Over two nights and over seven hours, residents of Great Barrington, Massachusetts gathered for their annual town meeting.
The auditorium of Monument Mountain Regional High School was the setting for both halves of the epic meeting – one of the longest in recent memory.
On the first night, a spirited debate was held over a nonbinding vote on a citizen’s petition designed to gauge whether the town supported changing the name of Monument Valley Regional Middle School – part of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District – to W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School.
“I’d like to point out that the campaign to rename the middle school for Dr. Du Bois is part of a multiyear, multipronged initiative to celebrate the life, work, and legacy of Dr. Du Bois lead by Gwendolyn VanSant and Multicultural BRIDGE,” said Dr. Lara Setti.
Setti is the chair of the board of directors of Multicultural BRIDGE, a Lee-based racial justice and cultural competency training nonprofit organization. She said the petition came out of conversations between BRIDGE, Great Barrington’s Du Bois Center, the school committee, and the town’s selectboard. Du Bois, who was born in Great Barrington in 1868, went on to be the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
“He taught at various universities in the United States, founded the Niagara Movement, and wrote a number of scholarly books, including The Souls Of Black Folks, as well as co-founding the NAACP,” said Setti.
Du Bois was also an outspoken peace activist and advocated for nuclear disarmament. But one aspect of his life proved to be a sticking point for some residents, like Patrick Fannell.
“We shouldn’t be naming any buildings after human beings, they’re all flawed, and more importantly, W.E.B. Du Bois practiced socialism and communism from 1927," he said. "He’s a very dangerous man and he wrote a eulogy for Joe Stalin. We should not be honoring him on any government property.”
Speaking against the renaming, another townsperson shared an emotional story of his family’s experiences of the Soviet invasion of Lithuania.
At 93, Du Bois became a member of the Communist Party. He embraced communism as an alternative to the capitalist system he saw as supporting poverty and the racial subjugation of people of color around the world.
“I think it’s important that even if we do not name the school after him, we keep him foremost in our education and teaching of the kids in the school,” said Garfield Reed – the one and only resident of color to speak during the debate.
“As a black man, I can tell you, at one point it’s very hard for a black person to be accepted in America if you’re not white,” said Reed.
He tied his own experience to his understanding of Du Bois’ Communist affiliation.
“And if you’re not accepted, you’re going to turn to someone who’s going to accept you," he told the crowd. "And maybe all the ideas weren’t correct and everything he did was not correct, but you have to understand – this is how America is and was and still is to some degree, and it needs to change and we need to recognize a man who’s done some good in our town.”
25-year-old Alfred Brewer noted that white historical figures are rarely subjected to the same scrutiny.
“Thomas Jefferson literally owned slaves and I think there isn’t a lot of hesitation about naming things after him,” said Brewer.
The petition easily reached the 2/3rds majority required for passage, which means Great Barrington will approach the Berkshire Hills Regional School District recommending that the school be renamed for Du Bois.
Along with the renaming question, voters decided against creating a town registration for residents using their homes for short-term rentals and approved a $650,000 spending plan to maintain the Housatonic School. Great Barrington residents also OKed a move to explore capping the number of retail marijuana businesses in town, and accepted a zoning bylaw amendment to prevent congestion in the town’s core by setting a minimum of 2,500 feet for multifamily housing units.
The second half of the meeting – with a smaller but still feisty crowd of registered voters – climaxed with conversation that’s become very familiar to Great Barrington.
“Before I start, I’d like to just ask everybody in the room that thinks we should destroy the planet with plastic to raise their card," said petitioner Steve Farina – who was immediately admonished by town moderator Michael Wise for addressing the audience.
He brought forward Article 28, which called for the repeal of the town’s single use plastic water bottle ban. The much litigated town bylaw was approved at the annual town meeting in 2018, and survived a similar repeal attempt at a special town meeting months later. Farina argued that repealing the ban was good for Great Barrington’s economy.
“Tourism drives our local economy," said Farina. "There was a time that we had manufacturing, now it’s built on tourism. When the tourism economy stops meeting the needs and wants of the tourists, the tourists will go somewhere else. If they come here, they don’t find what they want, will they come back to Great Barrington next year, or are they going to go to Lenox, Stockbridge, Williamstown, any of the other towns that make their stay less of a hassle.”
Farina said he’d toured the town’s small businesses that offer the less than 1 liter plastic water bottles that will be banned from Great Barrington come May 2020.
“Every single one of those more than two dozen business wishes to continue to sell bottled water," he said. "These are the small business that drive our economy. We keep talking about the economic development – if we can’t support and sustain the businesses that we have here in this town, new businesses are not going to want to come here.”
Jennifer Clarke, a member of the Berkshire Women’s Action Group – the original sponsors of the bylaw in 2018 – spoke against the repeal. She said the water bottle ban was specifically targeted at one of the most commonly used plastic products on the market, and said they’re rarely recycled and a major contributor to the global pollution crisis.
“Meanwhile, our public tap water is clean, tested, and readily available. So we created GB On Tap, a program that makes tap water more accessible," said Clarke. "These 28 merchants will welcome you, filling your water bottle at no charge. We have raised the money to purchase and install three ADA compliant water stations this summer. No taxpayer money will be used.”
Advocates for people with disabilities condemned the ban for being drafted without enough input from the community in question. They noted that plastic water bottles are easier for some people with disabilities to use, and that the ban could adversely affect an underrepresented contingent of town residents.
After all the vitriol, the vote was overwhelmingly against the repeal, suggesting that the long, divisive debate on the ban might go quiet for now.