Black Lives Matter rallies rise in the Berkshires against modern lynching

Jemel Black and his 11-year-old daughter Tyarah kneel with over 1,000 other protesters for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time that George Floyd was pinned to the ground with a police officer's knee on his neck before he died, during a protest in downtown Great Barrington. Saturday, June 6, 2020.

GREAT BARRINGTON — They rallied and pleaded for equality at the steps of a place famous for a history of hostility to the legacy of their native son, civil rights architect W.E.B. Du Bois.

But now, there's no going back.

At least 1,000 packed the lawn at Town Hall on a scorching Saturday for the third of the county's Black Lives Matter protests. This one also sponsored by the NAACP Berkshire County Branch, and organized by Calista Nelson, 17, with help from her friend, Langston Stahler, 18, of New York City.

Peaceful, yet ardent, demonstrators spilled over onto the sidewalks up and down Main Street, while Berkshire Bateria's drumming resounded. There was also silence, some kneeled in the road to mark a moment of silence — for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. And soon, a group of hundreds peeled off and marched to the town police station, where at least three state police cruisers were parked out back. Lee Police were also seen in the area.

Demonstrators said they'd never seen so many at a Berkshires protest, one of many nationwide set off by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.

Floyd died after a police officer held Floyd to the pavement, knee-on-neck. A video of the 8-minute, 46-second chokehold — as Floyd cried, "I can't breathe," — went viral, outraging the world, and sparking civil unrest in American cities.

One speaker on the Town Hall steps called the manner of Floyd's death a modern lynching.

"To put your knee on a man's neck until he is dead is the same as putting a rope around his neck until he is dead," said Dennis Powell, president of the NAACP's Berkshire Chapter. "Here we are in 2020, back to the lynching — a different kind of lynching."

Powell also blamed American pro-Israeli groups like the Anti-Defamation League for funding training for U.S. law enforcement to teach such restraint and other tactics.

"To my Jewish brothers and sisters, I urge you to write to these organizations to tell them to stop funding and training our police in terrorist techniques, because our American citizens are not terrorists."

At the rally, town Police Chief William Walsh told The Eagle that his department does not allow chokeholds and that the officer's abuse of Floyd was "disgusting, terrible."

Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington also expressed outrage.

"To see the prosecutors in those cases refuse to bring appropriate charges until there was intense public pressure put on them — as a prosecutor, that sickens me," she said.

She spoke of bail and other reforms by her office intended to ease the strain on the black community of disproportionate imprisonment. She said she is reserving hard-hitting prosecution for serious offenses. She noted that Floyd had allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill, which is what began the sequence of events that left him dead.

Calista Nelson, the organizer, is angry about police brutality.

"If a car has a defect, that whole line gets recalled and redone," she said.

Earlier, Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli D-Lenox told The Eagle that proper training for police officers is the key to avoiding tragedy.

Some wanted to hear more rage from public officials.

"Where's your anger?" shouted someone, as state Sen. Adam Hinds D-Pittsfield took to the mike to express support for the cause.

Speakers asked the crowd to press on with unrelenting devotion.

"What are you going to do?" said Leigh Davis, a Select Board member speaking as a resident, and the daughter of a black father and white mother who married when it was illegal to do so.

Many who attended said they're now invested with all their heart.

"We've reached a breaking point," said Devin Bajardi, of Pittsfield, his toddler in a front pack, and flying a large American flag. "Everyone is here under the idea that the flag allows us to protest. It's a moment to scream."

Erving Henderson, 14, said he hopes the outrage won't fade.

"This rate of support should continue," he said.

Some said they feel a shift.

"I have hope now — I feel some hope," said a woman from Housatonic, who gave her name as Shabou.

The night before, protesters in Williamstown also searched for hope.

Between 500 and 700 went to Field Park, where demonstrators, at one point, held a die-in.

Erin Ostheimer, an organizer, said she was encouraged to see this support for the movement and the energy for change.

"As a white person, I will never understand the pain of our country's deeply ingrained racism, but I can learn and listen and use my privilege to stand up for justice," she said. "I was so proud to see so many other community members doing the same."

Heather Bellow can be reached at or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.