Pittsfield activists to protest neo-Nazi movement

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PITTSFIELD - As the heat rises in what has grown into a deadly summer of hate, the Southern Poverty Law Center is advising citizens and activists to stay away from neo-Nazi and other white nationalist rallies, and protest bigotry in other locations instead, and to do it peacefully.

Many activists are doing just that Saturday, with people planning to face down their fears and oppose white supremacy in public, here and in cities around the country.

"We can't just stay home and huddle in fear - that's what they want," said Drew Herzig, chairman of the Pittsfield Human Rights Commission, noting the Southern Poverty Law Center's advice to avoid giving neo-Nazi groups "airtime."

Herzig is also a member of Indivisible Pittsfield, which quickly organized a counter rally along with several other groups Saturday at Park Square from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Speakers lined up so far include Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, state Rep. Tricia Farley Bouvier, D-Pittsfield and Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP. Herzig said he has also invited members of the clergy, and with such short notice, he's still sending out the call for more speakers.

The Stand Out for Equality and Justice rally is meant to counter the "free speech" gathering in Boston Saturday that may be a disguised white supremacy rally organized by the Boston Free Speech Coalition, a far-right group.

A Ku Klux Klan official told the Boston Herald Friday that Springfield and Boston-based members of the group would attend the free speech rally in Boston, for instance, though organizers say they want to distance the rally from white supremacy groups.

Herzig said organizers of the Pittsfield stand out will not tolerate violence, and expect anyone attending the rally to also demonstrate peacefully.

"There's a debate right now [in the U.S.] about whether it's OK to punch a Nazi," he said. "We are committed to nonviolence."

At a crossroads after a deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, a nation in upheaval is trying to find moral traction as emboldened white supremacy groups incite hate and President Donald Trump has failed to convincingly denounce neo-Nazis.

And while Trump digs himself deeper into political scandal with every word and tweet since Charlottesville, many Americans are taking to the streets with a hard line against racism they say the president should have set down immediately.

While some Berkshire County residents will still head to Boston for a counter protest, others will go to the Pittsfield rally, also organized by The Four Freedoms Coalition, the local NAACP and The Hoping Machine, a collective started by singer-songwriter Sarah Lee Guthrie that brings music to demonstrations.

And down south, First Congregational Church and Trinity Christ Church of Sheffield are holding a "Standing for Love in Sheffield" event in response to the Boston rally on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. at First Congregational's outdoor labyrinth.

Herzig said these counter rallies and events close to home are critical for facing down what he said is a perilous attack on American values from white supremacists and an apologist president who is trying to distract citizens from his other, quieter attempts to "shred the [U.S.] Constitution."

"With so many fires being deliberately started, we have to put out the small fires while watching the main blaze," Herzig said.

Megan Whilden, a member of Indivisible Pittsfield said a local stand out is also a way to reach people in the community who may feel threatened by the current social climate.

"They might be a person of color, they might be Jewish or LGBTQ," she said.

Richmond resident Craig Swinson is taking his 8-year-old son closer to the turmoil — to Boston for a counter protest.

"I want him to see the differences in these groups and that hate actually still exists," he said. "We're fairly insulated in Richmond. And I want to show that hate, anger and violence can't intimidate."

Swinson said that with his son present, he will stick to the perimeter of the rally for safety.

With counter rally organized last minute, crowds can grow and things can happen fast in ways that could test a small-city police department, said Capt. Jeffrey Bradford of the Pittsfield Police Department. He said that's why permit applications and their review help police prepare.

"If something happened unexpectedly we would ask for assistance form other agencies like the state police," he said. "A quick development could quickly overwhelm us."

There could be big turnout, indeed, as local businesses and musicians chime in.

"We will open our doors as a respite for discussion and relaxation after the stand out tomorrow," said a statement on The Colonial Theatre's website Friday. "Please drop by."

Local musician Billy Keane said he'll be there. Keane, who is running for Pittsfield City Council, told The Eagle that after Charlottesville, he and his band, The Whiskey Treaty had decided on an earlier release of a song "Close to the Edge." He said he wrote it two years ago after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore Police custody.

Rinaldo Del Gallo, however, may head to Boston. The Pittsfield-based attorney and former state Senate candidate said he was invited by free speech rally organizer John Medlar, to speak as a "progressive."

Del Gallo said while he's "the total polar opposite" of a far-right white supremacist, he is a strong free speech advocate, and worries about leftist movements like the antifa, that he says are trying to suppress free speech.

He said killing right-wing free speech can just as easily kill it on the left.

"What comes around goes around," he added.

And while a bad case of Lyme's Disease might keep him from the podium, he said, he's also nervous about wading into what he said could be some fascist muck that might soil his progressive track record of support for things like transgender rights and sanctuary city status for Pittsfield.

"I'm on the fence," he said. "I don't agree with [the alternative right], but I agree with the ACLU."

Williamstown native Brandon Navom, a conservative Lowell-based software engineer, was also invited to speak at the rally, and found himself in a firestorm after he agreed. He said on Facebook that he was excoriated and threatened for agreeing to speak at what he had originally thought was a "benign" gathering. But then came Charlottesville, he said.

"There was no way I could have foreseen ... the tragic and horrific events that occurred over this past weekend," he wrote.

Friday he issued a statement saying that after talking with "left-leaning" activists, he decided to join the counter protest.

Dennis Powell, president of the local NAACP, told The Eagle he was firm in his decision and reason not to travel to Boston, or any other site of an alt right rally.

"Change is local," he said. "If we act [locally], it will all come together."

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871


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