The Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP has its own contentious presidential election happening this week.
The contest pits incumbent Dennis Powell, 75, of Pittsfield against chapter executive committee member Ari Zorn, 53, of Egremont.
“The present times that we are in – and heading in – I have proven over the past six years to be a very effective leader of the branch,” said Powell.
Powell, who is retired, is seeking his fourth two-year term. The chapter’s ranks have swelled to over 800 in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement’s nationwide protests this spring, as have its coffers. The branch bank account went from $30,000 to $130,000 after it held events in Pittsfield and Great Barrington.
“I have had to use my voice in incidents, racial incidents, that have occurred in our public schools, both here in Pittsfield, North County, South County,” said Powell. “So it’s a Berkshire County issue. And of course, protest injustice like the senseless police shootings which unfortunately end up giving all the police a bad name – which is so unfortunate, because it’s not all the police.”
His niece became the first black police officer in Pittsfield’s history in 2018. Powell was a ubiquitous presence at protests across the county in 2020.
“And sometimes you’re faced with making people uncomfortable. But when you’re dealing with racial issues, when you’re dealing with people who are being mistreated and whatnot, sometimes you have to have those difficult conversations in order for positive change to take place,” he told WAMC.
The largest gathering of the year was in Great Barrington in June. Hundreds gathered for hours of speeches, marches and at times tense confrontations between law enforcement and participants. That day, Powell commented on the Israeli military training of American police in his remarks on the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. That sparked concerns from local Jewish leaders – and led Powell’s challenger to call for a healing conversation to occur between the branch and the Jewish community.
“The NAACP was founded by DuBois and Jewish people, likeminded for the same cause. That relationship I feel has been kind of shattered, it has been kind of forgotten about,” said Zorn. “There’s a lot of Jewish people in the community that have tried to reach out to the NAACP and they have reached out to me and said they’re not even members because they feel like they keep reaching out and saying here’s what I can do, here’s what I have to offer, and they have not been responded to.”
Zorn, who owns a fitness business and is about to open a retail cannabis store, was raised by an adopted Jewish family. He says Powell’s leadership has failed to capitalize on the new membership and income the year has provided the 102-year-old branch, which he claims struggles with issues of equity and inclusion.
“From what I’m being told from these people is they feel like there’s a lot of sexism in the branch,” Zorn told WAMC. “They feel like they can speak out but nothing is a plan unless it comes from Dennis. So Dennis is running a branch by being Dennis in charge as opposed to delegating properly to these people. So yes, he has all these people all around him doing particular things, but the buck stops at Dennis. So yeah, there’s women there, but they’re not being able to do exactly what they want to do. And that’s why some women have left and backed off, and that’s why other people in the community have backed away.”
Shirley Edgerton – the co-chair of the chapter’s Race Relations committee – tells WAMC she is taken aback by Zorn’s comments, describing the role of women in the chapter as critical and the branch at large as inclusive.
Powell – who has been endorsed by District Attorney Andrea Harrington and State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier – also pushed back on Zorn’s claims of sexism.
“The chair and co-chair of the education committee is Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed,” said the branch president. “Her co-chair is Linda Evans, who’s a teacher at Pittsfield High School. And her committee, which is made up of 25 members, I would say 90% of that committee is women. They know how to use their voices.”
As per his Great Barrington remarks about Israel, Powell noted that he also received letters of support for his statement as much as he did criticism.
“And we have to understand – they weren’t Dennis Powell’s remarks,” he told WAMC. “It was Dennis Powell bringing factual information to everyone’s attention – which is the job of the president.”
The Berkshire County Branch of the NAACP will hold its virtual election Wednesday. Members will be able to cast votes online between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.