WILLIAMSTOWN — "Is there anybody from the Williamstown PD that would dare to take up the mantle," Bilal Ansari asked before a crowd of protesters Friday evening, "to take up this sign and put it in front of that sign and say that Black Lives Matter?"
Ansari held up just such a sign, led a crowd of protesters in chanting the phrase and walked to the entrance of the Williamstown Police Department at Route 7 and Simonds Road. The department's second in command, Lt. Michael "Mike" Ziemba, took the sign and, using his left foot, anchored it into the ground.
"Kneel with me," Ansari said, clasping Ziemba's right hand as the two men knelt on the grass, facing one another.
The lieutenant nodded and shook Ansari's hand: "Yes."
Ansari responded: "Thank you."
Performative or not, this appeared to be the first in-person response to community members calling for police reform since department veteran Sgt. Scott McGowan filed a federal lawsuit Aug. 12 alleging that Police Chief Kyle Johnson engaged in sexual and racial harassment and other demeaning behaviors for more than a decade.
Ziemba said morale in the department is low — as many say it is in town — especially since police personnel have been advised to not publicly discuss details of the case.
"But, I will say we don't want people in the town to not trust that they can pick up the phone and call us. We don't want people to feel that way. We want to fix this," Ziemba said.
"You have a platform to hold fellow officers accountable now," Jessica Dils told him.
Dils co-organized Friday's Williamstown March for Police Accountability along with Margot Besnard.
The event stepped off at Field Park at the town's rotary and went deliberately by the steps of Town Hall before culminating in the police station parking lot. Ziemba was the only visibly uniformed officer to participate in the gathering.
Some passersby vocally opposed the protest, with one driver giving a thumbs-down, another shouting, "Leave the police alone," and a third yelling out, "All lives matter."
During her time at the bullhorn, Besnard, as well as a member of the Williamstown Youth Abolition Coalition, called for Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch, a co-defendant in the lawsuit, to be put on administrative leave.
The youth member who spoke said that, despite voters unanimously approving to adopt at Tuesday night's annual town meeting the Not in Our County pledge and a second citizens' petition for equity, members of the youth coalition were still being "criticized by adults on Facebook" for calling for police oversight.
"Williamstown isn't protecting its most vulnerable," Besnard said.
Resident Peggy Kern echoed the call for an independent investigation sought by other leaders in the town, including Select Board Chair Jane Patton and Williams College President Maud S. Mandel.
"I'm here tonight for public safety," Kern said. "I'm here because my Black neighbors, the myriad, the many, many Black students who are about to return to us from Williams College — anybody who is a member of our community who's ever suffered a sexual assault or who has been harassed — deserves to know this community is not going to tolerate this," Kern said."We do not have to wait for a lawsuit to conclude, in order to assert, that this is unacceptable. We want community oversight over the Police Department."
Jenn Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-629-4517.