Hundreds gathered in downtown Great Barrington, Massachusetts Saturday for a NAACP-sponsored rally against racism and police brutality.
The crowd came carrying signs reading “Black Lives Matter,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “Defund The Police,” and the names of African-Americans killed by law enforcement: George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Tony McDade. And many more. Berkshire County NAACP President Dennis Powell was the first to address the crowd.
“The 1700s, it was the chains of slavery," said Powell. "The 1820s, it was the rope of lynching. In 2010, it was the bullets. And here we are in 2020, back to the lynching. A different type of lynching – because to put your knee on a man’s neck until he is dead is the same thing as putting a rope around his neck until he is dead. Or to put him in a chokehold until he is dead.”
Powell tied the current wave of protest against systemic racism to the town’s history. Great Barrington is the hometown of NAACP co-founder and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as the Clinton Church – a historic black church undergoing a restoration campaign.
“In 1895, the Clinton Church hosted a regional conference at which the community expressed their concerns about lynching of blacks," said Powell. "The church congregation was politically active throughout its 150 years – speaking out against issues, advocating for civil rights, hosting NAACP meetings. In more recent years, the late Reverend Esther Dozier initiated the efforts to honor Du Bois in his own town, where he had been largely ignored for decades.”
Powell praised the two teenagers – both white – who initially organized the event, Langston Stahler and Calista Nelson.
“This is what it’s about," he said. "These are the voices that matter. Our young people are stepping up to speaking out. They are tired. They are doing what their ancestors did not do – they are speaking out about injustice. They are speaking out about murders, senseless murders. They’re using their voices to say enough is enough, you’ve just got to stop killing human beings.”
Powell raised some eyebrows when he referred to the Israeli military training of American police, a well-documented phenomenon that Amnesty International condemned in 2016. The Israeli government has denied Amnesty’s allegations that its military is guilty of “extrajudicial killing, surveillance and excessive use of force” among other claims. Powell’s comments prompted several Berkshire County Jewish leaders to issue a statement Sunday describing them as “unfounded assertions about the purpose and outcomes of engagements between American law enforcement and their Israeli counterparts,” but also noting that “the words of one speaker do not undermine our commitment to yesterday's unifying call for racial justice.”
Town selectboard member Leigh Davis shared her experience as the daughter of a biracial couple.
“They were married in 1965," she told the crowd. "In many states, that was seen as a criminal act. I am a product of a criminal act, and I am going to stand up and say ‘No more!’”
African-American town resident Ari Zorn offered a challenge to the crowd.
“Take a look at yourself," said Zorn. "Look in the mirror. Self-reflection. Fear is controlling our country. Fear has locked us into little groups where we don’t look out for one another. We stay in these tight-knit little groups and we don’t always think about the other person.”
He told the audience that the gathering wasn’t a feel-good moment, but a reality check.
“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.
NAACP member Raei Bridges led chants of “transgender people are people” and “black lives matter.”
“We must not forget our Black LGBTQ ancestors who also started police riots to fight for their freedom to exist,” said Bridges.
The event also featured remarks from politicians like Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington and State Senator Adam Hinds.
After the initial rally, peaceful protestors shut down Great Barrington’s main thoroughfare, Route 7, for hours. A tense standoff outside of the town’s police station – largely led by young people of color from the community voicing experiences of discrimination – concluded without incident. Law enforcement agencies from around Southern Berkshire County were on site, as well as a contingent of Massachusetts State Police. Even after having the opportunity to communicate her frustration with systemic racism directly to town police chief William Walsh, teenager Damariana Taylor says her feelings about the current moment remain unresolved.
“I haven’t been able to talk like this before, and I feel like even now, with the opportunity to talk, they’re still not listening," Taylor told WAMC. "They’re still not hearing me. They’re just not listening. I have the opportunity to talk now, and – this isn’t doing anything.”