Four Freedoms Coalition to put its foot down at march on Saturday

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PITTSFIELD — Hundreds of pairs of feet are expected to hit North Street on Saturday afternoon to march past the practices of prejudice and bigotry that still pervades the county and country.

Organized by the grassroots non-partisan Four Freedoms Coalition of local advocates and activists, the Four Freedoms March and Rally has rapidly built momentum since its Dec. 5 announcement, with more than 600 people currently talking about the event, according to activity data on Facebook.com. Coalition members estimate at least 800 people will participate, including more than 20 elected officials, as well as James Roosevelt, grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The coalition and march are inspired by FDR's historic 1941 speech to Congress that outlined a democracy looking forward to "a world founded upon four essential human freedoms" of speech and religion, and from want and fear.

James Roosevelt will speak at the event, along with U.S. Sen. Edward Markey and attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a member of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women. Other speakers include Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire County Branch of the NAACP; Elizabeth Recko-Morrison, 2015 Berkshire Labor Person of the Year; Eleanore Velez, Berkshire Community College's Multicultural Center director; Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT's Center for Civic Media; and spoken word poets from Miss Hall's School. The Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Pittsfield, will serve as the mistress of ceremonies.

"Pittsfield is the capital city of the Berkshires and we're so honored by the organizers for hosting it in our city," said Mayor Linda M. Tyer.

She said she will be marching to lend her support to the effort both "on a personal level and professional level."

"Most of us would agree that there may be some challenges ahead with the national attitude that may exist among some people," the mayor said. "Now is the time to come together in solidarity to lift each other through the shared values of dignity for every living person."

Coalition members reached out to downtown businesses and it was agreed upon to close the northbound lane of North Street to motor vehicle traffic from 12:30 to 2 p.m. Saturday to ensure the safety of the marchers. Parking restrictions along the march route will begin at 8 a.m., with traffic cones and signs being placed in spaces at that hour as people depart.

The demonstration will begin and end on parish grounds, beginning at St. Joseph's Church, 414 North St., and conclude with a rally of speeches and action planning at the First Church of Christ Congregational on Park Square, 27 East St.

A police escort will lead and trail the marchers, and additional officers will be on hand to redirect traffic during the lane closure.

St. Joseph's will open its doors at 11 a.m. for those who want to gather early, have coffee and make signs. The march will begin to assemble at 12:30 p.m. and will step off at 1 p.m. The rally will begin about 1:30 p.m. inside the church, which seats 900 people. It is expected to last about an hour.

The mayor said that under the city's new parking kiosk plan, parking remains free to all downtown on nights and weekends, and both she and organizers hope people will also be encouraged to enjoy the downtown area and businesses before and after the event.

Four Freedoms Coalition member Megan Whilden said the group is working to arrange live-streaming audio from the rally in an overflow room, if needed. Volunteers from Pittsfield Community Television will be on hand to tape the event for future screenings.

Whilden, spokeswoman for the event, emphasized that this is not a political rally, but rather one that supports the "American values" defined by the Four Freedoms.

More than 150 partners have pledged to support the work of the coalition, from labor groups to arts organizations, parishes to businesses, environmental initiatives to educational institutions, as well as individuals and local leaders.

The event also will feature an open house featuring dozens of information booths and volunteer opportunities, and Whilden hopes marchers will be invigorated by the rally and become united in the cause of bettering the community by taking measurable action.

Already, the signs of unity, at least across multiple generations, are present. Whilden said vans are transporting students from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams and residents of the Kimball Farms retirement community in Lenox to participate in Saturday's event.

"The formation of the coalition itself, I think, is a huge achievement of bringing people together under a common umbrella of shared values and this event will be a platform for future initiatives," she said.

Mayor Tyer said that the event has the markings of continuing a tradition of civil and human rights demonstrations in the city.

"Since the days of the Rev. Samuel Harrison, this has always been a welcoming city," Tyer said. "Through many generations of immigrants, this is a place where people can find prosperity and opportunity. The march and rally are meaningful and valuable in that expression."

She noted the city's recent history in responding to local and national incidents of conflict through anti-violence marches and rallies, including a 2014 march and rally from Pitt Park to to The Common for peace and justice through the Black Lives Matters movement, and a Park Square vigil held back in June in the wake of shooting at an Orlando, Fla. nightclub that killed 49 people and injured dozens more.

"There's a strong tradition [of response] here, and we're just carrying it on," Tyer said.


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