Berkshire County residents and public officials participated in the international weekend of protest against police brutality.
While protests in Albany and Boston ended in police intervention and violence, Saturday’s demonstration in Pittsfield’s Park Square remained peaceful – but no less impassioned.
“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 Dennis Powell, the president of the Berkshire Chapter of the NAACP, which organized the rally. “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.”
The death of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on May 25th galvanized waves of protest from Los Angeles to Berlin. The killing echoes other instances of police brutality against black people, including 26-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor, who was gunned down by cops in her home in Louisville, Kentucky on March 13th.
“America is burning in more ways than one, and we need to stop it,” continued Powell. “It’s not just fire. We need to get back to our humanity. So we’re out here in solidarity to all the people around the country who have said and are saying, enough is enough. It’s time to stop this bullshit. It’s time to stop it. The pain is too deep.”
The rally provided an opportunity for members of Berkshire County’s African-American community to share their experiences.
“The one thing as we were preparing for this that I was really thinking about along with justice is also pain," said Jerome Edgerton Jr. “The pain where you wake up every single day and not knowing what your day is going to bring. The pain of not wanting to get pulled over and living a life of perfection. The pain of just being who you are and seeing for some people, that’s not enough. Well today, I’m here to say that pain is no longer going to exist. We have a chance to come together. We have a chance to unite. We have a chance to start something what's called a movement.”
Hundreds of mask-wearing participants surrounded Edgerton in the downtown Pittsfield park.
“As I look around and I see the diverse people, it’s a beautiful thing. But only today will only last if we just keep on going and we take it through today, tomorrow, and the next day. You’ve got to keep pushing, you’ve got to keep going. Thank you," said Edgerton to cheers, applause, and drumming.
Christine Hamilton cried as she addressed the crowd.
“This is so deep to me right now," she said. "It’s making me really emotional to see all the support. I worry about my own sons walking out the house, being pulled over, fidgeting in my car. I worry about it all the time. It has to stop. We have to unite. We have to support each other.”
Katherin Ogando says she recently relocated to Pittsfield, and noted that the crowd had grown from the single digits on Friday to the throng she addressed a day later.
“I work for Door Dash. It’s my side job," explained Ogando. "While I was doing Door Dash, a man pulled out a shotgun on me. This is real. We need to get it together as a community. Black Lives Matter! We matter!”
Roberta McCulloch-Dews, the city’s Director of Administrative Services, said she hadn’t originally intended to speak.
“I am the mother of three black children. Two of them are teenagers. I remember when Trayvon Martin died, was killed – and my kids were here and we were protesting," she said. "And my heart has been heavy because we consistently come back to this place, we come back to this place, we come back to this place again and again, and again.”
She implored attendees to support the African-American community and fight racism in their own spaces as well.
“We don’t wake up and say, ‘I’m going to go outside and be black today.’ We want to live!" said McCulloch-Dews. "But it is because others have a problem. So I will say to you allies – work. Do the hard work. It’s not easy, and it’s uncomfortable. But that’s what this means. It means being uncomfortable. Because I don’t want to be here again. But the sad truth is, I know we’re going to have another hashtag. I know we’re going to have another experience where we’re going to come again and we’re going to cry and we’re going to shout and we’re going to protest and we’re going to wonder how can we change this. It starts by using your voice.”
The peaceful gathering ended with the crowd joining Powell by taking a knee against police brutality en masse. Subsequent protests took place in North Adams and Pittsfield again on Sunday. Organizers of the second Pittsfield rally say it was without incident until someone in a passing car stopped to argue with and then assault a member of the gathering.
Berkshire County politicians were among the attendees at Saturday’s protest. District Attorney Andrea Harrington praised local law enforcement for condemning the Minneapolis Police’s treatment of George Floyd and described her own disgust and horror at police brutality.
“Racism in our society and in the criminal justice system exists on a spectrum, and though we may not see the kinds of violence that we witness in Minneapolis, we do see racism here in our community and it’s time for people to come together and to speak out,” said the DA.
Harrington said she was disappointed there hasn’t been more focus on the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on minority communities in the Berkshires.
“When we see people dying of COVID-19 at greater numbers who are black and brown, when we see the economic impact in greater numbers on people that are black and brown, when we see a discussion here in Berkshire County where we’re trying to say people are better off in the House of Correction who have substance use disorder, who have mental illness, who have a lack of economic opportunity who are safer in jail because of the illness than they are out thriving in their communities, we have a problem,” said Harrington.
On WAMC in May, Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler described efforts to decarcerate inmates in the commonwealth as “a recipe for disaster,” citing the lack of transitional resources and their inherent inability to follow societal rules.
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer said she was almost speechless in the face of the week’s events.
“Here in our city where we live we stand in solidarity," said Tyer. "We will fight back.”
North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard denounced police brutality.
“It’s an unbroken line of pain and blood and fear and violence enacted on black and brown people, black and brown bodies," said Bernard. "And it has to change, and it has to end. It’s a legacy of violence – physical, economic, verbal, educational. The violence of bias that is implicit and explicit.”
“I am kind of the class well-intentioned white woman, right? I want to do what’s right, but I have such a long way to go," said 3rd Berkshire District State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier. She called on her fellow well-intentioned white people to join in the work and embrace its discomforts.
“I think if each of us can take that to heart and to do the personal work that’s necessary to change ourselves and to learn, then each of us, one at a time, can make a difference,” said the state rep.
Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn oversaw law enforcement at the protest.
“I’m horrified about Mr. Floyd’s death," he told WAMC. "I’m heartbroken about the violence in our country. But our job as a police department is to protect people’s rights to peacefully assemble and these residents and citizens are enjoying that right as long as they’re respectful and obey the law, we want them to be able to enjoy that right.”
He said that his department hadn’t had any specific conversations about conduct after Floyd’s death.
“As part of our training in fair and impartial policing and procedural justice, it’s an ongoing conversation as part of our regular training routine,” said the chief.
Wynn says he’s still digesting what he saw from his fellow police officers in the video of Floyd’s arrest from Minneapolis.
“I’m a use of force and defensive tactics instructor," he told WAMC. "It’s a highly, highly controversial and questionable application of force, and even – and I’m not suggesting this – but even if they felt justified, they have an obligation to take care of his physical health once they apply the force, and I can’t reconcile what I saw.”