do?” he asked.

That evening, a rally in Williamstown drew hundreds more as demonstrators stopped traffic on Route 2. One attendee was drum circle facilitator Otha Day.

“My son who grew up here, says that he – he lives in Atlanta now – he says he doesn’t want to go out to march because he doesn’t want to be killed," he told WAMC. "He knows that his white friends are much more likely to survive than he is. And so I think whites need to feel that they have the same skin in the game that Blacks have had for generations. Otherwise, this is bullshit and won’t change.”

Meanwhile, rumors of a protest in North Adams later that day led to the city’s WalMart closing early and fortifying its entrances while law enforcement assembled at a nearby driving range on Route 8. Ultimately, only four sign-holders showed up. North Adams Police Chief Jason Wood – clad in a bullet-proof vest – spoke to WAMC News.

“It looks pretty quiet down there," Wood said. "Last we checked, there was only three or four people, so I think it’s uneventful. But we were based on the information in Williamstown – sounded like it was a large crowd over there, so we didn’t know if it was connected to this. Doesn’t look like it is.”

In July, North Adams city councilor Robert Moulton made headlines when he called BLM supporters “moronic” in an episode of his community access television show “Let’s Talk About It.”

“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.”

After community outcry, Moulton resigned from the city council, as well as his roles on the school committee and as the president of the Northern Berkshire EMS board of directors.

That same month, Pittsfield city councilor Earl Persip – the sole Black elected official in Berkshire County’s largest community – took fellow councilor Christopher Connell to task after he shared a Facebook post about an easily debunked claim of Irish slavery in America.

“For a local leader to continue to share false, a narrative that is just to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement that's been coming up on social media- I had to speak up, I felt like it had to be put out there because it's important that we talk about the facts and how things really went,” he told WAMC.

Despite nationwide calls for police departments to receive less public funding, efforts in Berkshire County were largely unsuccessful – though Pittsfield shaved some police money off of its 2021 budget after long, contentious hearings

“I feel like there is a lot of support from our councilors and our administration about Black Lives Matter, and what’s happening nationally," said Ward 1 City Councilor Helen Moon. "And I just honestly think that unless we’re following that up with budget appropriations and policy changes, I think it’s just lip service.”

Demonstrations continued through late summer, with the county NAACP chapter organizing an event to decry the Wisconsin police shooting of 29-year-old father of six Jacob Blake.

“I thought George Floyd was bad enough, but then to see what happened to him – and to be shot seven times in the back, and to be paralyzed but handcuffed to a bed – what is going on with our country?” asked Powell.

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