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“Justice For Miguel” demonstrators demand reform, action from elected officials after Pittsfield police killing

Josh Landes
A demonstrator holds a sign at Sunday's "Justice For Miguel" rally in downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

At a Sunday march to honor a Pittsfield, Massachusetts man killed by police last month, community members demanded change and a renewed focus on reform from local authorities.

On March 25th, 22-year-old Miguel Estrella – a beloved fixture of Pittsfield’s West Side neighborhood – died in unclear circumstances when a police officer shot him to death in response to a 911 call for a mental health crisis. Both officers who responded to the scene are on leave, and Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington is investigating the incident.

The “Justice For Miguel” march began at the corner of Columbus Avenue and North Street in downtown Pittsfield. An organizer in a fluorescent safety vest with a megaphone briefed the almost 200 attendees.

“You will notice several dozen people in vests like mine or orange armbands accompanying our march today, along with the Pittsfield Department of Public Services and Utilities. We are working to keep this march safe and flowing. If you have questions, if you are in need of assistance, please seek out one of our accompaniment team so we can assist you. We do not need to funnel every service through the police. We can keep each other safe. We design the systems that we need for our survival and thriving," said Meg Bossong of Invest In Pittsfield, one of a coalition of groups behind the action. “We are here to remember and honor Miguel Estrella. Miguel was a son, a brother, a partner, a friend, a mentor, a leader, and a dreamer. We are here too to name Daniel Gillis, killed by the Pittsfield Police Department September 1st, 2017, also during a mental health crisis. We are here to remember and honor all of our loved ones and neighbors who we have lost to the slow motion violence of broken systems starving for resources. Those we have lost to suicide, to addiction, to the insides of prisons.”

Josh Landes
Kamaar Taliaferro (holding megaphone) and Tonya Frazier (to Taliaferro's left) at Pittsfield city hall.

As the march continued to the steps of city hall on Allen Street, more speakers expressed frustration, saying Pittsfield has made little progress since the racial reckoning of summer 2020.

“I did not know Miguel personally, but I know the city, and I know how this city treats its young men of color. And enough is enough," said Kamaar Taliaferro, a member of the Berkshire County Chapter of the NAACP. “In June of 2020, in response to the murder of George Floyd, Chief Michael Wynn said, quote, if how we're training police officers doesn't resonate with the community, we need change. We need change. I said we need change!”

“He also stated, we're a public service entity. We need to know what kinds of police departments and policies our community wants, and it's going to take the populace to change these precedents. What happened? What happened to that?” said Tonya Frazier, who worked with Estrella at Central Berkshire Habitat For Humanity. “Mayor Linda Tyer, June 15th, 2020: When it comes to fair wages, equal rights to jobs, justice and protection, this nation has not lived up to its promise to you. Everyone matters. You all matter.”

Josh Landes
Meg Bossong and Michael Hitchcock.

The sense of unfulfilled promises from Pittsfield’s leaders carried over into the last stop on the march, Park Square.

“They don't want us to call it a murder. But if you or I did it, what would they call it? They don't want to take responsibility. They're going to do the same worm squirm. They do every election season. They're going to make some promises, and they're going to disappear from us. The police are going to get some paid vacation, and they'll be back. They don't want to take responsibility, because it might threaten their $100,000 jobs," said Michael Hitchcock of the Roots & Dreams and Mustard Seeds community mutual aid nonprofit. “They don't think we can afford to make these changes. I gotta tell you, the police budget is very inflated. And I think we can and should afford to make these changes without them. $11 million for what? To be brutalized, terrorized, and occasionally murdered.”

The Pittsfield Police Department told WAMC Monday that it is carrying out provisions of the state’s 2020 police reform bill daily.

“We are moving towards becoming a certified department. We're working with some consultants as well as an internal team with that end in mind. We are working on completing our policy manual with those updated requirements from the reform act," said Captain Gary Traversa. “We’re exploring options to reformulate the city's plan for responding to person in crisis calls. And the mayor is convening a planning team of department heads that will be involved in developing what that response might look like going forward.”

Traversa also offered a statement about the March 25th incident to WAMC for the first time since Estrella was killed.

“The situation was tragic, and we are as eager as everybody else to for the results of the initial independent investigation to be released,” he told WAMC.

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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